Have you ever written an angry letter that you never sent?
That was me after reading a column in the News last spring (“You can’t make Yale care,” March 26, 2014). The author argued, in short, that trying to motivate a “student body that is largely apathetic towards New Haven is, and will continue to be, a fruitless endeavor.” I had my online comment all ready to go, pointing out how active Yale students are in the Elm City, but friends (wisely) convinced me to seek a better venue for a rebuttal. Instead, I decided to wait for Yalies to prove me right over the next semester.
I think most would agree that students have long been involved in New Haven through service organizations in Dwight Hall, doing incredibly valuable work. At issue here, though, is whether Yalies are willing and able to take direct action in politics or activism in the Elm City. So, a semester later, here’s how it went.
In September, student activism led to a great victory for labor rights at Gourmet Heaven. While there is surely more work to be done, Yalies played a huge role in the progress made so far. In a column in the News, Megan Fountain ’07, an organizer with Unidad Latina en Acción, gave credit to the student-organized boycott as a critical part of the movement for wage fairness. According to Evelyn Nuñez ’15, moderator of El Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA), the weekly GHeav protests drew crowds of up to 50 students. At stake was not some national issue or federal law, but rather the livelihood of local community members many of us have come to know. Yale students cared enough to get successfully involved in a New Haven cause.
In October, College Street was thronged with students and workers from across the city standing for graduate students’ right to a union. Yalies of all stripes — from committed organizers to first-time participants — took action on an issue of local labor fairness, as discussion of the Graduate Employees and Students Organization’s rally and movement spread across campus. Again, Yale undergraduates made their voices heard on an issue that only indirectly affected them, but which they knew was of great importance to members of the New Haven community.
In November, even without a big-ticket presidential race, over a thousand Yalies voted in New Haven. While the simple act of voting is only the first step toward caring about one’s community, it’s still telling that so many Yalies felt connected enough to local Connecticut issues to cast a ballot. In fact, a hundred or so students gave up part or all of their day to volunteer to get voters to the polls — not even counting the many more who volunteered in the months beforehand. These canvassers, who worked not only on campus but also in Dixwell, Dwight and downtown, were just as likely to cite local issues, like New Haven’s Q House or Connecticut’s health insurance exchange, as big, national issues.
In December, hundreds rallied in protest of police brutality right here in New Haven. Of course, the news from Ferguson and Staten Island spurred many to take action on what is truly a national problem. But look what happened after the walkout on Cross Campus: Students marched to City Hall in order to protest New Haven’s “Surge” program of police intimidation. At a demonstration on the Green later that week, many students joined with community activists and local youth to express anger over cases of injustice close to home, like Jewu Richardson’s. And even in the middle of finals period, I was proud to have joined a group of students who testified for greater police accountability before the Board of Alders’ Public Safety Committee.
Yalies have thus been active in city affairs like never before. Of course, this is all just the beginning of how Yalies can get involved in New Haven. With municipal elections coming up in November, I expect the trend of student involvement in the Elm City to continue further. Still, I’m under no misconceptions that every single person on campus will be marching or volunteering or voting to make New Haven a better place. Nonetheless, the past semester proves that it’s not just a “small segment of campus” that cares about this city, as the column I read last year claimed. In 2014, Yale did care. Let’s keep it up in 2015.
Jacob Wasserman is a junior in Saybrook College and a Ward 1 co-chair. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.