Freshmen entering Yale’s cultural centers for the first time this fall may be wowed by some of the newly renovated spaces, but veteran members of cultural organizations say that concerns remain.
Following an external consultation last December and several student-led discussions that spanned the spring term — both of which took issue with the University’s lack of attention to its cultural spaces — administrators in May promised to reaffirm the importance of Yale’s cultural spaces, both physically and more abstractly. Many of the more tangible changes materialized over the summer, with the hiring of three new directors for the centers and renovation of three of the houses.
Both La Casa Cultural and the Asian American Cultural Center are no longer filled with asbestos, and the live wires in the basement of La Casa have been removed. The AACC received a new paint job, flooring and lighting. A shared handicap ramp was installed for the AACC and La Casa, said AACC director Saveena Dhall, who called the new space “radiant.” The three new directors — which include Eileen Galvez, director of La Casa; Kelly Fayard, director of the Native American Cultural Center; and Risë Nelson, director of the Afro-American Cultural Center — also hold positions as assistant deans of Yale College.
But some students say these preliminary changes do not address deeper concerns about the cultural houses, including their remote locations. Additionally, few details have emerged about a promised increase in funding for the centers.
“We need to measure commitment not as an attitude but in the form of continued action and dialogue,” said Edward Dong ’17, co-head coordinator for the AACC. “We want to see the University recognize its students’ cultural lives not as baggage to be accommodated but rather as part and parcel of the growth and learning that takes place on this campus.”
For the Af-Am House, at least, a new dean seems to have made a significant difference. Paige Curtis ’16, the house’s head peer liaison, said Nelson’s appointment “definitely signifies that the centers are now a priority for the Yale administration.”
But for some of the other houses, these changes are only the beginning. Galvez said the renovations to La Casa make it a warmer place, but she added that they do not change the fact that the house is located on Crown Street, which many students consider to be the outskirts of campus.
Jessica Liang ’17 said the same about the AACC, for which she serves as co-head coordinator.
“While the [renovations] give the center a fresher appearance, that doesn’t change the fact that the AACC is still on the outskirts of campus and still retains its previous capacity,” Liang said. “There is still no implemented shuttle route to facilitate access to the center, nor has the 180-person cap been expanded at all to accommodate our community of about 3,800 Asian-American students.”
Additionally, Liang said, she has not received any details about the promised increase in funding for the center, which will support the hiring of a new graduate assistant.
LiLi Johnson GRD ’18, one of the AACC’s graduate student assistants, said that while the hiring of an additional graduate student will help divide the center’s work more evenly, the ideal would be to hire full-time staff whose sole responsibilities are at the AACC.
When interviewed in June, after their hirings were announced, all three new cultural house directors acknowledged that they were assuming their roles at a time when the cultural centers were the focus of much scrutiny. They all said conversations with students would guide their actions in the new year.
Galvez said it is still too early to tell what shape those actions will take, but she added that it will become more clear as students, especially freshmen, become more acclimated to campus.
“It’s difficult to ask a question, when you don’t know what you don’t know,” she said. “Time will tell as the new cultural center directors and I get acclimated, get to know stakeholders across campus and get embedded in the vibrancy found at Yale.”
Still, more work remains to be done. New furniture has been ordered for the two centers, but it has not yet arrived. It is set to arrive next month, although the centers will open for community use next week.