The contentious and highly publicized race for Ward 1 alderman in New Haven has doubtless inspired some amount of thought on the part of many in the Yale student body about how to transform our city. And “transform” is a key word. I think we can all agree we are not entirely pleased with the current state of our community, and any election or discussion about New Haven is not a matter of merely preserving a bright and cheery status quo. Searching your Gmail for “Ronnell” should make that evident enough.
We all came to Yale in spite of New Haven, not for the sake of the city. But if we truly want the city to blossom, we all ought overstay our welcome — and our undergraduate degrees. This suggestion won’t have a significant impact on those who are already planning on fleeing to the worlds of New York finance or Washington politics. New Haven is never going to become a major player in those arenas. But for many other students-turned-alumni, it can become a wonderful starting point for their life’s work.
Are you already willing to take an incredibly low-paying job teaching somewhere? Teach in a New Haven school, instead of one in some other random city in the United States. Want to do grueling social studies research on low-income family grocery purchases and nutrition before you go to graduate school? Stay in New Haven — we have grocery stores now (kind of). Want to save homeless refugees? Many in New Haven have no place to go for the night. Perfect.
Instead of engaging in the yearly exodus in which all sorts of well-intentioned Yale graduates interested in social justice trek to the far-flung places of the world, we should start by building a community in our own backyard. Concentrating efforts in New Haven would be better for solving the world’s problems.
First, access to Yale’s resources is a tremendous asset. The ability to do ongoing research in Sterling or walk to a renowned scholar’s office and have a conversation about whatever you’re interested in can be instrumental to progress when you’ve encountered difficult problems that seem to lack solutions. Another boon is our peers in the Yale community, a superb sounding board. How many times have we learned from them when they challenged us and our opinions or shared some insight we had missed?
If all the Yale alumni who wanted to work for social justice stayed here, they could form alumni neighborhoods. Where neighbors care about each other and get to know each other, crime rates fall. These neighborhoods need not and ought not be cloistered like the neighborhoods where professors live. Instead, they should integrate into parts of the New Haven community.
Idealistic efforts in the undeveloped world can rarely attain the sorts of results work in New Haven would. Many factors militate against this. Some countries’ problems require solutions across multiple fields. Vaccines can’t be delivered by truck where there aren’t roads, and vaccines don’t matter anyway if the community is going to be wiped out by famine. Many governments are unhelpful, actively hinder useful work or reject Western aid and workers as symbols of imperialistic intervention. Populations are openly suspicious, and the cultural gap is hard to bridge. Where villages are rebuilt in the most afflicted places, they are destroyed again by terrorists, revolutionaries or natural disasters.
I can’t comprehensively demonstrate the difficulties involved with Third World humanitarian work here. But it should be intuitive that more permanently fruitful work is possible in the shadow of one of the world’s greatest universities, and then later applied elsewhere. Uncoordinated students going on internships to teach in Kenya for a few years after graduation until they figure out what they want to do will not produce a sustainable, functioning and competitive education system in that country. If we learn a little about developmental psychology in New Haven schools, that effort will go much further to fixing New Haven, our country and our world.
If you believe education, housing and food are inviolable human rights, then you have just as much an obligation to the children of New Haven as you do to the children of Chad. With this in mind, Yalies who want to work in this field should stop fleeing to the corners of the earth and take a responsible approach to social justice.