By John Zhu
Ajenai Clemmons, a Ph.D. student in public policy, has been named a recipient of the 2021 Samuel DuBois Cook Society Awards, which recognize individuals who routinely enrich the lives of people in the Duke community and contribute to the betterment of all people, above and beyond their given roles.
“This is a tremendous honor,” Clemmons said. “I have attended Samuel DuBois Cook Society Awards over the years and have been inspired by the recipients’ generosity of spirit. I’m deeply moved and grateful for The Graduate School’s nomination. It’s been such a pleasure to learn from and work in concert with the Graduate School staff to serve our community.”
The Graduate School nominated Clemmons for the award. In the nomination letter, Assistant Deans Melissa Bostrom and J. Alan Kendrick noted her scholarship, leadership, and service to communities at Duke and beyond.
Clemmons’ research focuses on the relationship between police and communities. For her dissertation, she conducted in-depth interviews with members of two heavily policed populations—young Black men in East Durham and young Muslim men of Bangladeshi descent in East London. She is analyzing the interviews to explore what these civilians want from police in order to feel safe, how they judge police performance, and how they respond if they feel police have not met their expectations.
“In our current national and international social climate where police and community relations are contentious—especially in communities of color, underrepresented, and underserved populations—the examination of the causes of such rifts is critical,” Bostrom and Kendrick wrote in nominating Clemmons for the award.
Her research also made Clemmons acutely aware of the negative health effects that might afflict researchers exposed to troubling data and traumatic experiences. That led her to collaborate with The Graduate School, Counseling and Psychological Services, the Personal Assistance Service, and the Sanford School of Public Policy to organize a 2018 campus-wide workshop for students, faculty, and staff on recognizing and mitigating research-related trauma.
Clemmons is also active in other areas of service to Duke and beyond. She has been an engaged member of the Graduate Student Affairs Advisory Committee, which advises The Graduate School on student support, student-faculty community-building, recruitment, and program development. She is also an alumna of several leadership programs and has served on the boards of several nonprofit organizations.
From 2010 to 2015, Clemmons worked as policy director for the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, a Washington, D.C.-based association of 700 African American state legislators representing 65 million constituents. Before that, she helped establish a municipal agency in the City and County of Denver that provides civilian oversight of police and sheriff misconduct investigations. She served as community relations ombudsman in that agency for nearly five years, working to increase overall public trust in law enforcement.
Clemmons has received a number of grants and recognitions for her scholarship and outreach, including from the American Political Science Association, Open Society Foundation, German Marshall Fund of the United States, and the Diversity in National Security Network. She has given a number of talks about her research, including a presentation as part of The Graduate School’s Race and Bias Conversations series in 2020.
Recipients of the Cook Society Awards will be honored in an online ceremony on February 23. The Samuel DuBois Cook Society was founded in spring 1997 to honor Cook, the late Duke professor who was the first African American professor to hold a regular faculty appointment at a predominantly white college or university in the South. The society recognizes the years of service he offered to Duke, to the cause of African American advancement, and to the betterment of relations between people of all backgrounds.