It’s been a productive couple of weeks for movements at Yale University.
On Tuesday night, the efforts of dozens of Yalies over the last month (and especially the last few days) were rewarded with Senator Barack Obama’s close victory in the Connecticut primary. The win was by no means inevitable: Obama’s margin of victory in New Haven constituted over a third of his margin of victory statewide, and was aided greatly by his 3:1 margin over Senator Hillary Clinton in Ward 1 (known around town as the “Yale ward”).
And just as student activists interested in national politics are recycling their voter lists and washing their Obama ’08 T-shirts for the first time in days, another kind of movement is picking up speed and the attention of various economic players in New Haven: The “Save the Doodle” movement, fueled mostly by Yale alumni and current students, in an effort to get the Yankee Doodle Coffee Shop to reopen the doors that “closed for good” last week.
The two movements have precious little in common on the surface, certainly — it would be hard to link the preservation of a New Haven landmark with a promised new era in American politics. But the way in which both of them have gotten undergrads involved is certainly noteworthy, and constitutes a pair of potent exceptions to the ways that Yalies take action. Usually, you see, movementarianism isn’t something we do.
It’s sort of a truism that Yale students are better at starting up than joining up. After all, we’re leaders — from the day we’re selected by the admissions committee to the day we graduate and take high-powered jobs in a variety of fields. (Some people, in fact, go into neither consulting nor i-banking — or at least that’s what I’ve heard.) And we define leadership as synonymous with taking initiative, using our Ivy-League-educated minds to develop successful strategies for single-handedly creating whatever we find lacking in the world around us. This is true for both macro- and micro-scale efforts: every fall, it seems, the News runs a feature on an intrepid group of freshmen starting another a cappella group or publication, which usually doesn’t survive to see the feature written on the next year’s startup pioneers.
Here is the flip side of our thirst for creating our own beginnings: Just as our individualist, strategically-driven energy is suited to our status as leaders, it reinforces our elitism and even egotism. The concept of a movement — something to which people are attracted to join as well as to create and driven by enthusiasm as well as calculation — is somewhat alien to our approach. We see it as unleaderly and, frankly, irrational; anyone can be guided by feelings, we think, and feelings don’t get things done.
In light of this, our excitement often meets with detached bemusement when we stop to think about what we’re doing. Plenty of hardcore Obama supporters admit when pressed that they believe Clinton could be a better president, and the Yankee Doodle business plan has come under well-deserved fire. But for once, it seems, we’ve gotten caught up not just in the literal consequences of our actions, but their evocative value. Yankee Doodle isn’t just a restaurant and Senator Obama isn’t just a candidate: the principles they symbolize — tradition and inspiration, respectively — are certainly things that Yale and Yalies value.
And, as we’ve discovered upon declaring these values, we’re not the only ones who hold them. Alumni no longer in New Haven have taken the lead in the effort to resurrect the Doodle, allowing the current Yalies by their side to express unity with our past and those who lived it. Meanwhile, the Obama campaign has allowed us to reach across the country, finding solidarity with fellow Americans and even pride (so rarely expressed on this campus) in America itself.
The next step in our efforts is determining how to contribute more than solidarity, to put our heads in service to our hearts and take the lead in helping the movements we follow. The Doodle still needs plenty of money, not to mention business acumen in enabling itself to reopen soon and stay that way, and the national media (and, to a lesser extent, the American public) remain unconvinced that there is more to the Obama campaign than the enthusiasm its rhetoric generates. If either of these movements are to succeed, they will need rank-and-file members to contribute intelligence and strategy — those gifts we Yalies have in abundance, but aren’t used to harnessing for something we haven’t thought of ourselves.
Let’s get to work.
Dara Lind is a junior in Berkeley College. Her column runs on alternate Wednesdays.