The long-standing tradition of a Yale undergraduate holding a seat on the city’s Board of Aldermen is unique, valuable and under appreciated. Since one in every 25 New Haven residents is a Yale undergraduate, it makes democratic sense that a student should be counted among the Board of Aldermen’s 30 members. Traditionally, this niche has been filled by electing an undergraduate to serve as alderman of New Haven’s Ward 1, a constituency primarily made up of Yale students living in eight of the residential colleges. Above all, this practice provides an incredible opportunity for students to take an active role in defining the relationship between our university and our city.
For example, Josh Civin ’96 introduced New Haven’s living wage ordinance, which has made a real difference for the city’s working poor. Then Julio Gonzalez ’99 helped break up the taxi system monopoly in New Haven, improving working conditions for drivers. And Ben Healey ’04 introduced the city’s domestic partnership plan — which, though it failed by one vote, ignited a major city debate over gay rights.
The lesson I take away from the history of our ward, then, is this: On one hand, being Ward 1 alderman makes a student an effective agent for change, because it provides a platform for introducing legislation and engaging the city. On the other hand, being a student makes a Ward 1 alderman an effective leader, because students are able to tap into the ideas and energy of other students in taking on issues we all care about.
To be effective, though, an alderman must have the will and the vision to reach out to the whole student body and do the hard work necessary to make the changes students want to see. This is why I’m so glad that Rachel Plattus is running. Through my work with the Yale College Democrats and the Roosevelt Institution, I’ve had the privilege of working with Rachel on just that kind of change.
Rachel was just re-elected registrar of voters for the Democrats after leading a broad-based effort that registered over 400 students to vote in the 2006 midterm elections, an effort which resulted in record turnout in our ward. At the same time, Rachel also registered high-school students in New Haven as a Dwight Hall public-school intern. This is precisely the sort of experience and commitment — reaching out to people on both sides of Phelps Gate and involving both groups in the practice of democracy — that will make her an effective alderwoman.
I’ve also gotten to know Rachel through her leadership in the Roosevelt Institution, where she is the co-chair of the Public Health Center. Her work with Roosevelt has ranged from a technical analysis of the consequences of state mandates on the provision of health insurance to the development of a health literacy survey to improve understanding of the gaps in New Haven’s public education system. More generally, Rachel has been a powerful and effective voice in encouraging Roosevelt to focus on concrete issues that affect our city.
Rachel’s latest initiative, which brings together Roosevelt, the College Democrats and New Haven Action, focuses on improving education in New Haven. Especially in light of Rachel’s work at Conte/West Hills, a local elementary school, I’m excited to see how this project develops in the coming weeks. Knowing Rachel, I believe this initiative has the potential to get involve many students in a crucial issue facing the city and change education in New Haven for the better.
The tradition of a student alderman in Ward 1 is something Yale students can be proud of, because for many years engaged student aldermen were leaders on the board who brought positive changes to our city. It is a tradition we ought to restore, and Rachel Plattus is the woman to do it.
Alexander Bartik is a junior in Timothy Dwight College.