Last semester, the Dwight Hall executive committee approved the Yale Working Group for Occupy New Haven as a short-term project. The group, primarily comprised of Yale students, sought a physical meeting space and access to Dwight Hall’s resources, including cars and a copy machine, in its mission to promote discussion about economic inequality in America.
On the whole, the group utilized space in Dwight Hall about three times a month, said Alexandra Brodsky ’12, one of Dwight Hall’s 2011 co-coordinators, adding that the executive committee thought the working group’s goal fell within Dwight Hall’s mission.
But last year, under the purview of the same executive committee, Dwight Hall asked Yale Students for Christ and the Yale Christian Fellowship, who had reserved a room in the building, to move the location of one of their talks. The speaker in question, minister Christopher Yuan, is an alleged supporter of the “ex-gay” movement that seeks to reverse homosexuality in individuals. After discovering the speaker’s identity, the committee asked the event’s organizers if they would be willing to move the event elsewhere.
“We found Yuan’s homophobic message to be counter to the mission of Dwight Hall,” Brodsky said.
Yishai Schwartz ’13, a staff columnist for the News, noticed a disparity in the organization’s practices. In a January column, he questioned Dwight Hall’s exact mission and posited that it may be serving to promote a liberal agenda. The community service organization calls itself a “center for public service and social justice,” but, Schwartz noted, it is unclear what these terms truly mean given their wide usage.
“The diversity of those on the social justice train certainly does not help define the term,” he wrote, “but it does present fundamental challenges that should make thoughtful people nervous.”
On April 25, Dwight Hall will send its first-ever “Advocacy Bus” down to Washington, D.C., for the day so that various member groups can lobby for their causes.
In advance of the trip, the organization held a lobbying workshop on March 30, where students were instructed on how to prepare informational materials and reach out to their legislators.
As a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, Dwight Hall is forbidden from engaging in partisan political activity, such as supporting a bill or candidate. It is, however, permitted to allot up to 20 percent of its annual budget to nonpartisan direct lobbying activities.
According to Jensen Reckhow ’13, one of Dwight Hall’s current co-coordinators, direct lobbying is defined as any communication with a legislator expressing a view about specific bills.
“This is a very basic and clear-cut distinction,” said Alex Knopp, executive director of Dwight Hall. “Dwight Hall cannot be associated with any of the partisan political activities of our member groups.”
In addition to this upcoming organization-wide lobbying trip, Dwight Hall’s members include several traditionally left-leaning groups, such as Amnesty International, the Yale Student Environmental Coalition and the Roosevelt Institution.
A ‘LIBERAL CLIMATE’?
When the Occupy Working Group applied for short-term project status, Dwight Hall members agreed that the group’s mission was in line with that of Dwight Hall in that it promoted service and advocacy, said Aaron Feuer ’13, a member of the 2011 Dwight Hall executive committee.
“It was clear to all of us that whether or not we agreed with the Occupy New Haven cause, Dwight Hall’s job is not to be a political arbiter,” Feuer said.
The process of joining Dwight Hall is relatively intensive, said Leah Sarna ’14, Dwight Hall’s current new member coordinator. Members apply and then enter a provisional stage in which their group’s viability and devotion to service and advocacy are judged by the executive committee, she said.
A perceived institutional bias within Dwight Hall has led certain conservative organizations not to join for fear that they will not fit in, two student leaders said.
Isabel Marin ’12, the former president of Choose Life at Yale and co-founder of Undergraduates for a Better Yale College, said that she had never seriously explored the option of entering either of her organizations as a Dwight Hall member. The group’s “liberal climate,” she said, made her feel as though she would not be accepted even if her work qualified as social justice.
“Even with some idea of how Dwight hall would be able to help, there seems to be a barrier of entry in the culture they seem to have established,” she said. “They just don’t have that many conservative groups.”
Sarna said that she doesn’t think Dwight Hall itself is left-leaning, but that most of the groups who approach it happen to be liberal.
Moreover, some of the more controversial groups thought to be affiliated with Dwight Hall, such as the Undergraduate Organizing Committee, Students for Justice in Palestine and the Liberal Party of the Yale Political Union, are actually only affiliated with one of its networks, the Social Justice Network. Though the Social Justice Network was originally founded to strengthen ties between Dwight Hall member groups with similar interests, it offers its organizational resources to non-members as well, Reckhow said.
Still, some conservative groups at Yale are engaging in service without the official Dwight Hall designation.
Nathaniel Zelinsky ’13, president of the William F. Buckley Jr. Program and a former member of the Dwight Hall board of directors and trustees, co-sponsored an event this winter with Dwight Hall’s Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project. During YHHAP’s week-long sponsorship of a homeless shelter, the Buckley Program paid for and prepared one of the meals. Zelinsky said his group got involved because, as supporters of small government, they support a vibrant private service sector.
“Service is at its core nonpolitical,” he said. “It is something that, regardless of your political views, you can and should engage in.”
But Amalia Skilton ’13, founder of Fierce Advocates and former head of YHHAP, disagrees with the notion of apolitical service. She says that arguments over Dwight Hall’s liberal leanings are unnecessary because every issue-based group will pursue any and all available political means to achieve their service goals.
“Volunteering at a soup kitchen indicates a certain ideology, a certain moral stance, an understanding about how people should relate to one another and their different places in a stratified class system,” Brodsky said. “Dwight Hall members obviously don’t have identical ideas about how society should function, but everyone is nonetheless engaged with these questions.”
Dwight Hall was founded in 1886 as the Young Men’s Christian Association at Yale.
Correction: April 12
A previous version of this article contained several errors. Dwight Hall approved the Yale Working Group for Occupy New Haven as a short-term project, not a short-term member. Also, Nathaniel Zelinsky ’13 previously served on the Dwight Hall board of directors and trustees, not its executive committee. Additionally, the Liberal Party of the Yale Political Union is not a member organization of Dwight Hall; it is a part of Dwight Hall’s Social Justice Network.