When the pandemic hit last year, Xiaoying Zheng ’22 and Max Ackerman ’22 — the Dwight Hall Outreach Ambassadors at the time — started thinking about how to keep Yalies engaged in public service in the Elm City while remote. Though virtual events were becoming increasingly widespread, the pair wanted to interact with students in a new and creative way. Following months of discussions, outreach to community leaders and watching YouTube tutorials on voice editing, the Elm City Speaks podcast was born.
Elm City Speaks, which aired its first episode in October, serves as a connection between students, Dwight Hall and community organizations. In a typical episode, a Yale student interviews a community leader about the history of their organization, the work they do and how students can get involved. The podcast is sponsored by Dwight Hall, giving them broader access to resources, such as support from the Yale Podcast Network.
“[We want] to emphasize how important it is to get out of the Yale bubble and interact with the community,” Ackerman told the News. “You’re not just a Yale student, you’re a whole member of a larger community and people forget about that all the time.”
Since October, Elm City Speaks has released two episodes about the history of Dwight Hall as well as interviews with the leaders of the community organizations Y2Y Harvard Square, Love 146, Elm City Internationals and Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, also known as IRIS.
The Yalies that conduct interviews are usually involved with the organization in some capacity, which, according to Zheng, allows for more insightful conversations.
Savannah Crichton ’22, the former Dwight Hall Advocacy Network coordinator, hosted an episode in November where she interviewed Chris George, the executive director of IRIS — which supports refugees and immigrants through programs such as employment assistance, English instruction and food distribution. She has volunteered at the organization since her first year at Yale.
“New Haven is a really amazing city in that it has a lot of organizers, it has a lot of community efforts,” she said. “I think it’s important for students to understand that landscape before they start diving into their own projects because there’s a lot of opportunity for collaboration.”
Y2Y Harvard Square and Y2Y New Haven — youth-run homeless shelters that provide accomodation and career support to young people in Cambridge and New Haven, respectively — were also featured on Elm City Speaks. While both Y2Y branches are technically student organizations, Cecilia D’Arms, the staff director of Y2Y Harvard Square, told the News that their relationships with established entities in the city, such as local businesses, have been extremely useful. She added that platforms such as Elm City Speaks amplify public service work in an important way.
“I hope that people think a little bit harder about their own communities and people that generally do sort of fly under the radar,” she said. “I think it’s really easy when you’re privileged to not think about the people who have to stay in Y2Y and I think that that sucks and [that] another piece of why community engagement is important is that it spreads stories.”
Zheng and Ackerman hope that the podcast will make it easier for Yalies to become involved with service groups off-campus, particularly first-years, who have had to navigate outreach alongside public health restrictions. Zheng also noted that while Dwight Hall connects students to New Haven nonprofits through initiatives such as the Urban Fellows Program — an academic-year placement that connects students with community organizations — the podcast is a more informal way to engage students.
Both Ackerman and Zheng agreed that the best part of creating the podcast was learning about the backgrounds of different organizations in the city.
“It’s been really rewarding to listen to the podcast and learn alongside the listeners about these projects because I don’t know everything that’s happening in New Haven,” Zheng said. “I really like it.”
The pair expect that Elm City Speaks will continue under Dwight Hall for years to come, with Zheng currently in talks about expanding their production.
Elm City Speaks is available on platforms such as Soundcloud and Apple Podcasts.
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