Yalies live in and interact with New Haven for at least four years, sometimes more. Sadly, during that time, many Yale students never regularly venture more than three blocks beyond Yale in any direction. Many of those same students will be active in Dwight Hall, engaging in “community service” while carrying Mace — real or emotional — into the places where they perform that service.
Even as those students truly hope to help other people, they see their own feelings about New Haven as separate from the work they do there. Such thought and behavior warps the real meaning of community service and often insults the communities being served.
As members of the Class of 2005, you have many exciting opportunities and choices ahead of you. I’m here to encourage you to make a very important one: Please get to know the community in which you live, whether or not you do community service, but ESPECIALLY if you choose to do so.
Other articles in this issue may tell you about the many opportunities New Haven has to offer; it’s not my role to convince you that New Haven is great (though it is). As someone who has devoted much of her college career to community service and activism, however, I hope to share one of the most useful lessons I’ve learned while at Yale.
This school is rightly proud of the number of students on campus who are tutors or activists; the passion and commitment of people here has taught me and inspired me more than I could ever express. Yet community service, here and elsewhere, is inherently more meaningful (and less potentially debasing) when it is grounded in a sense of civic-minded-ness — in other words, when you see yourself as part of the community in which you are working, as opposed to “serving” a community that is foreign to you.
I don’t mean to imply that you should limit your community service activities to your hometown or to Yale or even to the Greater New Haven area; most sweatshop activists here fight Yale clothing policies out of a genuine belief that their actions and buying habits are inextricably tied to the quality of life of workers in Third World countries. But if you walk into a New Haven public school and tutor a third grader because you feel bad for her or because you think that community service is something people “should do,” you are probably much more insulting than you are helpful.
At the Freshman Bazaar in September, hundreds of energetic students will try to get you involved in their activity or cause. There, and at the Dwight Hall open house a few weeks later, you should definitely take the time to explore the myriad community service opportunities available to Yale students, ranging from groups that teach creative writing in schools to groups that fight against Yale’s labor policies. But as part of your many choices at the beginning of freshman year, please also take the time to let yourself feel attached to other people and to a place — especially New Haven, the “overlooked home” of many Yale students.
One great opportunity to do so is a trip called CityScape, a one-day tour of New Haven run jointly by Dwight Hall, Yale’s Center for Public Service and Social Justice, and the Yale Office of New Haven and State Affairs. CityScape is a heck of a lot of fun — you get free food, a great sense of the city, and the company of other energetic freshmen. If you don’t see the sign-up sheet at the Frosh bazaar, just show up — some freshmen will inevitably sleep too late and miss the trip!
Whether or not you go on CityScape, you should feel free to contact upperclassmen who have spent a lot of time working in New Haven and thinking about New Haven issues (I am always happy to take people around some of my favorite sites in this city, and I know many other upperclassmen who feel the same).
You should also feel free to explore New Haven by foot or by bus. The city is very walkable, and CT Transit can take you almost anywhere else you need to go for only one dollar. I call New Haven home, but that is much easier to do now that I know the neighborhoods and have been up and down every street.
The world can be an overwhelming place at times, and New Haven — like any other city or town in this country — is no exception. Yet Mace, whether real or emotional, is a wonderful way to keep yourself from ever having to understand other human beings and other lives — part of the point of community service.
So please — go on CityScape. Explore New Haven on foot. Register to vote here — New Haven is a small city, and your vote really does matter. When you do so, your community service will become much more meaningful — both for you and for the people with whom you are working.
Shayna Strom ’02 is a former co-coordinator of Dwight Hall’s Executive Committee. She has worked with various community-oriented organizations on campus.