Student community service, activism a Yale tradition in city
NEW HAVEN >> How do Yale University and New Haven influence each other’s culture and climate, in ways that are not directly financial?
You can’t count the ways.
From the free arts offerings to the volunteering students do in city schools, Yale’s influence runs deep in its host city and region, making New Haven an attractive draw far beyond its size of 130,000.
And the influence works both ways, with New Haven leaders and volunteers bringing their talents to the university as well.
Lee Cruz, director of community outreach at the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven and an activist in the Chatham Square neighborhood, has been asked to give speeches about leadership at Yale, most recently at the School of Organization and Management.
He said of his work with Yale, “It’s a huge responsibility and honor because many of these students are going to go out and be leaders around the country and around the world.”
“We certainly enrich the education and enhance the educational experience of these students based on our real-life experiences,” Cruz said.
Among Yale organizations that are deeply involved with city residents is the Community Alliance for Research and Engagement.
“I would hold them up as a model for engaging people from the Yale School of Public Health and people from the community in an agenda that helps both,” Cruz said.
According to Alycia Santilli, CARE’s assistant director, since its beginning in 2007, “our mission is to improve health in New Haven” through a “university-community partnership to look at some of the health disparities we see in New Haven.”
CARE focuses “beyond individual behavior change” on prevention of chronic diseases, improving diet, increasing exercise, fighting smoking and other health programs. CARE’s mission also includes practical programs such as helping to start community and school gardens.
“In addition to trying to bring real resources to the community neighborhood level … we’ve really been active with various coalitions in the city, contributing to a broader agenda around change,” Santilli said.
“We’re just trying to bring some of the knowledge that’s created in the university to our own community.”
Virginia Spell is a member of the West River Neighborhood Service Corp., which she calls “a volunteer-run community organization that provides support and information to individuals living in the West River community.”
Members of CARE “provide not only funding resources but boots on the ground,” Spell said.
Five years ago, “the board of West River was very interested in addressing health disparities” and CARE “provided resources to address some issues in our community,” including diabetes, smoking cessation and air quality. CARE has also sponsored tai chi classes and community walks.
Another way CARE has helped city residents, Spell said, was identifying ways local business owners “could help the community, like [selling] healthy fruits and vegetables and moving the chips and candy” from the front of the store to a less obvious spot.
“CARE has really been the community partner” that has participated in community events and “walked with us,” Spell said. “It is the relationships that we cultivate that help our community grow stronger and be informed.”
She called CARE’s work “human capital”: “It’s not just someone coming to your neighborhood telling you what you should do. It’s someone working with you to help you reach your community goals. … CARE’s definitely at the top of the list.”
Jeannette Ickovics, director of CARE, said, engagement with the community helps “to build trust and respect and to come at that from a really authentic space.” She described a program involving 1,200 middle school students who agreed to remove televisions from their bedrooms, drink fewer sugar-sweetened beverages and exercise regularly. Such children, she said, are “twice as likely to be at [the public schools’] goal for reading, writing and math.”
“It’s humbling to have the opportunity to work with so many people in the community in city schools and city government,” Ickovics said — work that involves Yale students, faculty and staff in the interaction.
Dwight Hall empowers students
Dwight Hall is the public service and social justice organization at Yale that oversees student-run programs.
“It’s a different level of help. It’s an empowering level of help,” Cruz said of the organization, founded by students in 1886. “The challenge is, how do we make sure that in the process of a Yale student’s education and resume being enhanced … the community gets something they need and/or want.”
Dwight Hall Executive Director Peter Crumlish said it is “unique among many programs because it’s almost entirely student-initiated. Most of the service or activism or advocacy that students engage in is initiated by them, conceived by them. We’ve been very conscious of making sure that they are meeting the goals or objectives of the community groups themselves.”
Dwight Hall includes CARE and other health-oriented groups such as the Hypertension Awareness and Prevention Project at Yale; social justice groups including MEChA de Yale, an organization of Chicanos “in pursuit of social justice, community empowerment and cultural awareness,” according to its website; and education groups such as Squash Haven, which supports physical fitness among city students.
Ruth Hanna, who will be a junior in the fall, has been involved with the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project, including taking leftover food from Yale dining halls to the Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen, or DESK. She also helps residents prepare their tax returns for free.
“I think it’s been a really important aspect of my experience in New Haven,” Hanna said of YHHAP. As a Boston native, she said, “When I came to Yale I didn’t want to live my whole life on campus. I wanted to have a broader engagement.
“I think it’s helped me be a little bit more grounded in New Haven, not just like a visitor but someone who’s living here for four years,” said Hanna, who’s majoring in biology and gender and sexuality studies.
Danny Ullman is a graduating senior majoring in cognitive science from Rye Brook, New York, who sits on the board of DESK and has been involved with food rescue with YHHAP. Among his projects, he said, “We have worked closely to establish a clothing-collection bin on campus” which stands next to Dwight Hall and supports a clothes closet that Ullman and others renovated at the Episcopal Church of St. Paul and St. James.
Members of YHHAP also held a stuff-a-truck drive Friday at Stop & Shop on Whalley Avenue.
“I cannot imagine my life here as a student without Dwight Hall, without New Haven” Ullman said. “When I think what encapsulates my experience at Yale it’s one word, and that word is ‘community.’
“For me, the Yale community and the New Haven community are one and the same,” he said. “They have a symbiotic relationship where one could not exist without the other.”
Dwight Hall also supports the Public School Internship Program. Nasim Mirzajni, a rising sophomore from Iran, has tutored students at Roberto Clemente Leadership Academy. “I like teaching especially,” she said. “I’m a science student so I like how you get to influence them … show them the wonders of science. (It’s) better than reading a textbook.”
4,300 trees since 1995
One of the most successful programs that involves city residents is the Urban Resources Initiative, which has worked with neighborhood groups and individuals to plant more than 4,300 trees in New Haven since 1995. Any resident can call the city Department of Parks, Recreation and Trees to have a tree planted curbside, and URI volunteers, many of them Yale students, will come out to bring a bit of green to the street.
“The Yale students are learning from the community; the community is learning from the Yale students,” said Colleen Murphy-Dunning, director of URI, which is affiliated with the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies but is also an independent agency.
Britton Rogers, a Yale School of Architecture graduate, said he became involved with URI well before he attended the university in an effort to beautify Lenzi Park on Grand Avenue.
“URI’s presence in the community was so important to me and it meant so much to me because of how much they made an effort to work with members of the community and to improve the community,” said Rogers, a URI board member.
Dr. Jessica Feinleib, a professor of anesthesiology at the Yale School of Medicine and a doctor at the West Haven Veterans Affairs medical center, has been involved with planting trees for eight years with URI and master’s candidates from the Yale forestry school, and is a Westville resident.
“There are plenty of neglected corners of the city that would be left bare if not for URI and the Yale students and their efforts at urban forestry,” she said.
Among 120 trees planted in Westville village and the neighborhood are 50 fruit trees planted in Edgewood Park, received through a grant from Edy’s ice cream written “on her own time” by a Yale forestry student, Feinleib said..
She said she’s been inspired by “how planting trees and planting activities in general” not only improve the urban canopy but “repairs the social network throughout the city.”
Murphy-Dunning said the forestry school provides guidance on the best species to plant, testing soil and designing the planting area, among other tasks.
“When we plant all around the city it’s where neighbors direct it,” she said. “They’ll usually say on their application they want to save a place for their kids to play,” but the project will also help biodiversity and act to fight climate change.
Through its GreenSkills program, URI offers paid jobs to high school students, ex-offenders “and other chronically unemployed” people, Murphy-Dunning said. “Again, Yale students teach them,” she said.
Michael Morand, deputy chief communications officer for Yale’s Office of Public Affairs and Communications, was recently elected president of the New Haven Free Public Library’s board. To him, Yale and the city are “intrinsically intertwined” and each enriches the other.
A Fair Haven resident, Morand came to Yale from Kentucky as an undergraduate, served on the Board of Aldermen, earned a degree from Yale Divinity School and never left.
He describes the relationship between the university and the city as porous. “The interconnectedness of New Haven and Yale is extraordinary and ineradicable,” Morand said. “Both are part of each other. … Neither exists separately.”
Some of the relationship is symbolized by the many leaders who started in New Haven as Yale students, including Yale President Peter Salovey and Mayor Toni Harp.
“They are both people who moved to New Haven to pursue graduate education at Yale, met their spouses and made their careers here,” he said.
“There is no community of our size that is as cosmopolitan as New Haven is,” Morand contends. “It is at the same time a truly comfortable place to live … It’s connected to the world. It’s fantastically diverse; it’s rooted in history.”
Whether visiting the Yale University Art Gallery, which is free, or attending a concert at Woolsey Hall, “you’ll actually find here the frequency of interaction is much higher” than in other university towns, Morand said. Walking through Yale is essentially a trek through much of downtown New Haven and, Morand said, “that context is often missed in the telling of the story.”
“Any of us who call this place home live in a city that receives more direct income in the form of taxes, building permit fees, voluntary payments … the most of any city university,” Morand said.
While Yale benefits the city in innumerable ways, it also draws on New Haven’s intellectual and community resources. And when Yale students leave for other parts of the country and the world, they bring their interaction with the city with them when they go.
Barbara Malmberg, director of marketing for Visit New Haven, said, “These people who are shaping the world have been shaped by New Haven … They’re going out in the world having been here. That’s the reach that I just get bedazzled by.”
- Videos: Planting Trees with URI & Planting MORE trees with URI (New Haven Register Videos)
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Honorable Mentions (from this article):
Original Source: Published Sunday, May 17, 2015 by Ed Stannard for the New Haven Register
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