The summer after my freshman year of college, I read “Harriet the Spy” with my class of fifth-grade students from New Haven Public Schools. We kept spy journals where they observed their families, friends and neighborhoods — and sometimes me. (Sample observations: “Mr. Fish seems very hyper. Maybe he had a lot of sugar for breakfast this morning.” “Fish has a frat boy hair style. Has hair on his toe.”)
With my older students, I got to teach classes about peacemaking and social change. We chose issues in their neighborhoods that mattered to them — gun violence, discrimination — and talked about how peacemakers use narrative to tell stories of injustice, and how to identify the structural roots of these problems. We studied the rhetoric of MLK and Malcolm X, and they wrote emails to their alders and presented speeches to Mayor John DeStefano, Jr.
That summer was when I started to understand that working with youth was what gave me purpose — that’s why I stayed in New Haven the next summer to work as a preschool teacher, and that’s why I’m now looking at careers in education as I start to think about my life after graduation. Most importantly, that was when I stopped feeling like an outsider in New Haven and started feeling that it was my community, too.
I don’t think you fall in love with a city at first sight. It’s a gradual process of building relationships, developing a sense of responsibility to a place because of your passion for the people who live in it. That process can take many forms. For me, it happened through getting to know my students and their families, and knocking on doors for progressive candidates in New Haven’s neighborhoods. For others, it might mean working with a local activist group or joining a faith community.
When Yale students build these relationships with New Haven — and build them on a foundation of real understanding and dialogue with folks in the city — it’s better for everyone. An engaged Yale means more students working in the Elm City’s neighborhoods, not for a title or a resume line, but to support the work that community members are doing to build a stronger New Haven. It means more students advocating for our University to treat the city around it with respect. It means more students standing with Elm City residents in support of the progressive change we all want to see — real community policing, local hiring and living wages, opportunities for all youth — and, by participating, making the community coalitions in support of these policies even more powerful.
I’m running for alder because far too often, Yale students don’t venture beyond campus to build those relationships. The Ward 1 alder must challenge and change that dynamic.
This does not have to come at the expense of the Ward 1 alder playing an active role at City Hall. The tendency to frame Ward 1 alder races as a choice between a candidate more engaged at Yale and one more engaged in New Haven is destructive.
First, it furthers the divisive assumption that Yalies and New Haveners have divergent interests: Everyone wants to see a safe and thriving city.
Second, it assumes that the Ward 1 alder cannot be engaged both in Yale and New Haven at once. Every alder has a mandate to be active both at City Hall and in their own neighborhood. Not only that, but the Ward 1 alder can work with progressive campus organizations to mobilize students in support of the policies they and their colleagues are fighting for. Mike Jones ’11, for instance, is still remembered for bringing Yale students to work in City Hall as policy assistants who made important contributions. Engaging with Yalies in this way would better enable the Ward 1 alder to advocate for issues that affect New Haveners.
A Ward 1 alder who works to create a culture of citizenship and organizes students to work alongside New Haveners for the change we want to see will be better for Yale, better for New Haven and better for the relationship between the two. Many community leaders in New Haven, as well as countless Yalies, have supported my campaign because they believe that this is the kind of leadership we need from our alder. They know I have both the deep relationships in New Haven and the experience organizing Yalies to get involved in our city that this position needs.
New Haveners are already standing up to change our city for the better. Now, more Yalies need to get off the sidelines and stand with them.
Fish Stark is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College and a candidate for Ward 1 alder. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .