Yishai Schwartz ’13 (“Separate service and advocacy,” Jan. 27) contends that Yalies should divide community service from advocacy in Dwight Hall and within our organizations. Schwartz is correct to tell Yalies that we are morally obliged to give some time to service and to remind us that service and advocacy are not the same. Yet he is profoundly wrong to argue that our organizations should not improve people’s lives for the short term while we strive to improve our society for the long term.
In fact, working for small change through service and for big change through advocacy are inseparable. Service naturally leads to advocacy, and advocacy has little power without service.
For example, when I served as co-director of the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project in 2011, I met dozens of people who got started in advocacy as a direct result of their service with homeless and poor people. As other YHHAP volunteers and I dedicated ourselves to service — whether by providing survival services like food and shelter, counseling job seekers or tutoring prisoners — we came to better understand the political and economic systems that our clients dealt with every day and the ways that those systems failed them.
As I deepened my relationship with New Haven through service, I began to search for more and better ways to advance my clients’ interests. I worked with other YHHAP members to open new programs, improve our existing service projects and advocate for a better homelessness policy with city administrators. Our clients told me and other leaders their needs, and we used all of the strategies at our disposal, from service to lobbying to research to fundraising, to help them meet those needs.
In short, our experience in service made my friends and me envision a New Haven without poverty and homelessness and made us do all we could to move reality closer to our vision. Our advocacy grew naturally from our service, and our service gave us power and authority when we talked to decision-makers.
This progression from service to advocacy would not have been possible if Dwight Hall had been structured as Schwartz suggests it should be. If service and advocacy had been artificially separated, our capacity to make change for our clients would have been drastically limited. We would still have done service and raised money, but administrators would have cautioned us to avoid the political. They would have told us not to talk to other nonprofits about policy, educate students about the realities of homelessness and poverty in New Haven, put pressure on city administrators or lobby aldermen on behalf of our clients. In other words, they would have required us to be silent, to accept a political and economic status quo that was harming our clients’ well-being and self-determination.
And just as service can politicize a person, political advocacy on an issue can lead people to service. I’ve had this experience firsthand, too. When I first got involved in activism on LGBTQ issues, I believed that the best way for me to help the LGBTQ community was to work to pass laws supporting same-sex marriage and banning homophobic and transphobic discrimination. Yet as I spent more time working on these issues, I came to believe that political reforms have limited impact on LGBTQ people’s lives. I decided that I should walk my talk by also providing direct service to the LGBTQ community, and I joined other students to create educational and social programs serving New Haven’s queer and trans youth.
I traveled this path from lobbying for nondiscrimination laws to throwing a prom for local LGBTQ youth with a single Dwight Hall organization, Fierce Advocates. If Dwight Hall had placed an artificial barrier between these two parts of activism, then I likely would not have made this personal journey from advocacy to advocacy plus service — just as YHHAP would never have moved from service alone to service and advocacy.
I hope that Dwight Hall will not create a false dichotomy between these strategies and will instead encourage Yalies engaged in public service of any ideological orientation to blend their work for immediate good with advocacy for systemic change. To make a difference as best we can, we need to both be and demand the change we want to see in the world.
Amalia Skilton is a junior in Calhoun College. She is the former director of YHHAP and Fierce Advocates. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.