In the debates over the current status of town-gown relations and student voice within the University, various perspectives have been articulated as to how students can most genuinely engage the New Haven community or address concerns like financial aid reform and the need for a racially and ethnically diverse community.
Recently, we’ve seen the decline of an organizing model employed by leaders of United Students at Yale that confuses and conflates the roles of Yale workers who earn a living through their employment here with students who have willfully, often eagerly, chosen to study here. This model also attempts to steer other campus organizations towards the agenda that USAY deems as more “effective” and to play down the fact that the initial idea for their group came about through meetings with the union leadership a year and a half ago.
Meanwhile, the column by Sarah Weiss ’05 (“Can undergrads really solve New Haven’s problems?” 2/20) includes lofty exhortations for students to bridge the town-gown divide. But it is not the place of Yale students to “teach” West Rock residents how to resolve conflicts, especially if, as Weiss indicates, most students here come from “well-off suburban prep schools.”
It will take more than cleaning parks or collecting old clothes to build a productive relationship between the city and Yale students. It will also take more than “giant festivals” to break down racial divisions within Yale. I disagree with her claim that the problem lies with the “pressure” that cultural organizations place on students of color to join their efforts.
Certainly, Weiss would not suggest that other campus organizations, like a cappella groups or sports teams, relent from actively recruiting new freshmen. Perhaps one day she will understand that the cultural organizations and orientation programs like Cultural Connections provide important ways for minority students to find others of similar backgrounds and cultures and to discover a place within an atmosphere at Yale that can at times be elitist and alienating.
While I think the efforts of USAY leaders and the sentiments of individuals like Weiss may be well-intentioned, they do not acknowledge other paths that Yale students have taken to create progressive change and build real town-gown partnerships.
I’m proud to serve as Democratic co-chair in Ward 7, which includes Davenport and Pierson Colleges and portions of Downtown and the Dwight, and Hill neighborhoods. I hope that this year more students in Ward 7 will join our ward committee and help in the ongoing task of building a progressive, grass-roots Democratic Party in New Haven.
What I hope to see come about in the ward is a diverse, enthusiastic leadership team that can support progressive candidates and make meaningful contributions to the way the city faces its challenges. In past years, students have joined community activists and elected officials to engage important issues.
Students have earnestly tried to learn about and organize around such issues as Empowerment Zone funding, living wage campaigns, anti-poverty referendums, and local alternative energy possibilities. In 1999, students and labor activists worked to defend Esther Armmand’s aldermanic seat from the divisive candidacy of a Pierson student. In 2001, we supported the campaign of our Alderwoman, Dolores Colon ’91, a hard-working elected official and a longtime union leader. Many Yale students volunteered for Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s 2001 reelection campaign, led by former Ward 1 Alderman Julio Gonzalez ’99.
Some of us spent the entire summer working in New Haven’s wards with both veteran Democratic activists and newer, younger faces energized by the kinds of issues and policies that we were talking about. Today, students are contributing time and energy to the visionary candidacy of Rev. David Lee for a seat on the Yale Corporation. When Rev. Lee wins, it will be an important step forward in the town-gown relationship.
Also, long-term fellowships allow work-study students to work at community organizations and city agencies. Through the collaborative work being done at these various organizations, including Junta for Progressive Action, Life Haven, and All Our Kin, and through innovative programs like Umoja, students are applying their skills to concrete problems and making a difference in substantial ways.
Others are working very hard to support ward chair candidates who want to build active grass-roots leadership in their struggling neighborhoods. The election of more progressive Democratic ward chairs will mean a lot for promoting substantive policies that address the needs of working families in the city.
These efforts, carried out jointly by students and residents, have had lasting impacts on New Haven. Yale students with commitment and energy who are interested in more than cursory interactions with community members or lengthy weekly meetings about rhetoric, slogans, and petitions have much to contribute to the future of this city.
Victor Corona is a junior in Davenport College.