We need to bridge the Yale-New Haven divide.”
Chances are, even if you are just a few weeks into your freshman year, you have already heard some version of this statement, be it through students, administrators or representatives of extracurricular groups. It is the rare phrase that has gained widespread currency on a campus as politically polarized as this one — completely uncontroversial and intuitive on its face.
Perhaps this is because of the statement’s limited implications. Although there are many valid interpretations of what the “Yale-New Haven divide” actually is — a problem of perception, or of Yalies’ lack of community involvement — they all concern the responsibilities of students. This subtext fails to address the institutional role that this University plays in the city it calls home.
This is not to imply that we shouldn’t constantly re-examine our cultural assumptions as members of a gated community, or that we should ignore our position and implicit biases when we engage with New Haven. It is, in fact, extremely important that we do this, by establishing better dynamics with the people and communities who are going to be here long after we graduate.
The danger lies in believing that this kind of engagement is enough. Here is where the language of the “divide” fails to measure up: It only describes, and can only describe, a cultural phenomenon.
Institutionally speaking, there is no Yale-New Haven divide. Yale is the city’s largest employer and its biggest taxpayer. Its development projects, such as The Shops at Yale, can have severe consequences for local residents and small businesses. Moreover, it is worth remembering that the names on campus buildings aren’t just visible to us, but to residents as well. There is substantial overlap between Yale and New Haven, and our status as students gives us a tangible opportunity to address the issues which arise from it.
Take, for example, the Yale New Haven Hospital. It came under substantial pressure last December to hire more New Haven residents — especially black and Latinx residents, who face an unemployment rate in this city that is around double that of their white counterparts. Groups from across the student body, including Students Unite Now and Local 33, joined forces with Yale unions and the grass-roots organization New Haven Rising. In a powerful display of solidarity, they marched across town and staged a sit-in, pushing the University to do better on this front.
Or take the New Haven-based group Unidad Latina en Acción, which on almost every Friday of this academic year has been staging protests against the name of Calhoun College. They remind us that the “Yale Bubble” isn’t nearly as impermeable or clearly defined as we might imagine it to be. The ways the University occupies physical as well as economic space matter.
When we show up to these events and leverage our power as students, we make a difference. To focus our efforts solely on community service or issues of perception is to lose sight of wider questions of political engagement. These are the questions that implicate the institution we call home. They might be less obvious, but they are no less meaningful. Only when we develop politics that take Yale’s institutional responsibilities seriously will we truly bridge the gap of trust that exists between Yalies and New Haven’s long-term residents.
I do not mean to disparage the work that many Yale students are already doing in the community, whether through organizations like the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project, the Yale Undergraduate Prison Project or any of the other initiatives that seek to make New Haven a more equitable place to live in. But it is extremely important that we do not give Yale a free pass in our time here. It is time to stop talking only about divides, and to start talking more about the consequential, if often invisible, interactions that occur between Yale and New Haven every day.
Henry robinson is a sophomore in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .