Cersonsky: Step it up, Dwight Hall

At 8:15 on Sunday morning, the Party of the Left concluded its inaugural 12-hour charity debate-a-thon. For me, the appeal of the event was obvious — besides the average sleep-deprived revelry that you’d expect, ample donations were collected for Shelter Now, an organization for which I served as co-director and whose work, I believe, is critical to the homeless of New Haven.

The debate-a-thon was an assertion of relevance — a small step closer to fulfilling the Party’s mission to “bring discourse to the outside world, and the outside world to discourse.” To achieve our ideals, we, like any organization, need to talk and to act.

But despite their codependence, it is rare for debate and activism to merge in a single event like the debate-a-thon, and a sustained effort is required to keep us focused on both. Juxtaposing my own work these past two semesters, as Chair of the Party and previously with Shelter Now, it is striking to me how easy it is to become fixated on one at the expense of the other.

What if it works this way for everyone?

What if, for those devoted to debate, journalism, or a cappella in addition to activism, the latter is always limited by the former — a tragic trade-off that we tell ourselves isn’t really that tragic because service is freely given and therefore easily (and excusably) taken away?

This reality is daunting, but not inevitable. I happen to think that the Party of the Left and other organizations could have an easier time motivating their members to act if the body whose purpose is to facilitate activism and service — Dwight Hall — works consciously and furiously to put itself on everyone’s map and expand the culture that it commands.

I have two proposals.

First, we need more projects that can marshal support from all kinds of groups on campus — political coalitions, cultural houses, performance troupes, policy institutes, fraternities — and, for fasts and Old Campus sleep-outs, everyone. Beyond homelessness, there are plenty of issues that can take us by storm. What will be next? Public health? Education reform? Immigration reform? A responsible endowment?

Whatever the cause, Dwight Hall has the power and resources to strengthen it. Dwight Hall should offer one-time, ad-hoc campaigns the opportunity to apply for special funding, and it should provide a mechanism to support any such campaign that wishes to establish itself as a continuing project. For local issues with harvestable energy, it should put on the mantle of activist organization, crafting petitions, hosting rallies and panels and initiating local outreach and government lobbies. Beyond taking the lead on already existing causes, perhaps it can generate new ones.

Second, Dwight Hall needs to empower non-service groups to do service together. Community service is an easier sell when you can do it in the company of close friends — and particularly when it affords the opportunity to learn about new local agencies on the basis of flexible, even one-day commitment.

Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project’s budding “Moment of Service” program — an orchestrator of one-time events — provides just these things. Dwight Hall should follow its lead and extend the program to causes beyond homelessness. I see a day of service in every residential college every semester, and I see at least one event for every group not affiliated with Dwight Hall. Though our interests and priorities vary, service should be on everyone’s agenda.

In order to do what it traditionally does — provide accessible resources to service groups on campus, and ensure the development of its own long-term financial health — Dwight Hall needs to do more. It needs to stage a concentrated campaign to bolster its reputation as the place to go for service at Yale, and to create and expand the opportunities that it promises.

By supporting and even creating large-scale service campaigns, and by vastly increasing opportunities to get our hands dirty, Dwight Hall can declare loudly and authoritatively that there is no stronger leader of activism on campus.

And, by minimizing the space between campus community and outside world, it can make each of our lives a little bit more complete.

James Cersonsky is a junior in Timothy Dwight College.


  • yale 11


    just transfer to Columbia or The New School

    your 1960s activism fits in there much better

  • yale

    What’s the point of this exactly?? That Dwight Hall should do service (which it does..) or a resume-flaunting opportunity?

    And that Shelter Now is “critical to the homeless of New Haven”? And this from one of the co-coordinators?? Sure it is helpful, but I’d like to argue against thinking of oneself as the savior of the homeless. Yes, they could use allies and yes societal systems failed them, but that is precisely why it needs to be about *them* and not *you*. While Shelter Now’s work as been helpful, it is awfully presumptuous to assume that without it New Haven’s homeless would be left to fend for themselves more than they already are.

    Service is about humility and identifying with those that the world pushes away. Unfortunately, I found your article smug and bizarrely aggressive. You argue that Yale students should do more service. Yet, there are plenty of opportunities for those that wish to do so. So many in fact, that many projects are in woeful need of people. You argue that service should be encouraged more. Yes, fair enough. Let’s all do that.

  • James Cersonsky

    To #2:

    The reference to my position in Shelter Now was requested by the editorial board in the interest of disclosure given my strong statement about the organization.

    While no one is the “savior of the homeless” and if there were one it wouldn’t be Shelter Now, homeless advocacy and reform in New Haven is a coalitional effort that requires well-directed energy from a variety of sources, Shelter Now included. Do email me if you’d like to talk more about it.

    I might as well add that your second paragraph makes clear that you didn’t understand the message of the column. It isn’t that “Yale students should do more service,” as if we don’t do a lot of it — it’s that (a) the opportunities need to be, critically, more accessible, and (b) through large campaigns and one-time service opportunities, service can be something that unites us as a campus and in smaller group form. And you seem to think that I’m making a paternalistic statement, when, not only do I acknowledge my own shortcomings, the column is not directed toward students but toward Dwight Hall.

  • yale

    dwight hall DOES offer funding and support for short term projects/campaigns that can transition into long-term groups if sustainable

  • dh cabinet member

    This is good stuff, but charles zhu and alexandra brodsky were just elected to the ex-comm based on platforms containing many of these ideas. who exactly was this column meant for?

  • yale

    Really, James? In the interest of full disclosure, you should say that you ran for Dwight Hall Co-Coordinator last Monday and lost. Rather badly.

    So, I somehow doubt your motive in writing this piece is was pure concern. Immature retaliation seems far more likely. Let’s face it: there’s no way this article would have appeared had you won. Perhaps you should try addressing your concerns to Dwight Hall through more direct and less passive-aggressive channels.

  • James Cersonsky


    While it’s generally not preferable to respond to comments on one’s own column, I appreciate your comments and would like to clarify a few things.

    First, @4:
    It was my mistake not to include the word “accessible” in my reference to funding opportunities for ad hoc campaigns. As you point out, such funding is available; I would argue that (more) people need to know about it.

    The two people whom you mentioned and I are friends, and it is not a coincidence that our ideas are similar. As #6 points out, I ran for Dwight Hall office and have been talking about these ideas with them for some time now. It was (inadvertently) misleading to refer to the idea to expand YHHAP MoS with the words “I see” — as if I were their sole originator and excomm didn’t now have someone now in charge of carrying out the idea. I look forward to seeing them implement their plans as at-large members of excomm.

    And @6:
    I don’t appreciate your misleading “rather badly” (unless you were the one who counted or are privy to the co-coordinator votes — in which case it’d be pretty low of you to make reference to them here, especially anonymously — you wouldn’t know the final numbers), and your claims about my motives are presumptuous and totally wrong. Your interpretation, however, is ever-so-slightly tenable given the events of this past week, so I should make clear that this column was written last weekend (before elections; ask the opinion editor), and the only reason it came out as late as Friday was to decrease the possibility that it would be interpreted wrongly as you did. My “motives” were to present the audience with food for thought, discussion, and perhaps action. A response to this column, which I look forward to reading, is scheduled to come out next week.