It’s important to say their names, because we should all know who they are: Dyshant Levi McLean and Tyree McCrea.
McLean and McCrea were shot and killed on Tuesday, Aug. 30 hours before the start of the fall term, on Dewitt Street in New Haven’s Hill neighborhood, a mile from Old Campus. They were the fifth and sixth people the city has lost to gun violence this year. While that statistic represents bittersweet success for a city that endured 34 homicides in 2011, it doesn’t make the abrupt loss of two young men, walking distance from one of the world’s wealthiest universities, any less tragic.
Yalies never heard about the double homicide. It happened too far from campus for Chief Higgins to email us, and, a week later, the News still hasn’t reported on it. So in our opening week of school, while we moaned about overcrowded seminars and the lack of available science guts, Mclean and McCrea’s families mourned their deaths.
This summer, I worked on education policy in West Virginia — a job that elicits cocked eyebrows from Yalies. I know Appalachia as the place my partner grew up, but for most Americans, it’s the butt of a national joke. The Daily Show has called it “creepy”; when West Virginia University’s football team scored 70 points, Jay Leno crowed, “They don’t even get that on their SATs!”
While my partner and I lived in West Virginia, one of the deadliest floods in decades tore through the hills, killing 23 people, destroying over a thousand homes and wiping out small towns. Six people died in our county, but only my grandmother called to check on us — none of our friends had heard about the flooding. As FEMA volunteers stormed the state, the national media was quiet.
Can you imagine if 23 people died in flooding on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, or if two young men were shot and killed outside Blue State Coffee? You would know about it. You’d probably donate money, go to a vigil, ask questions about why it happened or advocate to make sure it didn’t again.
Privilege gives us the luxury of forgetting about communities that are struggling —West Virginia, New Orleans, even The Hill neighborhood right in our backyard. We avoid deep engagement with these places and their challenges, clinging instead to myths, stereotypes and false narratives. We invent excuses to try and justify our unwillingness to work in communities of need: “I’m too busy.” “I wouldn’t be able to make any difference anyway.” “I’m privileged; it would be pretentious to work/volunteer in that community since I’m not from there.” Privilege is a silly excuse to avoid working in underprivileged communities, it simply compels humility if you do.
It’s insulting and disrespectful to willfully ignore communities that are struggling. Worse, it allows the ongoing neglect and outright extortion of those communities to continue unchecked.
When the country turned a blind eye to the West Virginia floods, few noticed the role that coal companies played in setting the stage: decades of mountaintop-removal mining had eliminated natural repositories that would have absorbed rain water, and toxic “coal sludge” worsened the damage and impeded recovery efforts. Without awareness and accountability, these mining practices will continue, and the next flood will be worse.
When we shield ourselves from the challenges that New Haven communities face, we put off difficult conversations about accountability and change. Yale, though it does a lot for the Elm City, can and must do far more for economically struggling New Haveners, considering its massive wealth.
If we were paying more attention to these places, we could speak up, using our privilege and power to draw attention and demand change. But we don’t. Instead, we turn our backs on injustice, and that makes us complicit.
Yalies say they believe in “leadership,” “citizenship,” “service.” Prove it. Be an active citizen in communities that need active citizens. Don’t talk about poverty from your swivel chair in a DC think tank, or put on a bow tie and give a gun-violence speech from the Yale Political Union pulpit. Work in New Haven’s schools, or the many programs that tutor and mentor kids from neighborhoods like The Hill. Protest alongside New Haveners speaking out against police brutality and wage theft.
Being a good citizen, and a good person, means you don’t opt-in to caring only about neighborhoods with picket fences and manicured lawns. You have to fight for the places that have been forgotten and bring them into the light.
Fish Stark is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .