Few Yale freshmen feel comfortable in even one New Haven community by their second semester, but Mena Cammett ’09 already feels at home in two.
Cammett, whose grandparents were active in social justice causes and whose mother works for the Legal Aid Society in her hometown of Brooklyn, is campaigning to become the co-chair of the Ward 22 Democratic Town Committee. Ward 22, which includes the Dixwell neighborhood, as well as Swing Space and Morse, Ezra Stiles, Silliman and Timothy Dwight colleges, is unusual among New Haven’s 30 wards because its boundaries embrace two very distinct populations — some Yale students as well as the residents of one of New Haven’s poorer neighborhoods.
But Cammett, an intern at the new Yale-Dixwell Community Center, said she is prepared to act as a bridge between the two communities, whose needs are often perceived to be at odds, and to make Yalies feel comfortable considering themselves residents of the neighborhood in which they live.
Along with current co-chair Sheneane Ragin, Cammett is running against Dixwell resident Cordelia Thorpe. Thorpe ran two years ago, but was defeated by Ragin, who was running with Alyssa Rosenberg ’06 at the time. Rosenberg, who is a staff columnist for the News, will graduate this spring and has chosen not to run for re-election as ward committee co-chair.
As committee co-chair, Cammett would face responsibilities ranging from the mundane, such as maintaining lists of the names and addresses of registered Democratic voters, to the significant, holding responsibility for bringing together a committee of citizens to discuss community problems and agitate for necessary change.
“Basically, you’re the eyes and ears for the community,” Cammett said. “One of my major goals is to find as many ways to have Yale students and Dixwell residents in the same room at the same time.”
Thorpe has criticized the current committee for not adequately representing the diversity of the ward and said that, as co-chair, she would expand the committee and ensure it meets frequently, at least once per quarter.
“If you were to do a poll of this community, they would not be able to tell you the name of the co-chairs,” she said. “The last time they saw them was on Election Day.”
This challenge of reaching out to both constituencies, Rosenberg said, is significant, especially because Yale students do not generally walk the streets of the neighborhood on a daily basis. But she said the recent construction of the community center on Ashmun Street behind Payne Whitney Gymnasium should help Cammett reach out. As an intern, Makana Ellis ’05, the center’s program director, said Cammett helps with tutoring and mentoring, as well as staffing community events held in the center’s facility.
Rosenberg said the biggest challenges she had faced as co-chair were simply pulling together a functioning committee that could meet enough to make progress. Between Yale students leaving for the summer, and with only some committee members regularly able to access e-mail, organizing meetings of the 50-person committee was difficult, but Rosenberg said the committee was able to pull together and find a strong candidate in Ward 22 Alderman Rev. Drew King.
“It’s not the same as running for alderman, when you can say, ‘I got new sidewalks,'” Rosenberg said. “You can say you brought people together who weren’t talking before.”
Although the election, which will take place on March 7, is competitive, as Ragin and Cammett will have to defeat Thorpe to become co-chairs, those active in Ward 22 said the team has a strong chance of winning, even though the election falls over spring break — requiring most Yale students interested in voting to cast absentee ballots.
“It’s not just having the position in the community as a co-chair; it’s what you do in the community not having a leadership title — that’s what people are looking at,” said King, who defeated Thorpe last November in the Democratic primary.
King said Cammett and Ragin are already well-known to the community, as Cammett, even though she has lived in New Haven for only six months, has met many neighborhood children and parents through her tutoring work.
To campaign, Thorpe said she has been walking the ward for five hours each day, canvassing for voters, though she has had difficulty reaching out to Yale students.