Zoe Berg, Photo Editor

When John Lee ’18 was working at an educational nonprofit during his time at Yale, he would bike on the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail to reach New Haven’s Newhallville neighborhood, where King-Robinson Interdistrict Magnet School was located. On the way, he would pass Benjamin Franklin and Pauli Murray Colleges, which had been constructed while he was a student and quickly became known for their dining hall food.

After his mile-long bike ride past the new dining halls, Lee arrived at King-Robinson, where he worked with kids whose hunger and lack of nourishing meals at school was causing them to get into fights with each other.

“If my classmates had that exposure, there’s no way they’d stand by and be OK with that,” Lee told the News. “I got a wonderful education from Yale, but I got a depleted moral education. The model that Yale set for me quite intentionally prevented me from being a good neighbor and from being aware of the disparity that was just next door to me.”

Now, Lee organizes with New Haven Rising, a community organization “committed to winning economic, racial, and social justice through collective action.” On Saturday evening, Lee helped run an event — co-hosted by Students Unite Now and NHR — where leaders from both organizations discussed inequalities present throughout Yale and New Haven. The event brought together about 40 students and community members to discuss Yale’s “broken promises” about financial aid, mental health and more.

The event follows a landmark August 2020 report from SUN, a student group focused on a perceived lack of support for Yale’s low-income students and students of color. The report, titled “Broken Promises,” called for an elimination of Yale’s Student Income Contribution, a reduction in wait times for Yale’s Mental Health and Counseling services and an increase in LGBTQ and Black therapists. The hosts of Saturday’s teach-in emphasized these goals and criticized what they said was Yale’s failure to contribute fairly towards city services like housing and public education, in part due to the University’s $157 million’s worth of tax-exempt properties.

In an email to the News, University spokesperson Karen Peart noted that Yale’s voluntary payment to New Haven last year exceeded any other U.S. university’s payment to their host city. She also pointed to the fact that Yale is New Haven’s largest employer and that Yale and its employees donated over $3 million last year to local nonprofits and the United Way Campaign.

“Yale spends over $700 million annually here in New Haven,” Peart wrote. “This includes compensation to New Haven residents who work at the university and many programs and initiatives that we support throughout the city. Yale committed to an increase of $1 million in voluntary payment to the City’s FY21 budget.”

At the event, organizers asked attendees to consider how the city could spend the $157 million it would collect if Yale paid taxes on its tax-exempt properties, which consist of academic and administrative buildings, as well as Yale-New Haven Health Hospital. They also asked attendees to message friends to ask them to sign the petition.

Naomi D’Arbell Bobadilla ’22 of SUN told the group that the digital push is necessary to spread awareness for these efforts, as students are harder to engage now that many are off campus.

In an effort to increase support for the petition, organizers instructed attendees to post answers to several questions on Facebook. SUN member Josh Diaz ’21 told those in attendance that he would like to see more funds directed to address the citywide housing crisis if the city were to receive more money from Yale.

“Yale can do so much to address the housing crisis in New Haven,” Diaz said. “There is no reason that people should be without homes given how much money Yale has.”

Diaz noted that property taxes — the taxes that Yale receives hundreds of millions of dollars in exemptions from — provide the majority of funding for local public schools. Other attendees said they would like to see funds directed towards soup kitchens.

The organizers also asked students to reflect on the Student Income Contribution, or SIC, and how its removal could impact them.

The SIC has remained a consistent target of Yale student activists who seek to make the University more equitable. These students have long deemed the policy unnecessary to the University’s financial wellbeing. As recently as 2018, the contribution accounted for $16.7 million of the University’s annual revenue, according to the SUN report. Meanwhile, Yale pays around $12 million to New Haven in the form of voluntary tax revenue.

“It’s actually insane that Yale contributes less to the city than it expects low-income students to contribute to our full-aid education,” Bobadilla said.

In July, the Office of Financial Aid eliminated the SIC for Yale students studying remotely. At the event, Bobadilla pointed to this policy change as proof that the university can afford to scrap it campus-wide.

The University has shown no intention of completely scrapping the SIC. Last year, it announced that it would reduce the student effort contribution requirement for some students. Under the new policy, students on full financial aid would be expected to earn $3,700 in each of their four years — about a thousand dollars per year less than before. In March of 2019, Dean Marvin Chun said at a town hall that eliminating the student effort was “not possible.”

SUN organizers also asked participants to reflect on the quality and accessibility of mental health resources on campus. The August SUN report found that 56 percent of students requesting service from YMHC waited more than 7 days for an intake appointment. At the meeting, attendees criticized lack of access to YMHC during leaves of absence and the poor quality of the department’s services.

Lee told the News that despite his frustration about a lack of adequate action on Yale’s part, what he’s seen from SUN and NHR gives him hope.

“I feel really optimistic when I see surprising relationships and allyships being formed between student groups and community groups in New Haven,” he said to the News. “Those relationships help me feel like there is power being built. If students are willing to be bold, there’s a chance for deep partnerships that have consequences.”

New Haven Rising launched in the summer of 2011.

Owen Tucker-Smith | owen.tucker-smith@yale.edu

Owen Tucker-Smith covers the Mayor's office, City Hall and local politics. He is also an associate editor at the Yale Daily News Magazine. Originally from Williamstown, MA, he is a first-year in Ezra Stiles College majoring in statistics and data science.