From Cold Call to Speech Writer: How One Scholar Took a Chance to Make an Impact

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Andrew Sun (Robertson ’25) loves math. “There’s beauty in there being a proof of something as objectively truthful, which almost never holds true in politics.” Politics are his other love and since last summer Andrew has been a vital part of the campaign for Leonardo Williams – the newly elected Mayor of Durham.

It’s a relationship that’s blossomed over time, with Andrew working alongside Mr. Williams in various capacities since January 2022, “My freshman fall, I was writing a profile piece for the Duke Chronicle about city-council candidates. I ended up profiling Leo and really enjoyed the conversation we had. It felt good to write the article, but I realized that I didn’t want to keep doing that kind of reporting. I wanted to do something that would force me to be a bit more creative.”

When Mayor-Elect Williams announced his bid for Durham Mayor, Andrew knew he had to reach out and offer a different kind of support.  “Leo won the city-council election by a pretty slim margin of 500 votes, and it was the only close race in a really long time. So, I emailed him and basically cold-called to see if I could write speeches for him. We had a call, and he said yes and I’ve been working with him ever since.”

 “I really liked that Leo wasn’t an ‘establishment politician.’ I liked that he had experience outside of politics and had goals for the city and downtown rather than just being a politician as a goal itself. And I really felt that by working with him it would be a cool opportunity to connect with someone who was interested in the Duke/Durham town divide. He gets those two worlds, and its just so interesting to me.”

Andrew’s previous speech writing experience? “I did debate in high school, that helped a lot,” he says with a chuckle. But despite the perceived lack of experience, Andrew knew he had to try to be a part of Leo’s campaign. “I knew this commitment to the campaign would require a lot of empathy, and in essence would offer a unique opportunity – I think that’s really what gave me the courage to reach out and say ‘yes I’m young, I’m new to this,’ but also to recognize that there’s something to be said for a candidate who is also new to the political scene and is actively thinking about how to build a coalition. It felt like the right time to take a chance and obviously he felt the same way.”

The stories that humanize politics and policy are what inspire Andrew to keep exploring his impact as a writer. “I wanted to contribute to a strategy and a way of telling lived experiences that was meaningful and compelling to other people as a medium of public representation. And being a part of the campaign felt like something that was a service that was also going to be interesting to me.”

For Andrew, writing speeches required truly getting to know Mayor-elect Williams and his commitments – as well as recognizing when he might need to step back as a writer, “There were a lot of conversations and getting to know his voice – but we’ve also gotten really good at knowing each other’s boundaries as well. For example, I wouldn’t write on black-on-black crime without heavily seeking input from him and similarly he asked me to write something to do with anti-Asian hate after the first shooting at Chapel Hill. That’s something I can speak to more personally than he can, and similarly there are things that he can speak to that I can’t – but I think that’s why we work in tandem well. We come from very different backgrounds but we were able to turn that into an asset rather than a problem to be solved.”

Speech writing requires a humility that’s not often found in politics, “Speech writing is really an interesting position to be in leadership wise because you don’t get external credit. And you really have to think about the impact of your words, without the recognition for your words. It’s a great exercise for me, because it’s a reminder that your recognition is not tied to your impact. In many cases, it can be actually even more powerful when your part of a larger initiative and play the role of telling a story that makes a difference.”

Andrew plans to stay on and help where he can with Mayor-Elect William’s transition to office – he credits the community that was built during the campaign for fostering his commitment to politics. “In July when he announced his run for mayor, Leo was seen as the underdog because his competitor was a State senator, but by election night it was not even close. Leo got 63% of the vote, and it felt like I was really a part of the community. You could see the amount of people who showed up for him, and it was super energetic and broke me out of this school bubble. I had been stressed out, and it was nice to take a break and reaffirm these passions that I have that are not necessarily tied to school. I felt really privileged to be a part of a much larger campaign that everyone played a role in to make happen.”

Andrew’s advice to anyone looking to make an impact is get involved. “I’m glad I got to be a part of this team and this initiative, and I think it’s a reaffirmation of the fact that students from Duke or Chapel Hill, or NC State, or NCCU can get involved outside of their university campus – and it doesn’t have to be a big formal program. It can be as simple as sending an email, because the people in office, they’ll be your mayor too and what you’re saying matters quite a lot.”