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As co-coordinator and student coordinator of Community-Based Learning (CBL) and Urban Studies at Yale, and as students committed to demonstrating the academic significance of student involvement in the city and providing opportunities for it to occur, we would like to comment on the Ward 1 aldermanic candidates’ recent discussion of civic engagement. We question Mike Jones’ ’11 approach to the topic and Minh Tran’s ’09 focus on his own contact with voters. We strongly endorse Katie Harrison’s vision for engaging students and community members on the issues because we believe her experience, understanding and vision for the alderwoman’s role — and for civic engagement in the city — uniquely qualify her to serve on the Board of Aldermen.Through our work on CBL and Urban Studies, we’ve had the chance to witness the breadth of opportunities available for students to engage with and learn from the city. Some of these programs and groups are public service-oriented, while others focus on achieving social justice and political change. Our work in both has taught us the unique value of each. Ultimately, however, we believe it is the role of the Ward 1 alderwoman to organize students to become politically active and join with community members to address citywide concerns.
Thus, we take issue with Mike’s proposals for an Office of Civic Engagement and a Legislative Aide program for Yale students at City Hall, and with Minh’s conception of hearing only from students because they present a narrow vision of what civic engagement should look like. Mike’s programs offer public service and educational opportunities, but no vision for engaging a wider swath of students and community members in the big issues facing the Board and the city. He appears to be focusing his campaign on a “civic engagement” platform. The candidates should be considering engagement as a means of bringing about their visions for change in the city, not solely a method for improving the function of or publicizing information about the work of City Hall. In their platforms, Mike and Minh divorce engagement from issues like economic development and education.
Katie’s vision for the position, on the other hand, is about more than the few students who would work as legislative aides. It’s about more than having meals with students. She instead sees the seat as an opportunity to engage the entire campus on citywide issues.
The candidates’ views on civic engagement seem reflective of their experiences in New Haven so far. While Mike and Minh’s involvement as a tutor or volunteer in the New Haven Public Schools might demonstrate their commitment to public service, Katie’s service and political activism experience inform her vision for civic engagement in the city. Through her work with the Undergraduate Organizing Committee, the Connecticut Center for a New Economy, UNITE-HERE Local 217 and the Community Voter Project, Katie has used her time at Yale to build issue-based coalitions to advocate for a better New Haven. Her experiences advocating at the Board of Aldermen on city issues is central to her desire to serve as an alderwoman. She has demonstrated an understanding of the politics of advancing social justice work, a connection to community groups already working in the city and a grounded belief that the community can and should have a meaningful impact on decisions that affect them.
We believe in the potential for meaningful civic engagement to contribute to political change, and we have worked on campaigns with Katie that have demonstrated that. For example, a coalition of concerned citizens (including Katie) successfully influenced the decision to terminate Aramark’s (a company that was serving unhealthy food and exploiting its workers) contract. Community advocacy campaigns often lead to decision-makers in City Hall. The Board of Aldermen plays a crucial role in engaging the community on political issues, a role candidates for alderman should embrace. Katie alone of the candidates recognizes this aspect of the position, as her platform for responsible economic development demonstrates. We support Katie for alderwoman because she proposes a vision for civic engagement that is focused on the issues and a part of the Board’s decision-making processes.
Ariela Rothstein is a junior in Trumbull College. Abby Lawlor is a sophomore in Berkeley College.