Yale Daily News

Sarah Miller ’03, Ward 14’s newly-elected alder, wants to be a different kind of representative.

Miller ran for the Ward 14 seat on the Board of Alders after years of community organizing. Over the course of her two decades in Fair Haven, she said she has seen multiple alders fail to adequately commit to the community, and she has also seen the “enormous apathy and frustration” that many residents felt as a result. Now, she hopes to build on her advocacy around education, public safety and community development by using the power of her elected office to create change.

“You see after a while that you really need people in positions like the Board of Alders to be able to move some things over the finish line,” Miller said. “As an organizer, you can always organize a big community meeting. But a group of alders organizing a big community meeting and then trying to bring some policy recommendations out of those meetings and then trying to implement them can have more impact.”

Miller grew up in Westville and has lived in New Haven almost all of her life. In 2015, she met Fatima Rojas, the mother of a classmate of one of Miller’s children. Rojas had been trained as an organizer by the labor union UNITE HERE, and she passed her skills onto Miller. 

Together, they started pushing for changes in their kids’ school.

“I went to Yale, I have this fancy education, but never at any point did I learn to organize in any part of my formal education,” Miller said. “It’s not what a lot of people think it is. It’s not just putting things on Facebook. There’s no shortcuts. It’s one-on-one. It’s taking the time to really talk with people and really learn from people and listen to people and being dogged on stuff.”

In 2017, Miller and Rojas co-founded NHPS Advocates, a volunteer network that aims to improve New Haven public schools. The group has led workshops on culturally-responsive curricula and restorative practice, held rallies for COVID-19 economic relief and safe school reopenings, advocated for increased classroom funding and more. 

In addition to her work with NHPS Advocates, Miller has been involved in multiple projects in Fair Haven and the wider city. She’s worked on a years-long campaign to repurpose an abandoned site in the community that used to house New Haven’s Strong School. She helped organize a sit-in outside the Grand Cafe, a bar where multiple crimes have occurred, to draw attention to and interrupt violence in the area. And she was one of the planners of a Halloween block party to intervene at another violence hotspot. 

Community members also spoke of Miller’s dedication to Fair Haven. 

Christine Thompson, an outreach worker for the Sex Workers and Allies Network, was unhoused when she met Miller. Thompson would pick up books from the free library box Miller kept in front of her house, which Thompson described as her “lifeline.” They formed a relationship that has continued to this day.

“I know if Sarah was presented with an issue that she would do her best,” Thompson said. “I take her as a very sincere woman, and I know how much she cares for her community and people in general. … I do not take her as a typical politician that would just blow you off and move on.”

As someone who is used to working with others, running for an elected office alone was a change for Miller. She initially resisted printing campaign literature with her face on it; she would have preferred a group photo.  

“Politics is kind of gross, right? You walk around the neighborhood with a piece of paper with your face on it,” she said. Despite her discomfort with politicking, she sees her seat on the Board of Alders “as an opportunity to really build on that work, all those relationships and to bring those voices to the table in new and hopefully better, stronger ways.” 

In the past, Fair Haven has struggled with unresponsive alders. Miller said that many previous alders “either didn’t show up at all, practically speaking, or disappeared in the middle of their terms.” She noted how this instability made it more difficult to create progress in Fair Haven, a community which she described as being “on the brunt end of COVID-19, of the increase in violence.” 

Miller said she hopes to put an end to that pattern of disengaged politicians in Fair Haven by actively communicating with her constituents. She wants to set up a text messaging platform for residents because many people in the ward do not use email. She said she also plans to host more community events and to create a website with information about how to connect to community groups.

“I think my approach is to really try to listen deeply and carefully and to really try to be as representative as I can,” she said. “When there’s something that’s needed, people know who to go to to get a response. It’s not a fancy solution. It’s just doing the work, being there, answering the phone.”

That commitment to listening to the community was also central to her campaign. Although the general election for the Ward 14 seat was uncontested, Miller and her team knocked on every door in the ward.

Martin Torresquintero, Miller’s co-chair on the Ward 14 Democratic ward committee and treasurer for her campaign, said that kind of strategy is unusual in a ward that historically has not had “strong representation.”

“Reaching out at a personal level, it was very time-consuming, but it was worthwhile doing that,” Torresquintero told the News. 

As of 2016, Fair Haven’s population was 17,305 people. 

SADIE BOGRAD