2013 marked the end of an era when John DeStefano concluded his 20-year term as New Haven’s mayor. DeStefano, whose main focuses while in office were education and public safety, now takes up the roles of Yale’s newest professor and banker at New Haven’s own START Community Bank. This semester, he teaches the seminar New Haven and the American City, which has already proven to be a hit among undergraduates. The ex-mayor sat down with WEEKEND to talk education, town-gown relations and Salovey’s facial hair.
Q: After 20 years in the Mayor’s Office, you’re now working as a banker and professor. How are you finding the transition?
John DeStefano: You mean going over to the dark side? The private sector and the institutional sector after all these years in the public sector…it’s different. What’s nice about both is that in many respects they have their roots in my public service career. Doing New Haven and the American City, which starts Thursday, is very much engaging the public policy issues and politics of how you get things done in cities, and why cities are a special platform and incredibly beneficial and effective platforms to promote family, individual and community wellbeing. So I feel like I’m engaged in a lot of what I was doing for 30 years, working for the City, just from a different seat.
Q: How do you think teaching a class will be a new experience for someone who ran a city for 20 years?
JD: If I can figure out this shopping week stuff, I can figure out anything! It’s like organized chaos! And the lobbying that goes on, holy moly! It’s truly different. One of the things campaigning and electioneering allowed me to do was come into contact with a lot of young people who cared a lot about policy and issues and felt passionately about it. I think teaching a class will provide me with the same opportunity that I always enjoyed.
Q: What would you like your students to take away from your class?
JD: That anything is possible. That if you’re smart, if you work collaboratively, if you listen to people, cities can be wonderful platforms to grow possibilities and opportunities for people’s lives in America, particularly in an era of federal government that has left the playing field for so many issues. Even if you look at DeBlasio in New York, which has sort of come to exemplify this challenge of income redistribution, it’s funny in a way that 50 years ago it was viewed on a national platform, and now it’s localized — the city is seen as the platform to engage the issues.
Q: You’ve talked about how teaching at Yale is part of your initiative to keep connected and involved with youth, and you’re teaching at Southern Connecticut State next semester. Do you have any plans to work directly with New Haven Youth?
JD: No I do not, except to the extent to which [START Community Bank] has in the past and will continue to reach out to New Haven youth to help them see their self-interest in developing behaviors around finances and to develop financial literacy. So, in a narrow focus, yes — in the context of the mission of the bank.
Q: During your administration you emphasized investing in troubled youth, helping them deal with problems still very prominent in New Haven. Do you think that’s something you’d like to continue to pursue outside of the Mayor’s Office?
JD: [The bank and the professorship] allow me to affect people in a more intense, albeit narrower, way. The bad news is that you can’t get engaged in everything. That’s part of the trade-off. It was a trade-off I was ready to do.
Q: What do you see as Yale’s role in New Haven?
JD: I think there are two areas that make a lot of sense for the University to get involved with. One is promoting, supporting and being a platform for innovation and entrepreneurial businesses. Increasingly, New Haven has credentials as a knowledge-based community, it’s displaying nascent and growing entrepreneurial activity. I think the University, as a supplier of talent and as a partner self-interested in innovation as a research university could help create a much broader platform for those kinds of economic activities.
I think the second place has to do with violence. I think we do a lot of here-and-now interventions and policing. But I think at the same time, we need to do interventions that are much earlier. In the end, you have a consistent emergent pattern of violent behaviors in New Haven. If there’s anything I left office with a real frustration with is that you could keep it down but then it bubbles up. I think it’s because there are conditions that promote violence. I think a lot of them have to do with economics, lack of family structure and oppositional values in communities of poverty where isolation develops. The reason why I mention Yale in that context is that Yale is a clinical institution with faculty who are thought leaders in this. There are lots of places in the university that could provide clinical, mental health support for very young people to try to create diversions well before patterns of violent behavior get started.
I mention both those areas particularly because not only are they urgent New Haven needs and opportunities, but because they also reflect the strength and self-interest of the University, and what ought to exist at the heart of Yale and New Haven collaborations are mutual self-interest. It’s not enough [for Yale to invest in New Haven] just because it’s the right thing to do.
Q: What do you think of Yale undergraduates’ involvement in New Haven politics?
JD: I think Yale undergraduates are involved in a host of community activities, all within a very sharp spirit of community engagement. We all have responsibilities to each other, when we act in awareness of our responsibilities to one another; we build a stronger, healthier community, giving some purpose and meaning from that in our lives.
Q: What do you think of Yale undergraduates running for positions of political power in New Haven?
JD: There has been a long history of Yale undergraduates as elected officials, but it’s interesting when you say “positions of power” — frankly, I think people who accept ownership of teaching kids to read are in positions of incredible power. I think sometimes we short-sell the value and importance of healthy community-level and direct one-on-one engagement with other people. If there’s anything I hope I convey in the course, it’s very much that these one-on-one engagements make all the difference in the world. I happen to think that if you’re engaged in a great reading program, or helping some church building housing, or helping undocumented immigrants navigate their lives, you’re in a position of power.
Q: Let me clarify. What about actual positions of political office, not community outreach programs?
JD: Undergraduates are like everyone else. Some will run for office, some will serve on a democratic committee, and that’s fine. Frankly, in my 20 years as mayor I served with about 120 aldermen. It’s not just Yale undergraduates who are transient. It’s 75% rental housing stock in this town. Some people stay for a long time, some people stay for a short time. I don’t think it’s a problem. I don’t think it’s necessarily uncharacteristic of residents of this town. I just think it’s a very small part of the reality of the presence of Yale’s undergraduates.
There are people who come to New Haven from all over the world who little understand New Haven or have experiences like it, so I don’t think that Yale undergraduates are particularly different of these, of whom there are a lot, who come to New Haven for a period of time and then leave. One of my reasons for leaving after 20 years as mayor was that: you know what? Twenty years was enough for me and 20 years was enough for the city. Time for change. So I don’t think it’s a problem or particularly uncharacteristic of other folks in the city.
Q: What do you see as the greatest problem facing New Haven today? How do you think your administration dealt in tackling it?
JD: I think the greatest challenge is competitiveness in the workplace. It’s a fast-changing economy and a competitive environment. If you’re skilled and you’re bright and you’ve got a great work ethic, I think you can succeed wonderfully, and I think lots of people don’t succeed wonderfully. I think a big challenge for New Haven right now is making sure people who are here are prepared to compete in the economy. As best as we reasonably can, we should provide people with the tools and the resources to take advantage of that economy.
Q: In light of the new Harp-Salovey leadership, what lessons can be learned from the DeStefano-Levin era?
JD: I guess what I would hope is that the city understands that it can’t be a great city if Yale isn’t growing and thriving, and Yale recognizes that it can’t be the best possible place for faculty and students if it’s not in a healthy host city. What that really translates down to oftentimes is learning to disagree within bounds. You recognize that you are going to have disagreements and do that respectfully. It isn’t a Woodbridge Hall-City Hall relationship; it’s a much more textured and rich relationship.
Q: Now, the most important question: Would you support a campaign to bring back the famous Salovey ’stache?
JD: No, I like him clean-shaven! He doesn’t have anything to hide. Plus, he always has food stuck in it, so it’s really rather unattractive.