“Suffrage” and “servitude” might sound old-fashioned, but they communicate the essence of past political and economic struggles. They are words that remind us of a time when only a few men could vote, and an entire race was prohibited from sharing in the fruits of their labor.
Today’s formulation for such rights, “voting” and “working,” make them sound like chores, not freedoms. Maybe that is why Americans have blithely stopped tending to their public life. We don’t vote or organize. We not only tolerate but invite massive economic inequality. We live in increasingly segregated communities. And it seems we like it this way.
Acclimating to your new suite, residential college and academic schedule will hopefully prove to be exhilarating, if not challenging. The University holds many interesting traditions and rituals that you are about to affectionately discover. For the next few years of your life, being a Yalie will probably play a central role in your life and identity.
It is my hope that you will also engage New Haven. Yale is the city’s largest employer. Yale’s students constitute approximately one-tenth of the city’s potential voters. The housing and retail needs of student life determine the intensity of gentrification. Every aspect of community life features a Yale alumnus, or perhaps even a student, trying to make a difference. In other words, what students do — how we vote, what kinds of economic choices we make, how we engage our downtown neighbors — really matters in charting the city’s direction.
The past decade has witnessed an unprecedented connection between official Yale and New Haven. The Yale administration has played a larger role in bolstering downtown development, encouraging homeownership and nurturing New Haven’s heralded biotech cluster. Students have also invested their talents into New Haven by starting businesses, creating non-profits and getting dramatically more involved in local politics.
For all of this progress, though, much remains to be done. A disappointingly high number of students continue to hold disparaging views of the city, never mind registering to vote or participating fully in community life. Few are involved in creating a more democratic economy through social action or by politicizing their choices as consumers. For too many, political and economic democracy is something to be endorsed in discussions, not in practice — and even less so in New Haven.
If anything, the Elm City is a wonderful place to start partaking in the duties bestowed by citizenship. This small city has made large contributions toward forging egalitarian citizenship. As you get acquainted with New Haven, you’ll notice the numerous memorials across the city commemorating the unusually high number of men who died to preserve the Union and end slavery during the Civil War. And the present-day struggles of New Haven’s vibrant unions, anchored by Yale Locals 34 and 35, are a reminder of the city’s rich labor history.
As a student, you can start to participate in citizenship’s duties by filling out a voter registration card. There are many wonderful ways to familiarize yourself with the city, things like picking up a book on New Haven’s history, taking a tour of the city, or just going for a walk. Involving yourself in New Haven’s community life is remarkably easy, with limitless opportunities to get involved through Dwight Hall, Yale’s Office of New Haven and State Affairs, and City Hall, of course.
Some might feel that there is little at stake in taking the opportunities and duties of citizenship seriously. After all, why should you care about what happens in New Haven, especially since you’ll be leaving relatively soon?
City Hall and the Yale administration, for example, make decisions every day that affect student life, such as who manages the dining halls, how much you pay for a parking ticket, how quickly a residential college gets renovated, whether students can ride their bicycles on the street, and to whom students can complain if they feel the police treat them poorly. It’s in your own interest to ensure the right decisions are made.
Perhaps more importantly, it is by actually using our rights as citizens that we secure the equality our rights implicitly cherish. Thirty years ago, Yale’s campus was learning to accept the equality of African-Americans, women and Jews. Around that time, with the help of the federal government, it also became easier for students from low-income backgrounds to pay for an Ivy League education.
These changes were the result of determined citizens who used whatever rights they had to foster fuller equality. In all likelihood, these social changes have allowed your talent and gifts to earn a spot at Yale, whereas in 1969 that wouldn’t have been the case. Advancing, if not preserving, the egalitarian legacy of these changes will require you to utilize your rights. While New Haven might not be your home forever, it is, like Yale, a place where your learning begins, and therefore where your experiences with the arts of citizenship can first see light.
As a member of Yale’s newest class, you might feel bullied by the overwhelming nature of your frosh year to overlook your duties of citizenship beyond keeping a tidy common room. According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, you are now a resident of New Haven. Whether you choose to be a citizen of the Elm City is up to you. I hope you will.
Julio Gonzalez ’99 has served as Ward 1 alderman since 1997. He is Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s re-election campaign manager and will not seek re-election in the fall.