Eric Wang

Dwight Hall, the stately original Yale library at the center of Old Campus, usually serves as a hub for community service and social justice. This year, however, coronavirus testing capsules have taken over its common room and packages for Old Campus residents fill its library.

With a mission to connect Yalies to community service and social justice opportunities in New Haven and around the world, Dwight Hall emphasizes student contact with Elm City groups and residents through programs like FOCUS on New Haven, Urban Fellows and the Yale Prison Education Initiative. Since March, however, staffers and students have been forced to pivot towards virtual service work. The center has also founded a suite of new programs and guidelines in response to the pandemic. Now, the goal is to make sure that the first-year class gets involved in Dwight Hall activities despite the lack of in-person service opportunities.

“It’s been a strange combination of incredibly long days stuck at home and planning around so much uncertainty,” Executive Director Peter Crumlish DIV ’09 said about leading Dwight Hall since the coronavirus started to affect daily life in March. “We were essentially three-quarters of the way through the year. We were mostly focused on wrapping up the year effectively and I was really impressed with the way students and staff pivoted so quickly to not only meet their obligations and their goals, but also to rise to the challenge of all of the new demands.”

University President Peter Salovey’s announcement about the suspension of in-person classes forced Dwight Hall to move its annual day of service in April online. After some quick changes to the programming, 58 volunteers worked for six different nonprofits across the region. 

However, because member groups did not completely spend their allocated budgets at the end of last semester, Dwight Hall was left with surplus funding. So, over the summer, the Hall’s student executive committee, or ExComm, voted to reapportion parts of its Campus & Community Fund and its discretionary budget to launch the Operation Chromebooks Campaign, which eventually provided Google Chromebooks to 228 New Haven public school students.

In advance of the fall semester, the center also drew up a set of guidelines for Yalie engagement with the New Haven community. The guidelines are meant to mitigate the potential harm caused to the community by in-person service opportunities. 

Despite the ongoing pandemic, Dwight Hall has created a host of new programs to broaden funding opportunities and connect with the Yale community. A new podcast, called Elm City Speaks, will drop next month and the center is taking applications for its new Civic Allyship initiative aimed at redirecting organizing resources to New Haven community leaders and marshal the support of students into local organizing movements.

In addition to their new programming initiatives, Dwight Hall is launching two new fellowship opportunities this year. Firstly, the Hall aims to provide funding to students already working with local organizations so that they can continue their work through the Community Response Fellowship to help community partners respond to the ongoing crisis. Secondly, after a community survey found that many students working from home were taking on a lot of family responsibilities, the center will provide funding for those students that are working to take care of their families this year through the Family Support Fellowship.

Outside of trying to reorient existing opportunities and funding for students involved with Dwight Hall, leadership is also focused on making sure first years become familiar with the center’s work.

“Usually first years are on Old Campus and get to see Dwight Hall a lot and it’s visible and center,” Dwight Hall Co-Coordinator Daud Shad ’21 said in an interview with the News. “The main thing we’ve been thinking about is making sure the class of [2024] is engaged in service just because we don’t want to miss out on a year with gaps in our different programs and [miss] out on connections with the New Haven community. That’s really important going into the next three years and beyond.”

So, the center sent a welcome letter to each first year and conducted a survey of their interest in Elm City service opportunities. The survey, which received 147 responses, found that the two most popular forms of service were direct service, like park cleanups, and research on behalf of local nonprofits. Respondents were most motivated to do service by their passion for the cause, its alignment with their own personal values and a desire to support the New Haven community. In addition, the three issue areas that received the most interest were Education and Literacy, Children and Youth and Human Rights.

Internally, only Crumlish comes into the building once a week to check the mail as staffers continue to work remotely and student leaders are sprinkled across the country. Shad said that attendance remained high at regular ExComm meetings and Johnny Scafidi ’01, Dwight Hall’s director of Community Outreach & Engagement, said that the center is finding new ways to build community over Zoom with staffers and students.

Scafidi also noted that alumni engagement remains high as the center finds new ways to connect with alumni online.

“Alumni have remained enthusiastic about Dwight Hall’s mission and we are developing a number of panels, discussions and workshops featuring alumni active in the nonprofit sector and in social justice causes,” Scafidi wrote in an email to the News. “Because of our shift to online community gatherings, we will also be able to offer events to alumni who live outside of the Greater New Haven area.”

The center only receives 15 percent of its funding from Yale and maintains its autonomy in financial affairs, governance and legal status. Despite donors stepping up to help mitigate the pandemic’s effects, many of whom are alumni, Dwight Hall still faces an uncertain financial future due to the pandemic and resulting economic crisis, Crumlish said. He noted that staffers and students have to remain vigilant about how they fund their work.

Dwight Hall was founded by undergraduate students in 1886.

Jose Davila IV | jose.davilaiv@yale.edu