When I was a pre-frosh, no one told me about Yale’s problems. In fact, everyone seemed to actually love Yale: they were friendly and happy and adamant that I should choose Yale. And so I did, not for the name, or the history department (my intended major), but for the gregarious community of students I met.
These students had diverse interests, but they told me there was something for everyone. I could do whatever I wanted to do! Remember that? I daresay nearly everyone had that impression. Nevertheless, Yale routinely scapegoats different groups: athletes lower the academic quality of the student body; a cappella parties promote binge drinking; frats enable an unhealthy sexual culture; the cultural centers cause internal division; and so on.
So yes, you can do whatever you want, but someone — another undergrad, or a professor or an administrator — is probably going to take issue with it. They will ask, in some form or another, “Why aren’t you building community?” While this question is legitimate, the ways we address it — such as scapegoating — are often problematic.
One problem lies in how we define building community. This process does not necessitate ridding ourselves of “problematic” elements as some have called our cultural centers, nor does it necessitate “unification.” Communities can be whole, and yet retain their division. In fact, divisions are crucial to communities, which exist because of and in spite of tension.
I heard that phrase on a tour of Fair Haven led by community organizer Lee Cruz. Fair Haven, known as “the Island,” is one of New Haven’s poorest neighborhoods. Prostitution, drugs and violent crime plague the Island, which is also where 2007’s immigration raids occurred.
Though Lee acknowledges these problems, he loves the Island. He told The New Journal, “It’s not that bad things don’t happen. It’s that the bad things that happen are not the center of the conversation or the center of the way the neighborhood thinks about itself.” Despite the crime, Lee walks his dog every day and talks to everyone he sees. He knows entire blocks of people.
The idea of community tension resonated with me. Think about the popular vote in the presidential election. It was remarkably close, but we are still the United States of America. We are one country, in spite of political tension. Further, the process of handling tension makes communities stronger. We’ve seen this development at Yale. The Title IX complaint prompted panels, op-eds and countless dining hall conversations, and the campus is in a better place for it.
Thus, building community and handling tension means talking to people, just like Lee Cruz. Most of the time, those conversations will go smoothly: we’ll complain about the weather, about our work, about how tired we are, about how we can’t wait for Thanksgiving Break.
However, some conversations will produce conflict — and that’s okay. I once had an argument in JE’s dining hall over abortion. Yes, I was the angry feminist side, and no, neither one of us convinced the other. Nevertheless, I walked away with a greater understanding of my peer’s perspective, and of why his thinking differed from mine. Tension produced empathy.
I will be clear: when I say we can build community by talking to each other, I do not mean we should have free-for-all shouting matches about Yale-NUS. Thoughtless op-eds about sexual culture can be emotionally destructive. Scapegoating segments of the student population (or the administration) will alienate them counter-productively. I think it’s rude to interrupt someone, that we should be sensitive to each other’s individual vulnerabilities, and that we must think rigorously.
I don’t think that raising our level of discourse is easy (and I have certainly broken my own rules before), but it is crucial that we do so. Yale has experienced considerable tension recently: the DKE chants; the Title IX complaint; Sex Week; alcohol policy; Yale-NUS; student input in the Presidential selection; the list goes on. These conflicts are not comfortable, and more are inevitable. But we are smart, and we have opinions, and we care, so we will deal with them and we will be stronger for it.
Victoria Sanchez is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .