Out to change the world? Don’t go it alone

Making change is a difficult business. Two weeks ago, I wrote about the importance of reauthorizing the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, but on Thursday, President Bush again promised to veto the bill, citing the same false statistics that I criticized in my op-ed. Last week, I went a step further and collected petition signatures for a better farm bill that would address obesity in the U.S. and help farmers in developing countries, but the Senate’s new draft bill still fell short. Now, this week, I fear that my lone voice will again fall on deaf ears.

You know the feeling. Perhaps you wrote a 20-page paper about a great new policy idea that only your professor read, or maybe you traveled halfway around the world to help others only to find that a week of service wouldn’t really solve any problems. You probably learned something in the process and you may have gotten another accolade to add to your resume, but in the end, the problems are still there. This feeling of powerlessness is frustrating for any young idealist, and I’m no exception.

So this week, I want to focus on a topic on which I know I can make some headway — strengthening our community here at Yale and in New Haven. It may not be as grandiose as saving the world, but I bet that if you and I and the rest of our community start working together a bit better, we can start seeing some real change.

Making change here in New Haven is the first step, I feel, to making change across our country and even around the world. Yale is a global university that sets standards for others to follow, and New Haven is a community facing issues of inequality that are all too common in this world. If we can’t build a more equal and just society here, then how can we expect to do the same anywhere else?

Unfortunately, we have a long way to go to reduce health inequalities in New Haven. New Haven residents as a whole are at a higher risk of poor health outcomes, such as infant mortality, when compared to the rest of Connecticut and the U.S. This summary statistic, however, masks the larger disparities between different races and ethnicities. Earlier this month, the Connecticut NAACP released its own report about the disproportionate burden of disease for blacks in Connecticut, even after controlling for income. These disparities are unacceptable for any city, but they are particularly striking for our city.

New Haven has the resources to make change, but too often it falls short because of artificial barriers that we erect between town and gown and even within the University. We all want to be leaders and we all have our pet projects, but rarely do we try to work together. Just looking at Yale College: With more than one student group for every 20 students, there are so many leaders on campus that it’s hard to understand how anything gets done. In our quests for excellence as individuals and as an institution, we neglect the community around us.

Despite these historic barriers, some groups in the community are stepping up to start bridging this divide. Last spring, the new Community Alliance for Research and Engagement was formed to bring together community leaders and Yale scientists to help translate the results of Yale research into positive health gains for the community. This summer, leaders from nonprofits across New Haven came to Yale to discuss shared goals, and this fall, CARE plans to expand its efforts in the community by sponsoring a total of $100,000 in grants for innovative community-based research.

Students, too, are stepping up to the plate. This Saturday, the new Yale Public Health Coalition will hold its first-ever coalition meeting to bring together more than 40 different public health groups on campus to set a common agenda for the coming year. Later this semester, a wide range of events is already being planned to raise awareness of public health issues and start making tangible changes. By focusing on coordinating existing efforts, we can do much more than any one group could do alone.

The need for this kind of coordinated community action is perhaps best summarized in a Gwendolyn Brooks quotation that the CARE program takes as its motto: “We are each other’s business, we are each other’s magnitude and bond.” We may each have our specific goals, but our fates are inextricably tied. You and I alone can’t make a difference, but we together can start changing the world.

Robert Nelb is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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