HONOURING MR CRISPIN HEMSON, A DUT COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ICON

Many people dream of making a difference in the world, but very few actively dedicate their lives to being the change and the difference that they would like to see. Mr Crispin Hemson, former Director of the International Centre of Nonviolence, has not only been an influential change maker but has also dedicated his 40-year career to working with marginalised communities. Hemson is recognised as one of the most prominent members of the community engagement fraternity at the Durban University of Technology (DUT) and is revered and admired by both students and staff alike at the institution.

Hemson’s love for supporting communities spans back decades, his first role in community engagement work began in 1984 when he was appointed as programme lead for an organisation that supported non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and activists during the apartheid era. He highlights how their work was pivotal in capacitating and upskilling communities during a time when there was little hope to be found. He noted some of the highlights of his work in community engagement and shared his realisation that people [are] thinking even without education or money. “I [have] encountered some people with remarkable leadership,” he said. He goes on to cite examples of youth that he has worked with who have exhibited great “vision and commitment,” and who have gone on to rigorously and successfully apply theories that he has shared with communities.

Speaking on what keeps him motivated to continue his work in supporting communities, Mr Hemson reveals his fascination with unearthing the social inequities that people have to face and the transformative development that they undergo as they try to resolve these inequities. “People are complex and easily lose hope, but you find those who take positive action despite the odds against them. One specific idea I had that sustained my work was a belief in the potential of Black people (‘Black’ in the full sense of those subject to oppression) to surpass everything that they had thought possible. I have never felt isolated from people who are very different to me in terms of their life experiences,” Hemson elaborates.

Mr Hemson applauds the work that is being done by all those actively involved in community engagement at DUT but acknowledges that there is a need for a stronger focus on developing a systematic approach and theory development for community engagement within the institution. He shares some advice for those who are hoping to get involved or have recently started community engagement work, “Never underestimate the significance of what you do. There are good people out there who desperately need a word of hope or encouragement or confidence in their capacity to achieve marvellous things – do not abandon them. But also, do not rush to give advice – it is much more important to listen to them well. In the process, you will realise that approaching ‘the community’ with hope and an open mind means that you create a sense of unity around positive change. In an important sense, you represent the community.”

Crispin was recently awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2022 Community Engagement Excellence Awards, which served to honour the remarkable work that he has done in the realm of community engagement during his time at DUT. Addressing his award recognition, he states – “I am flattered. However, I also think the best is still to come! I am very interested in seeing, for example, how young people can think and work through the obstacles that men and women face around gender and violence, for example. With support, they will find ways of bringing deeply important change. I will continue to be involved in this kind of work.”

As he plans for his retirement, Mr Hemson shares his hopes for the future of community engagement at DUT – “I would like to see greater development of theory and teaching around this. We have been overly drawn towards technical solutions as if they exist independently of the people who need them. We need to theorise what is happening in the interface between universities and communities; something I know full well is that the idea that the university has solutions and can hand them to people is misguided. We have knowledge, resources and networks that are very useful to communities, but this is not a one-way street. In this process, the university benefits considerably through gaining insights into the relationship between our thinking and the world of applied knowledge. The obstacles and successes help us to create new knowledge by stimulating research and thinking.”

Picture: Prof Monique Marks awarding Mr Crispin Hemson the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2022 Community Engagement Excellence Awards

Tracy Khuzwayo

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