Amy Cheng

Around 100 members of the Yale and New Haven communities attended “The Ivory Tower in the Elm City,” the first in a series of panel discussions part of the Yale and New Haven Discussion collection.

Thursday night’s talk, held at the Yale Law School, sparked a conversation between event attendees and the four panel speakers, all of whom are activists working with the New Haven community. The discussion centered on the positive and detrimental effects of student-initiated community engagement efforts, and attracted both undergraduate and graduate students from almost all branches of the University. After the four speakers took turns in sharing their experiences with the audience, the panel opened up to a discussion among all those present.

“Even though each of our panel speakers has a very rich résumé, they are only four people,” panel co-organizer Bethany Hill LAW ’18 said. “What we are talking about tonight is coming together as a community and so it becomes very important to get as many different perspectives and reflections as we can get.”

According to Hill, the series seeks to explore the intersection between Yale — the largest employer in a medium-sized city — and the Elm City itself. She said she hoped to see a variety of opinions from speakers and attendees on how student volunteers engage with their surrounding communities. Nearly all those present echoed the importance of sensitivity towards the intended recipients of student volunteer efforts.

Anika Singh Lemar ’01, a speaker at Thursday’s event and a YLS clinical associate professor, spoke of the historically tight-knit relationship between Yale and the city in the 1920s. Originally, she said, Yale was dedicated to the training of future clergymen and prided itself on this undisputed purpose of public service. But as Yale became increasingly outward-looking, the institution and its surrounding neighborhood grew apart.

“We are in a place where [Yale] is a microcosm of the world at large,” Lemar said.

Dwight Hall Executive Director Peter Crumlish DIV ’09 also spoke during the event, telling the attendees how he constantly grappled with the meaning of venturing into the greater New Haven community as a Yale-affiliated volunteer. Crumlish said volunteers always end up encountering an identity barrier when they intentionally label themselves as “the resource-rich saviors” and the receivers of their work as “the neediest.” This mentality limits the interactions the volunteers are able to initiate when working with New Haven residents, he said.

Crumlish also pointed out that Dwight Hall plays an important role in facilitating community engagement efforts due to its unique dynamics in creating a “gray and overlapping space” for both Yale students and Elm City residents to join hands.

“In that shared space, those boundaries that define people as ‘of Yale’ or ‘of the community’ can get blurred,” Crumlish said. “And in that space, we can all just collaborate and work together.”

Speakers and attendees also spoke of the inherent challenges in a working relationship between student volunteers and their intended recipients. Elias Estabrook ’16, an attendee who now works full-time at Neighborhood Housing Services of New Haven, a local organization dedicated to affordable housing and homeownership, said the stakes are very different for student volunteers and local residents when students experiment with new ways of community engagement.

“In the case of student volunteering, we have to be sensitive when we enter into a relationship with non-Yale affiliated residents or small business people,” Estabrook said. “It doesn’t mean you should withdraw or bow out of the opportunity but you should be very intentional about how the goals of your collaborators are the priorities of the project.”

Lee Cruz, director of Community Outreach of the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, and Kica Matos, the director of Immigrant Rights and Racial Justice of the Center for Community Change, also spoke at the event.

The panel is sponsored by the Zelia & Oscar Ruebhausen/Debevoise & Plimpton Student Fund and the American Constitution Society at Yale Law School.