Last year, the Dwight Hall leadership decided to invite Choose Life at Yale (CLAY) to apply for provisional membership status. As Co-Coordinator of the Student Executive Committee (ExComm), I was deeply involved in the decision and strongly supported inviting them.
To be clear, I support a woman’s right to choose; I have donated to pro-choice organizations and led one, Yale’s undergraduate American Civil Liberates Union. As my term at Dwight Hall ended in December, I was not involved with and cannot comment on the procedure of Wednesday night’s vote except to say that I trust my successors followed the bylaws of the hall. Nor was I able to vote on CLAY’s membership. Indeed, even if I had the opportunity, I am still unsure of how I would have voted. Yet the conversations that this campus has had over the past few weeks have reaffirmed our decision to invite CLAY to apply to Dwight Hall.
On Wednesday afternoon, I overheard two of my classmates talking about the upcoming vote. They were not debating abortion rights; they were both decidedly pro-choice. Instead, they were arguing about whether CLAY had a right to be in Dwight Hall at all. One took the position that any restriction of reproductive rights was counter to social justice. His friend then challenged him, saying that it was unfair of him to unilaterally decide what counted as social justice. She observed that according to their values, CLAY members’ work was advocacy and service. Her friend pushed back that regardless of their beliefs, their actions were oppressive and should not be condoned by Dwight Hall. No agreement could be reached before the professor started class.
I’ve been hearing and seeing similar conversations have been everywhere these past few weeks: in classrooms, in suites, on Facebook, across blogs and in the pages of newspapers, including this one. These conversations would have never happened without CLAY’s decision to apply for membership in Dwight Hall. Regardless of the vote’s outcome, we as a community needed to have this discussion about our definitions of service and social justice.
Pundits have long remarked that our generation’s involvement in community service is unprecedented. At Dwight Hall alone, 3,500 Yale student volunteers contribute more than 150,000 hours of service a year. Many of us plan to continue serving our communities after we leave Yale. Yet, despite our commitment to the public service and social justice that Dwight Hall stands for, we at Yale have not reached a consensus on what those terms mean.
I have always felt that Dwight Hall’s ExComm and professional staff cannot be the sole ones responsible for defining service. Nor will I be so bold as to offer a definition here. It is a matter best left to Cabinet, the assembly of Dwight Hall group representatives. Cabinet is after all the largest assembly of community service groups on campus. If anyone is qualified to grapple the question of what service means, it should be them. Indeed, it was Cabinet who ultimately rejected CLAY on Wednesday.
Dwight Hall’s mission is, “to foster civic-minded student leaders and to promote service and activism in New Haven and around the world.” The Hall does not exist simply as a conduit for service, but also to support student leaders by creating a space for dialogue about social justice and community service. That discourse is vital. The conversations are undoubtedly complicated, but by having this discussion, we will be better leaders, better voters, and better volunteers. We may not reach consensus, particularly on emotionally charged issues such as abortion. Nonetheless, we are better for trying.
We live in an increasingly polarized country. It is often far too easy to condemn those on the opposite side of the aisle as callous, naïve, intolerant or selfish. Yet, when we talk about service, we are forced to recognize our adversary’s values. At the very least, we need to concede that everyone is trying to improve the world, even if we disagree about what that means. I have very strong beliefs about social justice, but I am willing to concede I may be wrong. We are all fallible. We benefit from having conversations with those of different view than us. After all, these are our peers, classmates, and friends.
I want to encourage everyone to continue these conversations about our perspective on service. Wednesday’s vote may have served as a litmus test for the social justice and service community, but it certainly does not signal an end to the conversation. We must continue to grapple with these issues.
I also want to commend CLAY. They have been exemplary throughout the process, completing all the requirements of provisional membership status. They were warned that the process might end in failure, but they decided to move forward anyway. I disagree with their work, but their commitment to it is certainly admirable. I hope that CLAY will consider continuing a dialogue with Dwight Hall.
Will Redden is a senior in Davenport College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .