Like several other Yalies, I’ve only just returned from an alternative spring break trip to New Orleans to help rebuild the upper Ninth Ward.
Despite the draining 28-hour bus ride home to New Haven and the time spent readjusting to the hectic Yale lifestyle, the injustice of that whole situation still leaves fire in my heart. A Third World response to natural disaster in a leading developed country. The roles of racism and poverty that I know I cannot conquer single-handedly. The 60 to 70 percent of the people living in that section who will never return because all of their investment was in their houses and in their families. Walking by houses marked by the FEMA inspectors and reading their notes: “10 dead” or “dead dog,” or reading the spray paint of civilians: “this. was. home.”
A year and a half has passed since Katrina, but walking through a comparably deserted city, you wouldn’t know it. And yet I sit here infuriated, knowing that there isn’t much I can do about it, that these problems have causes that run so deep that I can’t even hope to uproot them. I think what I struggle with most is not the apathy or obliviousness of the general population about events like this, or about the whole Third World, but the fact that people who do want to help the struggling masses often don’t know how. We have this fire burning, but we don’t know how to use it.
Each time I participate in a short-term service trip, be it a day or several weeks, I am reminded not only of the participants’ peace and relative simplicity of life — go out, serve the poor, retire after a blessed day and repeat — but also of their comparative futility. I return home, or back to Yale, thinking that each of our lifestyles, mine and those of the people I served, will return to normal. There would be no widespread, definitive changing moment from all of this. Thus, after each short-term mission trip I am both enlivened and drained, inspired and hopeless, healed and broken. Despite my firsthand knowledge of the change I can enact on an individual level — by building houses, for example — I struggle with living at Yale day to day, knowing that I could devote my life to service but should educate myself to do it in the best way possible first. I yearn for the exotic and the needy: Zimbabwe and the Sudan, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, China and Vietnam.
And yet returning to New Haven this March, something different happened. Far from leaving the struggle behind in New Orleans, I brought it with me. A baby step, but one that sometimes we forget to take. In the struggles of substandard housing and day-to-day living I saw in the Lower and Upper Ninth Wards, I saw the greater New Haven population. In the struggles with public education, I saw New Haven. And I wondered how prepared New Haven would be for a natural disaster such as Katrina, or if the general population, the ones we Yalies sometimes ignore, would be left behind.
And I realized how incredibly blind I was and still am. Amid the race from class to work, from meetings to the library, I claim that I don’t have the time to set aside to take a year off and go see how others are making the change. But I now realize that in all of my dreams of traveling the Third World after I receive my diploma, I am missing all of the opportunity I have for change here in New Haven. I am not asked to give up my job and school right now and disappear into the abyss of Zambia, never to be heard from again. We aren’t asked to do that: It is ultimately beneficial to receive more education to make a broader change. I do challenge myself, however, to recognize the help and time I could give to New Haven: There is no lack of opportunity to help.
From getting to know the townspeople on a deeper level to working with the mayor himself, Yalies are able to make a choice between making change from the bottom up — knowing how people live and interact on a personal basis — or from the top down, by working to change power structures currently in place. From personal relationships to policy-making, it’s all here, but we often forget this. While sometimes we complain at the dismal weather or lack of vibrancy of New Haven, there are some things that we can change.
In this effort to understand the change we can make wherever we live and work in the world, I urge you to, for a start, check out the ongoing National Public Health Week events here at Yale, which will examine issues of New Haven and the world, from schools to salaries to single moms. It’s about time we all get out of the Yale bubble and more firmly establish the identity of ourselves and our University in New Haven.
Elizabeth Marshman is a freshman in Timothy Dwight College.