Room, food tent, courtyard. Room, food tent, Dwight Hall, courtyard. Room, Dwight Hall, food tent, courtyard, food tent, room. For a week now, I have been in New Haven. Technically, I have been stuck in 4 acres of a city of 12,890. It feels weird to be in a place, but not to really be in it. It’s an unusual time though. Unprecedented. Unforeseen. New. Or is it? During the last year when I was free to move in New Haven, unconstrained by limitations of social distancing, I was also not in this city. I was only in a limited part of it that had been approved for student movement — the “right” side of the Green.
As Yale students, we live in New Haven for 4 years, but can we claim to be its residents? In a sense, yes. We occupy land, we breathe in the city’s air, we consume its services and we bookmark its location on our social media. In another sense, however, we are not its residents. All of our fee goes to a non-profit institution which is exempt from paying taxes. We rarely organize with the community, only occasionally dropping by Dwight Hall. And those of us who are American citizens register to vote in a city with whose residents we never speak. What does it mean to be a part of a city then — to be not only a Yale student but also a New Haven resident — for four years? How can we be responsible inhabitants?
According to Staughton Lynd’s book, Accompanying: Pathways to Social Change, the Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero was the first person to use the term accompaniment. Mutual accompaniment is a theory — or more accurately, a communal practice — which allows people to come together to fight for change and revolution. It is a mechanism for those of us with excess social and economic capital, to engage with the people around us, people we tend to ignore in the cyclical procession of our college days. Debbie Grisdale and Wes Maultsaid define accompaniment as “… listening to each other, learning together, supporting each other on steep and rocky paths, rejoicing in community and mutual respect and commitment for a long journey.” Archbishop Romero practiced accompaniment by speaking out against injustice, directed towards the poor in El Salvador, in his sermons, letters and radio shows. Most importantly, however, he walked with residents of El Salvador, listening to them, learning from them and offering his services based on what his community required.
Accompaniment is not charity, it is not service and it most definitely is not a mechanism of helping the poor. As Yale students, we often consider ourselves superior to local residents because of our educational pedigree. Our gait is haughty, a big white Y decorates every possible inch of our college bound bodies and we speak in an academic language which falls on confused “layman” ears. When we mobilize for New Haven, we perform work that is saviorism.
But New Haven has been here for far longer than we have. The city was alive and breathing before we came, and it will continue to be here after we leave. Mary Watkins in her book, Mutual Accompaniment and the Creation of the Commons, recognizes the harm that can be caused by outside intervention that occurs in a solution-based framework. She says, “when this [outside intervention] occurs, creative and transformative work that could have emerged from processes of dialogue and collaboration across differences in experience and knowledge is thwarted.” Paulo Freire calls this “cultural intervention,” an attempt to teach, transmit and give to a community as opposed to mutual learning.
What does accompaniment mean for us, as Yale students? It means remembering that it is not our role to enter into communities, identify problems and define and finance solutions. Instead, it is the people and communities living the cycles of injustice and oppression who have and should lead long-term efforts for structural change. Our role is to support the empowerment of and walk in solidarity with them. It does not mean consulting on how to spend our $200K+ club endowment for “social change” or engaging in Effective Altruism with nonprofit organizations working in the city.
As all of us return to campus over the next couple of weeks, or for those of us who are learning remotely, I hope we can be more conscious of the city we settle in and its people, and that we can accompany New Haven’s citizens in their efforts for change by walking with them, listening and learning.
IMAN IFTIKHAR is a sophomore in Morse College. Her column runs on alternate weeks. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .