Students must be civic-minded

In the past several weeks, two columns have raised serious questions about the evolving relationship between Yale students and the city that surrounds them. Ally Brundige lamented the decline of volunteerism among Yale students (“Separation of town, gown hurts both,” 1/24), and Daniel Koffler criticized the University’s response to allegations that New Haven Police officers had mistreated David Atlas ’08 (“Complaints against NHPD deserve greater attention,” 2/1). Both of these columns trouble me because they ask whether the student-community relationships I’ve seen thrive during my time at Yale have suddenly suffered a dramatic and unexpected decline.

But on closer consideration, it seems that the same series of questions are behind both of these columns. To what extent are Yale students not just residents, but citizens, of New Haven? To what extent should they be? What is the result when Yale students see themselves as residents both of a dorm and a city?

I apologize to those of you who may anticipate a dead horse on the horizon and picture my arm raised in preparation to flog it. I’ve frequently invoked citizenship in this column to encourage Yale students to register to vote or to get out and vote, sometimes without explaining more fully what I think citizenship really means.

Citizenship includes participation in a number of civic institutions, like voting, paying taxes and jury duty. The base level of citizenship means providing the government with the democratic voice, the money and the labor that allow it to function.

But in its best form, citizenship goes far beyond those basic duties. Active citizens understand that their role in shaping a strong city, a “blessed community” in the words of some of New Haven’s most dedicated and admirable citizens, goes far beyond the ballot box and the jury room, and is motivated not by obligation but by love. These are people like Greg Smith who go and organize parent patrols in their neighborhoods, like Janna Wagner ’95 and Jessica Sager LAW ’99 who took Ivy League educations and put them to use training low-income women to provide high-quality child care in their homes and like Dale Lucas, who lost his job at Yale-New Haven Hospital because of union advocacy and now works for his union.

Citizenship can show up in any number of places and in any number of forms, and increasingly, Yale students are taking it upon themselves to be active citizens too. Whether campaigning in different wards or running for city office themselves, working with community organizations, or lobbying effectively for clean energy, clean elections, responsible development and gay rights, Yale students have increasingly become a force for change in a city they see as theirs.

Volunteering is a critical way of exercising citizenship, and Yale is right to be proud of the number of its students who participate in community service. But it’s equally honorable — and equally necessary — to address the larger issues that produce the need for those volunteer programs. Ultimately, a combination of volunteerism and advocacy is the best formula for a healthy community. Like Brundige, I’d love to see more Yale students get involved with tutoring programs, and I’d also like to see more Yale students lobbying at City Hall and in Hartford.

Koffler makes clear one of the dilemmas that plagues my model. Yale students, for all the dedication many demonstrate to the city, still live in a universe with a separate police force — and to a certain extent, a separate set of rules about when and how that police force can intervene in students’ lives — and with some concerns different from those of their fellow New Haven residents. Sometimes there will be conflicts between Yale students and their city, and when those conflicts become as ugly as this one has, the temptation to retreat from citizenship is obvious.

It’s easier to demand that Yale fix the problem than to do the hard work reinvigorating the obviously atrophied avenues of communication that failed in last fall’s attempts to balance badly-needed increases in policing in the Dwight neighborhood. To do anything else but that hard work is a lost opportunity for citizenship and for real change. Yale students owe it to themselves to build the institutions and to do the work that can help New Haven become a greater city.

In the next several weeks, I’ll be looking at a number of ways that Yale students have taken up citizenship in New Haven. If you have a person or an approach who you think deserves to be recognized, e-mail me.



Alyssa Rosenberg is a senior in Silliman College. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

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