When I sat down to write this column, I worried about being redundant, repeating what’s been said a million times. But some things are so important that they need to be repeated constantly so that everyone gets the message. So here it goes: Yale students and administrative leadership must change the way they engage with New Haven. The city shouldn’t be seen as a playground for resume-building pet projects, nor should it be seen as a place to give a bit of charity to in order to go about University business more unabashedly.

New Haven’s budget crisis has reinvigorated discussions about Yale’s responsibility to the city, especially given that the University has a massive endowment, does not pay taxes on much of its real estate and makes a relatively small annual financial contribution to New Haven. This debate, which has been happening for a long time, is indicative of a larger issue: Yale’s inability to adequately respond to the needs of New Haven, especially when doing so would inconvenience the University.

Yale has a long and deep history of harming New Haven and its residents. For example, Yale declared itself tax-exempt in its charter and had that charter confirmed in the Connecticut Constitution, a decision which has placed an undue financial burden on New Haven. Still, when it comes to rectifying these wrongs and giving New Haveners what they demand, Yale hesitates. Yes, it is true that the University does many things to support New Haven, some of which include hiring New Haven residents, donating to local nonprofits and helping fund scholarships for New Haven students. But it’s not unreasonable to expect more from a world-class university with immense wealth and power.

When community members communicate their expectations, Yale releases a statement touting its existing contributions to New Haven — just check any local article about Yale’s financial contributions. In the context of community members calling for increased support, these statements show that Yale’s service isn’t really service. They show that the University can and will use its contributions to the city as leverage to reject community members’ demands. The University’s service allows it to say, in so many words, “We already help New Haven enough, so stop asking for more.”

Nevertheless, Yale’s past harms to and continued infringement on the community bears out the University’s obligation to help New Haven. To meet that obligation, University leadership must listen to the demands of the community. There will always be an obscure bureaucratic reason to not give community members what they have been asking for for years, but if Yale is to continue benefiting from New Haven’s land and labor, University leadership must move beyond their excuses and support the city more substantially. And as the University looks to the future, its leadership must commit to involving community members in decision-making processes. They can start by reserving at least one seat on the Yale Corporation Board of Trustees for a New Haven community member and hosting more town halls to hear from city residents.

But beyond the actions of Yale’s leadership, we students have a responsibility to change the way we interact with the city and its residents.

While this is not the case for all students or all student organizations, Yalies have a tendency to adopt a savior-complex-ish approach to engaging with the community. We tend to believe, either implicitly or explicitly, that our innovative genius and industriousness will help us fix New Haven’s problems just in time for graduation and grad school applications. And we tend to leverage the University’s resources, from startup grants to professional connections, to bulldoze local organizations and movements in the advancement of our own vision for the city.

I believe my peers are well-intentioned, and I believe we all care deeply about New Haven –– but our kind motives don’t erase the harm we continue to cause the city. Think of how many Yalies have started projects that they think will help the city just to abandon them once graduation rolls around or another opportunity arises. Think of how many students have pledged their time to New Haven organizations and are nowhere to be found just a few weeks later. Whether we intend them to or not, these actions create the impression that Yalies cannot consistently be relied upon to commit to New Haven.

If we are to really become a student body that works hand in hand with the community to better New Haven, we need to approach our work with humility, diligence and a willingness to listen. We cannot continue to take up space by attempting to impose our ideas on the city and its residents; we must instead ask questions of, listen to and learn from the community members who have been working to improve the city for years before our arrival. We should not approach our work with a desire to gain recognition or advance our personal ambitions; we should approach our work out of a genuine desire to help and be in community with others. It boils down to a simple mindset shift: we must decenter ourselves and our desires and we must center New Haveners and their needs.

We have a responsibility to New Haven, and as we move into a post-pandemic society, we owe it to the city and its residents to live up to it.

CALEB DUNSON is a first year in Saybrook College. His column, titled “What We Owe,” runs every other Tuesday. Contact him at caleb.dunson@yale.edu. 

CALEB DUNSON
Caleb Dunson is a first-year student in the college. He grew up in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, where he developed a passion for politics and entrepreneurship. Caleb often writes about politics, social justice, and identity, with an occasional foray into a new topic. In his free time, you can find Caleb running, reading, or scouring Netflix for a bingeable tv series.