At 8:15 on Sunday morning, the Party of the Left concluded its inaugural 12-hour charity debate-a-thon. For me, the appeal of the event was obvious — besides the average sleep-deprived revelry that you’d expect, ample donations were collected for Shelter Now, an organization for which I served as co-director and whose work, I believe, is critical to the homeless of New Haven.
The debate-a-thon was an assertion of relevance — a small step closer to fulfilling the Party’s mission to “bring discourse to the outside world, and the outside world to discourse.” To achieve our ideals, we, like any organization, need to talk and to act.
But despite their codependence, it is rare for debate and activism to merge in a single event like the debate-a-thon, and a sustained effort is required to keep us focused on both. Juxtaposing my own work these past two semesters, as Chair of the Party and previously with Shelter Now, it is striking to me how easy it is to become fixated on one at the expense of the other.
What if it works this way for everyone?
What if, for those devoted to debate, journalism, or a cappella in addition to activism, the latter is always limited by the former — a tragic trade-off that we tell ourselves isn’t really that tragic because service is freely given and therefore easily (and excusably) taken away?
This reality is daunting, but not inevitable. I happen to think that the Party of the Left and other organizations could have an easier time motivating their members to act if the body whose purpose is to facilitate activism and service — Dwight Hall — works consciously and furiously to put itself on everyone’s map and expand the culture that it commands.
I have two proposals.
First, we need more projects that can marshal support from all kinds of groups on campus — political coalitions, cultural houses, performance troupes, policy institutes, fraternities — and, for fasts and Old Campus sleep-outs, everyone. Beyond homelessness, there are plenty of issues that can take us by storm. What will be next? Public health? Education reform? Immigration reform? A responsible endowment?
Whatever the cause, Dwight Hall has the power and resources to strengthen it. Dwight Hall should offer one-time, ad-hoc campaigns the opportunity to apply for special funding, and it should provide a mechanism to support any such campaign that wishes to establish itself as a continuing project. For local issues with harvestable energy, it should put on the mantle of activist organization, crafting petitions, hosting rallies and panels and initiating local outreach and government lobbies. Beyond taking the lead on already existing causes, perhaps it can generate new ones.
Second, Dwight Hall needs to empower non-service groups to do service together. Community service is an easier sell when you can do it in the company of close friends — and particularly when it affords the opportunity to learn about new local agencies on the basis of flexible, even one-day commitment.
Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project’s budding “Moment of Service” program — an orchestrator of one-time events — provides just these things. Dwight Hall should follow its lead and extend the program to causes beyond homelessness. I see a day of service in every residential college every semester, and I see at least one event for every group not affiliated with Dwight Hall. Though our interests and priorities vary, service should be on everyone’s agenda.
In order to do what it traditionally does — provide accessible resources to service groups on campus, and ensure the development of its own long-term financial health — Dwight Hall needs to do more. It needs to stage a concentrated campaign to bolster its reputation as the place to go for service at Yale, and to create and expand the opportunities that it promises.
By supporting and even creating large-scale service campaigns, and by vastly increasing opportunities to get our hands dirty, Dwight Hall can declare loudly and authoritatively that there is no stronger leader of activism on campus.
And, by minimizing the space between campus community and outside world, it can make each of our lives a little bit more complete.
James Cersonsky is a junior in Timothy Dwight College.