Local politics draws students

Zach Zwillinger ’07 runs a homeless community center out of a local church basement. Eric Kafka ’08 lobbies the state legislature to help low-income working families. And Kevin Bock ’08 interns with a campaign for U.S. Senate, while hundreds of other students tutor local public school students.

Yale’s location in the middle of a vibrant yet mid-sized city ensures that chances for political and community engagement are plentiful, from teaching elementary school art classes on the weekends to working on reforming the city’s election laws. Opportunities abound for students to work in City Hall, and two of the city’s 30 aldermen, or city council members — Nick Shalek ’05 and Joyce Chen ’01 — are recent alums. Dwight Hall, an umbrella organization for community service and social justice groups, lists 270 groups as affiliates and claims that 80 percent of Yale undergraduates volunteer with at least one of those groups during their four years here.

Zwillinger, a junior, started volunteering at Harmony Place in January of his freshman year, eventually becoming the co-coordinator of the entirely student-run homeless community center located in the basement of Trinity Lutheran Church. The center, at which 25 students volunteer each semester, serves meals on Sundays, provides laundry facilities and once sponsored a wedding between two of the center’s patrons.

“I just sort of fell for it once I went and volunteered,” he said. “[The church] lets us use the space, so they’re the ones that open and close it, but it’s really a place supported by Yale students and by the homeless — when we cook the meal on Sundays, it’s Yale students cooking.”

Zwillinger said New Haven’s relatively small size — 125,000 people live here — makes volunteering more rewarding.

“By volunteering in New Haven you really get to see what makes a city work,” he said. “I know a bunch of aldermen now — it’s unlikely I’d get to know a lot of city councilors in New York City if I were at Columbia. I mean, I see Mayor [John] DeStefano [Jr.] walking down the street on his cell phone.”

Yale students regularly work with the city’s Board of Aldermen to pass resolutions aimed at improving the quality of life in all of New Haven. A current campaign by the group New Haven Action is trying to distribute light bulbs in a neighborhood bordering Yale to increase residents’ safety after dark. Another coalition of campus groups is working with New Haven aldermen to lobby for a change to the state tax code to help low-income workers.

“People will be surprised how receptive politicians are to college students — they want to hear from this demographic,” Kafka, a member of Connecticut Students for Just Taxation, said. “There will be some perceptions of us being Ivy League elitists, but if you show that you are genuine and do really care about these issues, then people really do want to work with you.”

Opportunities for Yale students to effect change do not stop at New Haven’s, or even Connecticut’s borders. The basement of the New Haven Public Library was the venue of choice for Ned Lamont to make one of his first speeches as a candidate to unseat Sen. Joe Lieberman ’64 LAW ’67 in this August’s Democratic primary. Bock, the treasurer of the Yale College Democrats, spoke with Lamont after the race, convincing him to return to New Haven to address the Dems.

“It was just a matter of introducing yourself,” Bock, who is working with the campaign over the summer, said. “You show interest and it kind of takes off from there.”

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