Eric Wang

The Yale College Democrats hosted a panel with New Haven community leaders on Wednesday night, part of the group’s larger effort to expand its engagement with the city.

The panel brought together three alders — Ward 1 Alder Hacibey Catalbasoglu ’19, Ward 8 Alder Aaron Greenberg GRD ’18 and Ward 22 Alder Jeannette Morrison — as well as Paul Bass ’82, editor of the New Haven Independent, and Wally Hilke LAW ’18, a leading advocate for a civilian review board in New Haven. Over the span of an hour, the five panelists shared entertaining snippets of their daily life, discussed major projects they will be working on in the coming year and offered advice to Yale students about meaningful engagement with local communities.

Dems Communication Director Ananya Kumar-Banerjee ’21 said the panel was conceived and organized by the group’s newly formed city engagement team. Established just before the election season last fall, the team embodies one of the Dems’ major initiatives — to encourage student participation in local affairs.

“That doesn’t mean that we are going to neglect the importance of national politics, but we are hoping to find other ways to create changes on the local level,” Kumar-Banerjee said. “Part of this is to engage with local legislators and community leaders.”

The panel, moderated by the Dems’ City Engagement Coordinator Kaley Pillinger ’21, began with the five speakers sharing their daily routines. The three alders, in particular, shed light on many common misconceptions people hold about their lives. Morrison noted that many are shocked to find that alders receive only $150 a month in compensation.

As the panelists transitioned to describing their work in the coming year, Hilke discussed the effort he is leading to create a civilian review board that will hold the police accountable for misconduct. Started in 1997 by Emma Jones, whose son was killed by a police officer, local advocacy for a civilian review board has yet to fulfill its vision even though voters amended the city charter to call for such a board in 2013.

Hilke said he believes the civilian review board should have the ability to subpoena key evidence and conduct independent investigations into complaints.

“There have been real clear cases of officers’ misconduct where they have completely gotten away with it [in the absence of a civilian review board],” Bass concurred.

Morrison commended Hilke’s effort and said the Board of Alders will continue soliciting input from local communities on the issue. She disagreed, however, on the issue of subpoena power, noting that many community groups are opposed to the idea.

Morrison also discussed her efforts to reopen the Q-House, a community center in Dixwell that, after running for almost 80 years, was closed in 2003 due to financial constraints. Following six years of advocacy, the state agreed in 2016 to appropriate $15.5 million toward rebuilding the Q-House. Scheduled to reopen next fall, the new Q-House will include a library, a senior center, gyms and GED classrooms, among other features.

“The Q-House served as a place where families can go to adjust to the community,” Morrison said. “When Q-House closed down in 2003, that was devastating for not just Dixwell but [New Haven].”

The panel members also offered advice to Yale students on effective engagement with local communities. Drawing on his own experience, Catalbasoglu said that while an internship in Washington, D.C. — involving little more than running errands and sorting mails — may help to polish resumes, the best ways to make a tangible impact lie at the local level, such as the advocacy for a civilian review board in New Haven.

Bass suggested that Yale students adopt a humbler attitude toward the city. Instead of trying to condescendingly “educate” New Haven, he said, Yale students should actively get involved in community organizations around the city and learn from different people.

“You are trained at Yale and run the world, but don’t go out there and try to run New Haven,” Bass said.

Malcolm Tang | jiawei.tang@yale.edu