Redefining ‘Deemed to Fail’

Alumna Jos Duncan formed Griot Don and Griot Works.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Jos Duncan took the day off of work to spend the night in New York.

Duncan and a friend were on their way back to Philadelphia from New York when two planes hit the Twin Towers.

“When I saw people jumping out of windows in their business suits I realized these people may have never pursued their dreams,” Duncan said. “They may have never taken steps toward what they really believed in. It changed my perception on what life was.”

Shortly after, Duncan decided to pursue her aspirations and quit her job to start a West African Dance company by the name of Griot Don Dance Collective, with Temple alumna, Cachet Ivey.

It was through the organization that she found herself most happy, participating in a facet of her own cultural identity. Duncan said this is where she found her voice.

Now the company, combined with film, named Griot Works, is an organization that works with the community to share stories that educate others, honors traditions, shares morals and helps to foster a collective future for a community.

Griot Works bridges the gap between cultures and generations by passing along themes and teachings through the oral tradition of storytelling.

“We don’t have a culturally competent society,” Duncan said. “We don’t know how to talk about race and especially about black people.”

Duncan originally attended Temple in 1993, studying social work. She wanted to stay close to her home – at 16th and Master streets – for her undergraduate degree.

“It was a much different neighborhood than it is now,” Duncan said. “I was passionate about that community and about understanding some of the issues that were plaguing our community at that time … Social work seemed like an ideal field of study.”

As her studies progressed, Duncan said she couldn’t grasp the terms in her classes.  She said that everything was “unfamiliar” and “uncomfortable” to her. She failed her sociology and psychology classes.

“The textbooks presented me as an urban teen who technically fit the description of ‘underserved,’ ‘underprivileged,’ ‘deemed to fail,’” Duncan said. “For me, to walk into those classes and be presented with language that depicted me and my people in that way, it was really offensive.”

After she decided to leave Temple to study social work, Duncan returned in 1996 as a business administration major, with a concentration in information technology, shifting her major to something that would allow her to deal with numbers and bottom lines.

By the time she graduated in 2001, Duncan was working full time for Primavera Systems, a software company that has since been acquired by the multinational computer technology corporation, Oracle.

Soon after she graduated, Duncan found herself unfulfilled with her work. As a young woman from a rough area, she said she felt like she had accomplished everything she should. Yet, she was “miserable.”

After her experience in New York that caused her to change her perspective, Duncan threw herself into her new endeavours.

The organization’s name comes from the word Griot, a West African storyteller, and Don, which means dance. This “Dance of the Griot” spread to universities around the city, and started giving more opportunities to Duncan and Ivey.

“[I use] art as a way to heal, as a way to address issues, as a way to teach people,” Duncan said.

While Duncan began to put up her own productions, she had a strong understanding of running a business.

“Having a business degree has been my secret weapon,” Duncan said. “My degree helped me to be fearless.”

In 2005, Duncan began to take film classes at the Community College of New York. It was here she learned the importance of documenting her community from the perspective of the community, capturing the stories that weren’t seen on the news.

Realizing she couldn’t do this work as solely a dancer, Duncan founded Griot Works in 2007.

Now, Duncan said Griot Works is being dismantled because it “has met the marks that we have set out to do.”

Duncan said she finds she is growing as an artist, as a speaker and as a filmmaker.

“The truth of the matter is, I am growing in a slightly different direction,” Duncan said. “I might be growing more commercial. I might be doing more Hollywood-based stuff and Griot Works is a community organization that has done its work and has done its work well.”

Keeland Bowers can be reached at

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