Originally built in 1924, the Dixwell Community house, or “Q house,” received a $1 million donation from the state last May to renovate its decrepit interior. On Jan. 15, the News reported that Q House repairs stalled after a lack of funds. Nonetheless, Ward 22 co-chair Jeanette Morrison remains optimistic that the historic community center will soon make a comeback.
The opening of the Q House promises to offer a new opportunity for Yale students to serve New Haven. But before Dwight Hall begins to brainstorm how to bring Yalies to Dixwell, it seems an appropriate time to recall the true definition of charity and how we too often fall short of its standards.
Charity is selfless — you donate your time because you have a deep sense of service for your community. But many students donate their time with a patronizing mindset. Too frequently, Yalies serve the community with other motives in mind. The recipients of their work can often come away feeling insulted or dehumanized. Charity must not be paternalistic. Despite our place of privilege, we are equals to those we serve. Though they may benefit from your service, they are not dependent on you.
Last spring, I sat in on a Ward 22 committee meeting. The committee, which includes both Yale students and Dixwell residents, addresses local issues and politics. It was a peculiar arrangement. Yale students, many of whom sported expensively priced university apparel, sat on one side. Facing them across the table, the Dixwell locals appeared stone-faced. The meeting quickly grew contentious after one Dixwell committee member expressed that students should not have a stake in neighborhood affairs since they are not permanent residents. His sentiment hints at a larger problem in the city of New Haven: weak connections between temporary and permanent residents.
For its part, the University has long recognized the importance of cooperating with the city. Dwight Hall, founded in 1886, is the primary liaison between Yale students interested in service and the broader community. Every year, more than 3,500 students work through Dwight Hall on projects that range from eradicating homelessness to improving education in the Elm City, according to the organization’s website. But despite the large numbers of students who participate through Dwight Hall, I question whether it is truly heartfelt service. The nature of charity has partially changed as a result of the incentives that engender it.
These days, it’s expected for most college students to give. Thumb through the application brochure for the Yale Law School. There’s a whole page on how law students have the opportunity to interact with the community. It makes sense, then, that candidates would insert a list of charitable ventures to their application to get a foot in the door to graduate schools. Employers are correct in recognizing that service is a testament to the candidate’s virtue, diligence and other soft skills such as teamwork or leadership. As such, it grows harder every year to distinguish between those who give for the sake of giving and those whose philanthropy stems from other motives.
I see no fault in taking pride in service, but it saddens me to see heartfelt work translate into resume padding for ambitious Yalies. Not only can intentions be disingenuous, but I believe it feeds into the paternalism that is too often characteristic of community service in New Haven. It’s understandable that many residents voice the same frustrations that I witnessed in last spring’s Ward 22 meeting. The Dixwell resident at that meeting spoke to the feeling of being talked down to by well-meaning Yale students. Think about the wealth divide between the neighborhood of Dixwell and the Yale campus. With our Gothic spires and Barbour jackets, it’s easy to differentiate between Yalies and locals, even when we might brush shoulders while walking down Elm Street. While we accept our diplomas and move on to life’s next chapter, they stay, often as needy as when we first set foot on campus. The next generation of Yale students will then staff the deserted community service positions.
Of course, improved town-gown relations is not an overnight change. Charitable work is one of the best steps individual Yale students can take to enhance the University image. That being said, charity must be genuine. It must come from an understanding that compassion and altruism are the most essential ingredients of service. One should come home from a long day of community service and think not of it as “giving hours” but as gratifying work.
Nathan Steinberg is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at email@example.com.