SHERLEY: Canvassing across the divide

I spent most of my summer on the East side of New Haven. For a canvasser it’s a difficult part of town. The East side is hilly, this summer was hot and humid, and all the people were opinionated. They get up in your face. They make you site your evidence. They demand to see their elected officials, and if you’re canvassing for one who hasn’t been around in a while — who hasn’t come to their church, their street festival, their home — they will send you away to bring them back to their door. And I loved every minute of it, because I have respect for people who love their neighborhood that fiercely.

When the summer ended, I began coordinating a canvassing effort in the student half of Ward 22 (Timothy Dwight, Silliman, Ezra Stiles, Morse colleges and Swing Space), I was pretty sure I was ready. I mean, I had spent two months walking this city so hard that the backs of my Birkenstocks were coming off. But what I found was a level of apathy so strong that it knocked the wind out of everyone working on our campaign. That wasn’t so surprising — college students are like that.

What did surprise me, what really sent me reeling, was the anger. This is Yale, so we’re all pretty subtle about it. But people were truly angry that Yalies (and permanent residents who don’t go to Yale) were knocking on their doors for local elections. That’s fine, but I wanted to understand why. I know I woke up some people from naps (I’m sorry, I feel your pain, I know sleep here is precious), or interrupted some studying (though what’s the harm in a five minute study break?) or maybe just annoyed some by being in their space (sorry!), but as a friend of mine put it very astutely: “No one would be complaining if this was a national election.”

I think a big source of that anger is the unique way that we think about Yale as our home, and how we have constructed that home (both physical and mental) in opposition to the city of New Haven. Consider our college architecture. It was not until I attempted to get six Dixwell residents from Ward 22 into Silliman to canvass that I realized that we live in miniature fortresses. Our buildings are structured and organized to funnel people without the correct credentials back outside.

Colleges are unique because they often construct a home that is separate from the city or town that surrounds it. We are Yalies, and rarely do we declare that we live in New Haven — unless it’s in order to forgo saying that we go to Yale. But in our non-Yale lives we have hometowns. We identify and link our home with our roles as public citizens.

This physical and mental concept of Yale as separate from New Haven often relates to the idea of college being outside the “real world.” For some, college is this magical time where we live in this detached, special community, entering as only partially formed people, getting to work on ourselves for four years, and then rejoining the world as fully fledged leaders ready to change it.

This is the real world. And I think that the most detrimental effect of the way that these two ideas interact is that we lose sight of how integral our presence is to this city, leading us to shirk our responsibility to be engaged residents. The way Yalies interact (or don’t) with New Haven, even the fact that we take up space, has huge implications for this city, and vice versa. And because of that interdependence, I would argue that Yale and New Haven must be understood as the collective home of Yalies and permanent residents alike. Home is not just a place that we enjoy because it makes us happy; it is also a place where we are all partially responsible for maintaining its health.

I want to be a part of a student body that values taking care of the totality of our home — not just the Yale portion of it — that recognizes Yale’s interdependent relationship with New Haven and understands itself as equal to all sectors of this community. With a general election coming up in November, now might be a good time to start.

Eshe Sherley is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at eshe.sherley@yale.edu.

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