On a night when many expected heated debate on policy issues, discussion between Ward 1 alder candidates Sarah Eidelson ’12 and Ugonna Eze ’16 at the aldermanic debate Wednesday evening instead centered on one simple question: What role should Yale students play in New Haven?
The debate, which was hosted by the News in a packed LC 101, featured questions on issues ranging from homelessness and unemployment to how Yale students engage with the city. Throughout the night, Eze and Eidelson expressed few policy differences. The two hold similar positions on fossil fuel divestment, the student income contribution and homelessness in the city.
But their divergences surfaced during discussions of the roles Yale students and the Ward 1 alder play in New Haven. As the debate drew to a close, Eidelson called on Yale students to project a better image of themselves into the city and remember that they, too, are residents of New Haven.
“I think that, for the most part, New Haven residents tend to have fairly low expectations for Yale students, and I think that they tend to expect us to come into a conversation thinking that we’re better than we are,” Eidelson said. “We are New Haven residents already, and we make choices every day, political or not, of what kind of neighbors we’re going to be … we ourselves can have better lives by being part of this city.”
Eze disagreed. He said New Haven residents do not have low expectations of Yale students, citing his experiences at Lyric Hall, a theater in Westville, during the Dwight Hall Day of Service. Eze said the owner of Lyric Hall said the Yale students’ work has been integral to his business.
Though Eze warned against Yale students adopting what he called the “savior complex” at the University, he said they should still be involved in New Haven.
Throughout the debate, Eze outlined how he would spark this community engagement among students as alder. Highlighting his involvement with groups such as the Hip-Hop Collective, Eze said he would reach out to groups who might otherwise be uninterested in politics and involve them in the city in other ways. Additionally, he referenced his collaboration with a small group of engineers at Yale who launched a mentorship program for young women and minorities in New Haven public schools who are interested in STEM. He added that he would encourage Yale students to support city administrators using their research skills. He said students could crunch data for the Board of Education, investigate causes of unemployment in the city and work with homeless shelters to provide essential services.
Eze said that he is better positioned than Eidelson to encourage students to venture beyond the “Yale bubble.” He criticized Eidelson for what he described as a lack of involvement on campus, arguing that her disengagement contributes to the divide between Yale and New Haven. A key role of the Ward 1 alder, Eze said, is to meet with city officials and nonprofits, identify how Yale students can help the city and coordinate this engagement at Yale.
Eidelson defined the position slightly differently, stating that the role of the Ward 1 alder -— like the role of all 30 of the alders — is to build relationships with city leaders and organizations.
“That’s about more than just having a set of meetings with people,” she said. “That’s about committing to them, about being a partnership in this struggle.”
Eidelson said Yale students have proven instrumental in bringing about change in the city, citing the critical role Yale students played in pushing for high school students to sit on the Board of Education. She added that Yale students can and should “[press] and [hold] the University to a higher standard.”
One of the starkest policy-related distinctions between the candidates centered on how to address the high unemployment rate among black and Latino residents of New Haven.
Eze responded first, stating the issue should be examined “holistically.” He said that, as alder, he would push for programs that expand employment opportunities. But he said he would also aim to combat structural barriers to employment, such as high illiteracy rates and poor public schools. He said he would work with advocacy organizations such as Literacy Every Day and New Haven Reads to improve literacy in the city — a pledge he has maintained throughout his campaign.
In contrast, Eidelson said education might play some role in unemployment, but that the roots of the problem lie elsewhere. Yale and other employers in New Haven, she said, need to “step up” and hire more New Haven residents.
In a direct response to Eze’s comment, she said it is “disrespectful to suggest that New Haven residents can’t get jobs because they can’t read.”
Eze, electing to use one of his two rebuttals after Eidelson’s response, said his comment was based on a recent study commissioned by the Board of Alders, and restated his desire to investigate the city’s structural barriers to employment.
“If we’re not willing to have these conversations that talk about the structural barriers that exist to employment in New Haven, I don’t think it’s just enough to look at Yale’s role,” he said.
Eidelson’s restated her wish to see Yale contribute more to the city several times throughout the debate. In response to a question about how Yale can involve itself more in city improvement, she said the University’s current level of financial contribution to the city is too low and suggested it should increase. Eze struck a similar tone, saying the Board of Alders should look more closely at Yale’s financial impact on the city.
Ward 1 residents can vote in the Nov. 3. general election at the New Haven Free Public Library on Elm Street.