Democracy School to offer instruction on city government

Through popular seminars and volunteer programs, it is usually Yale that does the teaching about New Haven. But next week, New Haven will be teaching Yalies — and other local residents — about the city.

Starting next Tuesday, the city will be offering “Democracy School,” a six-week program that allows 25 New Haven residents to get a closer look at city governance and an opportunity to get more involved in community activities. Last year, the program attracted members of the Yale community, including some professors, who participated alongside other local residents.

Cynthia Farrar, who runs the Deliberative Democracy and Local Governance program at Yale’s Institution for Social and Policy Studies, encouraged community members involved in her program to participate in Democracy School in order to understand the policy-making process and learn how to influence the results.

“This program seems like a really key piece of infrastructure in trying to build what Mayor [John] DeStefano calls pathways of ongoing engagement,” Farrar said. “It’s a way for community members to get involved in civic engagement, interact with city officials and to learn up close and personal how things come to be decided.”

During last year’s Democracy School, participants learned about New Haven’s economic development, public safety and education systems from town committee chairs by going to city council meetings. Separate classes were held in a different location each week, and some participants said this gave them a better appreciation for areas they would not otherwise have visited. Sharon Neufeld, who enrolled last year, said she particularly enjoyed visiting the Sound School, a vocational school located on the banks of the New Haven Harbor.

Some participants in Democracy School, which is run through the mayor’s office, participated in the program in order to gain a better understanding of their hometown. But for Neufeld, a Yale research associate in epidemiology and public health, living in New Haven has been her first experience residing in an American city. Originally from Canada, Neufeld decided to participate in last year’s program because she wanted to explore the differences between American and Canadian city governance and gain a better understanding of “why things run they way do.”

Neufeld said the program gave her a greater appreciation for some of the challenges that the city faces, as well an understanding of its details — from the police force to diagonal traffic lights to the surprising role of parking meters.

“I was really struck by the fact that the only way the city can make any money is through parking meters,” she said. “Things like that made me more aware of the constraints that the city faces — [the program] really gave me a broad overview of all different aspects of New Haven.”

Although the program is open to all adult New Haven residents, Ward 3 Alderwoman Jacqueline James said it is self-selective, reinforcing the interest that a small number of citizens already have in the city but not reaching out to those who do not.

“It’s not enough to get people interested in the city,” James said. “In order to get people interested and participating, you need to give them hope [that things will change], and I don’t think this program gives people that hope.”

But Ward 7 Alderwoman Frances Clark said the strength of the program is that it exposes citizens to New Haven in a way that allows them to become more involved in the city by joining commissions and participating in activities specific to their ward.

“Democracy School is very typical of New Haven, which is very much a teaching city because people are constantly thinking about how to share knowledge,” she said. “Its openness is very admirable because citizens have a chance to directly talk with department heads, get interested in issues and become active in the community.”

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