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A Grateful Guest: How Yale Gives Back to its Host City

Greeted by the high-pitched giggles of students and the whirring of pencil sharpeners, Hannah Greene ‘18 enters the office at New Haven Reads, a place that truly has become a second-home for her. In the cramped, but cozy space, filled with cubicles of eager students and teachers, she awaits patiently for the twins she has been working with for nearly a year. After a long day at school, they enter looking exhausted and Greene knows that today will be a long day for all of them. Before they get to work, Greene tries to pique their usually excited selves or at least learn what happened today at school. Soon, they dive into Dr. Seuss, taking turns, as they stumble occasionally over the difficult tongue twisters. Their voices become faint when difficult words appear, but Greene steps in often with words of encouragement or to help with pronunciation. She wishes desperately for them just to be confident in themselves.

As a resident of New Haven for her entire life, Greene is committed to improving her hometown. In New Haven, home to one of the best academic institutions in the world, adult illiteracy rates are around 30%, nearly double the national average. “Considering that Yale probably couldn’t run without New Haven residents working in the dining halls, with facilities, it should be investing a lot more in the town itself.” Greene stated in an interview with The Politic.

“A stronger Yale is good for New Haven, and a stronger New Haven is good for Yale,” former Yale President Richard C. Levin told the New Haven Register in 2013. As the largest employer in New Haven, Yale is inextricably connected to the city’s community. But Yale has historically been portrayed by popular culture  as a place where elite upper-class men sought higher education within  ivied walls and seldom ventured out, isolated from the rest of New Haven. While there is still much variation in level of time and commitment, over the years, engaging with the New Haven community has become a more integral part of the Yale learning experience.

Today, Yale and the city are working toward ways to better assist one another. Sandra Trevino, Executive Director of the Junta for Progressive Action in New Haven, told ThePolitic that while there is a perception that “Yale [is] separate from the community and not willing to help,” that perception comes from “years, or even decades ago.” On the contrary, Trevino says, Yale has been greatly supportive of organizations like Junta, a community-based nonprofit that provides advocacy and diverse services for the area’s Latino and low-income community.

Trevino noted, “Yale the school may differ from Yale the students” in their interactions  with the New Haven community. For one, they have different motivations: Yale University has been a part of New Haven since it moved to the city in 1716. It has its historical precedent and long future in New Haven that shape its policies. Yale University also has institutional links to New Haven, such as the Yale Office for New Haven and State Affairs and Yale University Properties.

New Haven Reads is an example of a community organization that received financial assistance from Yale University and volunteers from its student body. Founded in 2001 as a community book bank to foster literacy in the community’s children and adults, New Haven Reads has expanded to distribute 100,000 books and provide one-on-one tutoring to more than 500 students each year. Kristen Levinsohn, Executive Director of New Haven Reads, lauded the University’s support of the organization. “Yale is very good to us. We have three locations and Yale provides the rent and the utilities for two of them. And does so along with Science Park Development Corporation at our third site. They are huge supporters of our program,” she told The Politic.

Unlike the University, the typical Yale student is only here for four years and may have fewer incentives to engage with the city. Still, students have established a variety of organizations that outlast their stay here. nearly 3,500 Yalies choose to participate in some sort of community service at Yale and contribute more than 150,000 hours each year. Shea Jennings ’16, the current Dwight Hall co-coordinator, chose to get involved with Yale Hunger and Homelessness Project (YHHAP) her freshman year, because she “cared about the issue a lot” and “liked the history of the institution.”She moved through the ranks of YHHAP’s leadership, which eventually piqued her interest in getting involved with Dwight Hall leadership as well.

Dwight Hall is the hub for Yale’s nearly 90 undergraduate service organizations. Founded in 1886 as a nonprofit umbrella organization, Dwight Hall is the largest campus-based, student-run service organization in the country.To enhance “institutional memory, as students come in and out, and are here for only four years,” and Dwight Hall provides “a support structure for strong leadership,” Jennings explained. Moreover, “newer groups [often do not know] where they fit in in the New Haven landscape,” and Dwight Hall connects new groups with existing partnerships in the community to help each find its niche.

As a student-centered organization with peripheral support from Yale, Dwight Hall is largely autonomous. Most of its funds come from outside resources, rather than from the University. Jennings attributes this to what she calls “Yale’s institutional DNA.” She said students are seen as “scholars first” and community service does not necessarily fit into Yale’s mold of liberal arts: “There hasn’t been service that belongs in the classroom.…[so] the desire to serve really comes from the students.”

The autonomy allowed by Dwight Hall’s external funding has given it a degree of independence from the university’s administration that is particularly helpful for social justice movements. Jennings explains that this advantage has benefited the movement to divest Yale’s endowment from the fossil fuel industry: “The Yale Environmental Action Coalition is a Dwight Hall Group that might not be able to protest in front of the President’s office if the President or the Dean’s Office was provided all of their funding.” Fossil Free Yale recently organized a sit-in at Woodbridge Hall, The Office of the President, in response of the Yale Corporation’s continued refusal to divest fossil fuels and resulting in the citations for 19 Yalies.

Dwight Hall is currently in a period of expansion. After approving a strategic plan, it is now working on an operational one. Briana Burroughs ‘17, the Institutional Service Coordinator of Dwight Hall, highlighted its “outreach initiatives,” which focus on “branding Dwight Hall better, working with Residential Colleges, and reaching out to Greek organizations.” The goal is to build upon the success of the Days of Services to grow these institutional programs, so that a greater number of students can get involved.

Hosted throughout the year, including on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Days of Service allow a greater number of Yale students to volunteer through single-day projects. On the Freshman Day of Service, for example, 141 freshman volunteered at ten different sites in the community, exposing new students to many of Dwight Hall’s organizations in the hopes of sparking involvement. “For the upcoming Day of Service, [Dwight Hall is] having Greek organizations sponsor it, and there is a proposal for a Greek-wide service competition,” said Burroughs.

With students participating in a wide variety of ways, the assisted New Haven organizations greatly appreciate Yalies’ service. Levinsohn expressed that New Haven Reads relies on its “tremendous number of Yale student [volunteers].” They not only assist, but “are really important for the operation of our organization.” Levinsohn explains, “a large percentage of our tutors are from Yale. We could not work with the number of [New Haven] students we do without this significant help.”

Trevino, too, values Yale’s contribution to the Junta and praises Yale students for their willingness “to start and create, [but also to] get involved and serve to benefit the community.” Junta is assisted by Yale undergraduates, graduate students, and the Yale Center for Clinical Investigations in promoting personal health education. Trevino notes that Yale’s commitment to the community is evident “even on the Yale Shuttle bus,” which features a Junta advertisement that encourages understanding of one’s own health.

Organizations, Levinsohn explains, “cannot be successful without others.” They “need to have these relationships with Yale, with other companies, or organization, or firms” to achieve “what [they] are trying to achieve.” All parties involved—the organizations, New Haven, the University, and its students—have much to gain by continuing to invest in these meaningful relationships.

On another day at New Haven Reads, the twins run into the office with smiles filling their entire face. They are shouting “Our dad got a job, our dad got a job and he’s buying us ice cream later.” Greene is overjoyed to share in this experience and even brought to tears, especially because she truly understands, like when her mom found work after two years. Ultimately, these personal interactions make her work with New Haven Reads so meaningful and is why she continues to work with the organization. One by one, she hopes to reduce illiteracy and dropout rates, but most importantly impact the lives of individuals.

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