Tag Archives: new haven

Their Way Home: Abraham’s Tent

28 Feb

Fifteen minutes away from my dorm room, the lights are about to go out in a parish house. In the Sunday School Room around the corner, Paul pores over his workbook, highlighter in hand. He is studying to be an EMT, and he highlights almost every line in his effort to commit it to memory. “So far the first five chapters have only been about airways. Airways, airways, airways,” he says to the girl next to him. “Who knew breathing was so difficult?”

Phil couldn’t care less about airways. His concerns are more immediate: vanilla, cinnamon, bacon grease, eggs, milk, challah bread, and the one frying pan that he meticulously washes and dries in between uses. He has been trained as a chef and is applying for grants to open a restaurant of his own one day. In the meantime, he keeps his skills strong by making us French toast. “You are all my grandchildren now,” he says. “Which means you’d better find me a job by Christmas, because I’m going to have a lot of presents to buy!” We laugh together, both of our hands dripping with egg yolks as we swirl the bread around to coat it, and I tell him that this is, indeed, the ritual I have with my grampa-by-blood. Maybe full bellies and kitchen conversation carry across family trees.

Cots lined up across the parish house floor

From his cot (cot, in this situation, means one thin, long band of green fabric — think of a stretcher, and add a sleeping man to the top, his bare feet angling out from beneath a fleece blanket that can’t quite cover his long frame), Carlos pays no attention to the bacon’s sizzle. Instead, he is buried in “The Hotel New Hampshire,” a book that gives me a perfect excuse to interrupt his reading and introduce myself. “I’m from New Hampshire!” I offer, to start the conversation. He nods, looks at me, and looks back down at the book, the teardrop tattoos on the side of his face making every gesture look gruffer, and somehow more vulnerable. I keep pressing gently around the edges of the conversation, probing for favorite types of books (fiction) and getting only a handful of words in response until I, on a hunch, ask him if he writes. His sentences tumble out. Fiction. Two book-length manuscripts already, and he would share them with me if only his wife weren’t so mad at him that she wouldn’t send him anything left in the house, not even his boots; he’s spent his winter in tennis shoes. Stories based on his own life, on the people he met on a bus going back and forth to work every morning for years. “No one’s ever looked at them,” he says. “Not Simon & Schuster or anything like that. I think you have to have an ‘in’ or know somebody to be looked at like that.” I walk away a few minutes later and in place of his book, he has a legal pad on his lap, and his pen is moving in quick lines across the pages.

*

Carlos, Phil, and Paul, whose stories are real but whose names have been changed or switched to protect their privacy, are three of the eleven men with whom I had the honor of spending dinners and an all-nighter over the past week. They are welcoming, funny, and homeless. And while I spend my days giving tours, adding whipped cream to my sundaes in the dining hall, casually complaining about my lack of sleep, and weighing one summer travel option against another, they spend theirs trying not to get kicked out of Starbucks, applying for jobs with their case managers, and, above all, “staying on the right track.”

Their commitment to the right track is what brought us together to begin with. The eleven men (who were originally twelve, but one is currently in the hospital, from what I could gather) were hand-selected to participate in a program called Abraham’s Tent. It is an amazing initiative. AT started one year ago when the head of Columbus House, a large New Haven shelter, talked with the head of a local interfaith group about the overwhelming need for shelter beds during the winter months. Even with the overflow shelter, which fits an extra 125+ men, accommodations are scarce during the months when temperatures are lowest. The two leaders wondered how they could share the burden of housing these men, and Abraham’s Tent was born.

AT takes twelve of the men in Columbus House who are most committed to pulling themselves out of the situation and puts them in a sort of moving shelter. They are sober, cooperative with caseworkers, and hopeful. These twelve men spend every week of the winter with a different congregation — sleeping in churches, temples, and mosques. Columbus House buses the men to and from their destinations every day, while volunteers from the congregations arrange dinners and breakfasts and staff the shelter itself. Even now, after knowing about the program for two years, I am still blown away. Why? It works. It works to free up twelve extra beds in the shelter. It works to give these men the individual friendships, conversation, respect, and relaxation that they could never find in a traditional homeless shelter. It introduces surrounding towns and people who otherwise encounter homeless men as statistics or line items to be crossed off of a town budget to these twelve staggeringly human representatives to contradict their stereotypes. And it helps to get these men on their feet — according to our training session, ten of the twelve men from last year’s Abraham’s Tent are now housed. That is a huge success story.

Home base at the parish house

So this year, YHHAP officially became a part of it. Last year, we sent volunteers out to the surrounding towns to help them with staffing. This time around, we “borrowed” a parish house and ran an entirely student-staffed week of our own. Yale student groups bought the food for dinner and stayed to cook their favorite home recipes. Some enormously dedicated YHHAP Board members spent dozens of hours taking care of all of the logistics. Others, myself included, came to converse at dinner, play card games, and stay up for all or portions of a night to be on-duty as the men slept. At 615pm every night, the men arrived. 1030pm, the lights went out for them. 445am, we made breakfast (with the help of Phil’s French toast). 6am, we handed them packed lunch bags and waved to them as they pulled away in their van.

Tomorrow morning, we will watch them leave for good, on their way to their next destinations. Jim, who has a young son with grades good enough that Jim can’t stop bragging, will continue to study for his GED at night and work full time moving boxes for Schick during the day — he, and several of the other men, repeatedly talk about how much they regret not being able to get more education when they were younger. His dream job is landscaping. He likes how dirt smells and needs to be outside; even in the coldest blizzard of the winter, he left the shelter during the day to get some real air in his lungs. Buzz, on the other hand, would clean toilets all day if it allowed him to be self-employed instead of beholden to a big company. Bob, who plays a mean game of rummy, said over a three-hour game of checkers that his perfect day would be spent choreographing martial art scenes in Hollywood movies. He reads about stage combat techniques every time he goes to the library. And Chris, who says that he is thankful every time he wakes up for being able to get out of bed in the morning, can’t stop talking about the apartments that have been reserved for these men at the end of the program, provided they follow all of the rules. The units will be prepaid for three to six months to give the men a chance to get on their feet, and it’s an opportunity that Chris plans to seize with everything he has.

Tomorrow, these men will wake up together. They are a small group among many, but to dozens of Yale students, they are the faces – our faces – of what is often brushed aside as a chronic, anonymous societal ill. We don’t have the answers to any of this. Heck, we don’t even have long enough blankets to cover the feet of these sleeping men. But in a world where we say thank you for waking up safely every morning, we have beds, and volunteers, and some mighty good French toast — and that’s enough —  that’s what we can do — for right now.

Quotes of the (Loosely Defined) Week

28 Oct

This week is a whirlwind of midterm papers, meetings, kicking about in piles of autumn leaves (yes, of course this merits as much time as my academics), and, as you may have noticed, an overabundance of Tweeting. But in the midst of my late night article-writing, I thought I would share a few quotes from the past week or so that made me stop and think.

It’s all the “who’s getting in the life raft?” kind of stuff.

–Ed Mattison, major advocate about homelessness issues in New Haven from the South Central Behavioral Health Network, referring to a phenomenon in which a lot of social service organizations in the city, many of whom have worked closely with one another in the past, are now having to compete for an extremely limited pool of available funding to run their programs and/or shelters this year. Overall, programs in New Haven have lost 8% of their normal budgets as well as laid off two caseworkers.

Compassion fatigue: You feel like you’re working harder than they are to turn their lives around.

–Pete, a street outreach worker for the homeless in New Haven. Pete was formerly homeless, too, and has since recovered, and he spoke about his struggles to continue trying to help some of his clients even as they fell once, twice, five times off of the recovery bandwagon.

I drive around wanting to know that I do everything that I can do [to help the people on the streets] before pulling into my driveway [at night].

–Pete, of why he stays out late at nights working even though his wife would like him home safe.

For some of them, it’s better to live on the street than in that situation.

–Ed, of the reasons for the sharp rise of women who are homeless over the past few years. Many of the women run away from home and into the streets to escape abuse.

We give ourselves the impression that cynicism is more widespread than it really is.

–Hakan Ayat, the Executive Director of Turkey’s Open Society Foundation and a former World Fellow at Yale. I had dinner with Hakan as part of a Pierson College Master’s Tea last week and he led our table through a workshop about global civics.

This armchair is very comfortable, but we won’t be able to do the rest of it from this armchair.

–Hakan, talking about the sacrifices necessary of the world in order to cooperate well enough to deal with climate change, resource constraints, and overpopulation.

Future generations are subsidizing us, and it’s hard to give up subsidies.

–Hakan, on why we refuse to plan for the crises ahead by planning and rationing what we have now. He also stated that one of the difficulties of preparing anyone for climate change (and/or convincing him or her that it exists in the first place) is that the fallout from our actions won’t be observable for another three decades. Our sense of cause and effect is separated by 30 years.

We need to be perfectly clear that the answer will not always be yes to the customer. Our job is to say, let me show you how to get to yes.

–Lynn Smith, Vice President of Business Development at Start Community Bank in New Haven, about the kind of culture that she wants to foster in her coworkers. I interviewed Smith and Start’s CEO, Bill Placke, today in preparation for an article that I am writing for one of my classes…more details to come.

This is what makes me get up in the morning. This is an entry from our Start art contest and…this young lady who is thirteen years old says, “This is a picture of a few garbage cans on the corner of Howe and Kimberly that represent what most upper class people think of us in New Haven. They think of us as garbage.”

–Lynn, same interview as above, talking about why she is so driven about her work at Start Community Development Bank. The bank is trying to engage the poorest sections of New Haven (primarily those who earn $20,000 or less a year) to help them learn how to use the banking industry to pull themselves up into a life of more wealth, whether that means receiving an extra $500 or $5,000 a year.

As our premise, let’s say that a cube is larger than a tet.

–My First Order Logic professor. Oh, wait, no. As much as I appreciate this class for my professor’s excellent teaching and wit and for the exercise of my mathematical muscles, the distance between this quote and the rest should be evidence enough in my personal case to be excused from my final Quantitative Reasoning requirement. Sorry, everyone in my family who is good at math. Shoulda shared the genetic jackpot.

Love and quotes,

J

Where Do You Sleep?

17 Oct

I sleep at home, on my bed. I sleep in my dorm room. I sleep (only on rare occasions, parents, I promise) with my chin propped up by my hand during lecture. What kind of a question is that? It’s something even a toddler could answer.

Except for these toddlers. 42% of homeless children nationwide are under the age of six. 700 children were served by the non-profit New Haven Home Recovery just in New Haven last year. For these toddlers and their mothers, the answer to that question is not simple at all.

I learned these statistics and more at an event called the Sleep Out that the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project (YHHAP), a non-profit that I am on the board of at Yale, hosted last night. For the third year in a row, members of the group joined with other students on campus to raise money and awareness on behalf of the homeless community in New Haven, members of which are in danger of freezing to death on the streets this winter without the help of the shelter system. We put tents up on Old Campus (in the center of Yale’s freshmen dorms) during the day on Saturday; hosted a speaker, a singing group, contra dancing, s’more making, and community sing that evening; and then slept out in those same tents overnight. We raised over $1,300 this year, a record number. But why?

 

A few of the tents as dusk fell

 

Here are the facts. On any given day in New Haven, 700 people are homeless. And even this number is probably a low estimate – as someone who has walked the streets at the end of January to help with the CT Point-in-Time Homeless Count in 2009, I completely agree with my friend Matt, who says of the government-sponsored count, “It is guesswork done by smart, caring people…but it is certainly not a science.” Some of the homeless come from the greater New Haven area to concentrate in the city, which is the only place around with a variety of social services. Some of them are veterans, some mentally ill, some battered. Some have records and, despite having served their time, can’t find employers willing to take them. Others are homeless as a form of escape – many of the people who fit in this group grew up with some form of abuse. (For more stats and info, check out YHHAP’s website here.) But the vast majority of the homeless population – those who are not “chronically” homeless, or homeless for more than a year – are people who have had some success in life, but lately their luck has been a little too little and a little too late. They are neither all male nor all older; in fact, the reality is much the opposite – the NYTimes reported that there has been a rise in the number of families in New York shelters in this article (linked) just a month ago.

The difference between the perception of homeless people and the reality is one that Pat Mellion knows all too well. Mellion is the treasurer of New Haven Home Recovery, a non-profit serving homeless women and their children (check out their website here), and she came to speak to attendees of the Sleep Out last night.

NHHR has always served a large number of people in New Haven. They run a long-term shelter for women and children (meaning that instead of staying for only one night and then having to leave in the morning, which is how overnight shelters work, these families can actually have a home base and stay steady — soooo important for kids who need to be in one place so that they can attend school!) and manage 130 units of supportive housing in the city, with two more buildings slated to be added this year. The average stay at their shelter is 151 days (91 for those who are part of a government-sponsored rapid-rehousing program), with the end result being a housing unit that NHHR has found for that mother and child. They get referrals from 30-40 different agencies in New Haven and, between July and September of 2010, had already served 93 children. Because they focus on rehousing families and finding them supportive housing, they are our nation’s best chance at finding a long-term solution for homelessness. Yet even they are overwhelmed by the recent spike in need.

 

"It's overwhelming," Pat Mellion, Treasurer of the Board of Directors of New Haven Home Recovery (nhhr.org), said of the situation for homeless women and children that the organization doesn't have space for.

 

NHHR has had to turn 535 people away from its shelters just since July of this year. This number is up 25% from prior years, and only refers to those whom the agency has officially had to turn away. As Mellion put it, “If somebody knocks on the door at night, we will not turn them away…even if we put them in a sleeping bag on the office floor.”

So, in response to this crisis, what do we do? What can we do?

In my mind, the two questions are different. What do we do? Well, we try our best to fill in the gaps. The shelters are in immediate need of funding (in order to keep the overflow shelter open this year, New Haven’s government took money out of the budgets of every other shelter in the city instead of adding anything new, so NHHR alone is down $62,000 this year in its shelter operating budget.) The $1,300 from last night is a start, and the two incredible fundraising coordinators for YHHAP have raised several thousands of dollars from local businesses to add to that. Next up is the YHHAP Fast, the project that I, personally, am responsible for with my co-coordinator. We organize Yale students to give up their meal swipes for one day each semester (this term, it will be this coming Thursday, October 21!), and the money that isn’t spent on food is instead donated to local organizations. (Yalies, if you haven’t signed up yet, yale.edu/sis -> Dining -> Hunger and Homelessness -> YES.) Last spring, almost a third of the undergraduate student body donated their swipes and we raised close to $12,000. It’s not enough, but it helps.

 

Joe and I looking super stylish at the Sleep Out. If we look sleep-deprived, it's definitely not because we were actually, y'know, sleep-deprived or anything. Go team.

 

But besides what we feel compelled to do, there is another answer here. What can we do? For some people, the answer is “nothing.” Homelessness is someone’s “own” problem. I can understand that point of view. After all, I don’t believe that housing is an inalienable right in the way that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness happen to be. But I think that there is something to be said for the preservation of all of our human dignity by supporting a society in which even when someone hits “rock bottom,” that bottom still treats them like a human.

For most of us, the first time that we encounter homelessness is during childhood. We look at someone on the sidewalk and are confused, upset, scared, and full of questions. We’ve long-since lost that feeling. Now, we walk by with our hands on our wallets and continue our conversations. And we do nothing wrong by walking by.

But in an ideal world, I think we would still be filled with those childlike questions, because in America today, homelessness still doesn’t make sense. We would see this person as one story out of many (and a story, indeed – how often do you wonder what this man or woman or child originally wanted to be like when he or she grew up? Not a panhandler, with almost complete certainty), and even if we don’t give physical change, we would push for change of some other kind. This doesn’t have to come from the government – I don’t mean for this to be a politicized message. These things we can reach for on our own. A change in respect, whereby we say “hello” while walking by. A change in understanding and assumptions, whereby we recognize that the faces of homelessness are varied – and, often, are women and children, too. And a change in the solutions that we are content to give as a society – not just a short-term fix to get someone off the street, but a longer-term set of checkpoints between “here” and “there.”

 

Insert big metaphor about looking out into the future here. Effective, no?

 

On Citizens and Police

6 Oct

It feels like abuse to me.

It feels like abuse because watching the video and hearing an officer, post-tasing a student, yell “Who’s next?” causes the center of my stomach to clench in a tight and painful ball.

(Warning: college student language here)

It feels like abuse because I listened to the radio interview with two arrested students (both of whom I know), and they told me that not one of the arrested students had his (they were all male) rights read to him – in fact, in several cases, it sounded like the opposite.

It feels like abuse because – let’s be honest – I’m used to conceptualizing police as there to protect me, or, in the occasional moment, to protect me from hurting myself or from hurting others (isn’t that really what enforcing laws is supposed to accomplish?), and these images of SWAT teams and semi-automatic guns charging into a room full of dancing students challenge those conceptions.

And it feels like abuse because even if I trust that the Yale students involved will be okay – that the university will help them to hire lawyers and share the full story of what happened at Elevate – I know that if this happened to us, it is also, most likely, happening to others around the city and state. And they, unlike us, may not have the resources to pursue justice, whatever that justice might entail.

Okay. So. We’ve established that I’m uncomfortable with what happened this weekend between NHPD officers and Yale students. And if the dozens of comments on the YDN, New Haven Independent, and New Haven Register articles are any indication, I’m not alone.

But I’m also not done thinking this through. Yes, my initial reaction is straight-from-the-gut sadness at what I’ve heard. But I’m also in disagreement with many of the sentiments coming from members of the Yale community, things like: “This is why Yale should leave New Haven,” or “How stupid are they to come after underage drinking?” or “Yalies deserved what was coming to them — they all think that they’re better than the law,” or even the most typical teenage rebellion of all, “F&%* the police!”

Because let’s face it — the police did something wrong on Saturday night, even if there is more to the story (which is to say — even if we did things wrong as well). Maybe they went on a power trip, maybe they did indeed feel some class dynamics, or maybe they just felt threatened by a room full of people who were probably both scared and nervously laughing under their breath. But on other nights, members of that same police force – and so many other public servants around the country – are instead responsible for doing so much right. This story of police officers from the same New Haven Police force saving a man’s life is the reality far more often than the Storm Trooper parallels that are being drawn about Saturday night, and it is only by acknowledging the good intentions of the vast majority of officers that we can move forward from this.

But move forward to where? And how?

On our end, we need to recognize that the police have every right to enforce laws in our city, whether they be laws about overcrowding, underage drinking (even if they only found one person this time around, let’s not roll our eyes and pretend it’s not a legitimate target for their authority), or, at the extreme, murdering another person. We need to recognize that when they come dressed for combat, often that is because these cops actually deal with combat — and that the violence outside of city nightclubs won’t go down without their help and without them being willing to put their lives on the line to make our streets safer. We need to recognize that they are patrolling an urban area with enormous disparities in age, wealth, background, and criminal records. And we need to recognize that before we criticize their jobs, we ought to consider whether we would be willing to give them a try instead, even just for a night or two. In my case, the answer, though it makes me a bit embarrassed to admit it, is no. I, at least without an enormous amount of training and selflessness, could not do what they do. All it takes are a few reads of the Indy’s “Cop of the Week” profiles for me to know that.

And before you jump on me for leaving your – our – side of this out, let me take a seat on the other side of the debate table for a moment.

From the perspective of a student and a citizen, even as we recognize your job as policemen and women and commend you for it, we ask that you respect us in return. Even as you wear gear that prepares you for the worst possible scenario, is there a moment in which you could allow us to act our best? We, in almost all instances, want to help you. We value you, we want to cooperate, and – yes – we are terrified of your guns. So help us! Instead of blazing through the doors of a club of students with your guns waving and not explaining the reasons for your presence, take a moment, assess the lack of resistance, and talk to us. Tell us why you are there. Tell us what you expect from us and what we can expect from you in return. Treat the situation like we both belong to the same community (because – and I feel so so strongly about this – we do) and have some goals in common – goals like everyone in the club abiding by the law and leaving safely, goals like citizens doing their job by informing police about potential trouble and acting as stand-in vigilantes as necessary, goals like the city in return valuing the police force enough to agree to a raise in union wages. Perhaps these questions sound, to you, naive. But I ask you to take a moment to remember that, when we first grow up in our communities, we are all naive about what it means to interact with an officer. It does not come naturally. We see and hear conflicting messages from the media, from American history, from our friend’s dad who works in the station. We don’t know what to expect when we really, truly are asked to confront you for the first time. And for many of those Yale students, the raid at Elevate was their first time in direct contact with you. That’s a precious moment, and we can either leave it the way that we did on Saturday, disillusioned, hurt, angry, confused…or we can leave it understanding your job and why you asked us to act certain ways in your presence in order to make doing that job easier.

Hand-in-hand with our naivete and thus nervousness comes this desire to document your actions. A beautiful thing about this country is the way that it allows its citizens freedom of speech and of the press – a freedom that makes the old adage about the pen being mightier than the sword actually have a chance at verity. Yes, you have the right to carry your guns – we know that. It makes us both grateful and terrified, depending on which way they are pointing. But in return for us respecting your right to control the boundaries of our interactions through your weapons, you need to understand that our powers of observation are our own way of ensuring our safety and comfort during our meetings together. Both tools are dangerous — a trigger finger on a gun or on a camera has the power to change someone’s life within seconds. Your bullets are more immediately lethal, but a well-crafted article (or, I should say, a few seconds of video like those shown above) can have consequences with an even farther reach – one that moves beyond just the people present in that moment and into a national or global public sphere. So if you agree to be trained to use your weapon, let us, in turn, have a moment for self-defense. If we are not impeding you during your investigations or arrests and are merely observing, let us reinforce our eyes with gadgets. If you are doing your job, let the record show it. If we aren’t doing ours, let the record show that, too.

These are difficult issues and dialogues that all too often happen in terms of individual cases. In those scenarios, someone will always be seen as the “victor” (Yale students if they are acquitted, New Haven police if they can indeed prove that they were provoked). So before any of this happens again, let’s do more than hold press conferences trading anecdotes across newsprint and Twitter feeds. Let’s do our best to get some real conversation going, through our public remarks, yes, but also by encouraging our campus leaders to enroll in city-sponsored initiatives like the New Haven Police Citizens Academy. A course designed to increase communication, understanding, collaboration, and respect between New Haven citizens (and again, yes, this INCLUDES Yalies) and New Haven police officers sounds like the perfect place to start.

The New Haven Field Trip Society

5 Oct

At the beginning of this year, I gathered friends, crayons, and panlist members and started something new. (Perhaps, one could argue, I started something “new…Haven.”) It is a field trip society. It tries to move the boundaries of our self-defined “community” so far outwards that neither we nor local residents notice them anymore. It seeks to make us get up, go, learn, meet, explore, and then, perhaps, belong. And when someone asked me a few weeks ago to write them a piece explaining our mission, I did it like this:

Some people call them crazy. Some call them time-consuming, escapist, exhilarating, or nostalgia-inducing. I, however, simply call them “field trips.”

Remember those? The museums, the mountain hiking, the parental permission forms, and that one day free of the classroom when we earned our “real world” stripes (oh, the days when helping a historical reenactor lead a town meeting was enough to gain you street cred.) It was kind of cool, those few hours of exploding the familiar and singing bad ‘90s pop songs on the school bus. And then it disappeared.

Until now. This fall, I and a group of other quirky, adventurous, wanderlust students decided to do the unthinkable: bring back the field trips. Bring back the sense of discovery and the connection to places and people outside of our normal daily circuits. Bring back the magic. And with that, in August, 2010, the New Haven Field Trip Society was born.

Its mission is simple: to facilitate field trips from Yale’s campus into the wider world, most specifically the greater New Haven area. On top of this, NHFTS aims to make interesting people and places collide with each other. That’s why, in addition to having a huge array of potential destinations, we have a huge array of members, and our favorite trips are the ones that begin with introductions. It’s not all that many organizations that collect spontaneous people. We’re one of them.

So far, we’ve gone on a sunset schooner-ride in the New Haven Harbor, tried homemade pepper jam and fresh-picked blueberries at the Downtown Farmer’s Market, painted murals in Fair Haven at a service event with people from the neighborhood, and jammed at the CT Folk Festival. We’ve invited members to ribbon cutting events more than a half an hour away from campus and neighborhood parties just around the corner. And that’s just the beginning. Our “explorganizers” (no self-respecting society is complete without some tongue-in-cheek board titles) have suggested master classes with area metalworkers, tours of the city’s old baseball landmarks, midnight canoe rides, joint service days with local organizations, and undercover missions to the homes of local celebrities. Not to mention the culinary conquistadors out there; we have a list of area restaurants to fill every spare minute of our days…and every free inch of our stomachs (yes, Mom, even our second stomachs.)

Row, row, row your...schooner?

There is a lightheartedness to all of this, of course. A sense of frivolity, even, in the freewheeling expeditions that we lead. We are the Ivy-League equivalents of the Lost Boys, marching off into the sunset with funny-looking caps on our heads and leaving our Yale responsibilities behind. And that, in itself, is a beautiful thing: to take our resume-laden self-presentations down a notch (or several notches) and force us to interact under more unfamiliar settings. We regain playfulness and break away from our expected social packs. We even, on occasion, laugh so hard that we make new friends and adopt new places as our own. In the most elementary-school way, it’s extraordinary.

It’s also extremely important. As Yale students, we come from hometowns to a campus and expect the two to be roughly equivalent. After all, just like the neighborhoods we left, Yale hosts events, fosters relationships between suites, and builds monuments to its own history. Because of this, for many students, being a scholar and being a citizen may seem like the same thing. But there is so much that they miss. The city outside the university is not “outside” at all, in the sense that it only exists beyond our doors; it envelops us, we are a part of it, spatially if not mentally. This campus is just one portion of a metropolitan area that has its own uniqueness, its own depth and struggles, its own government, its own favorite places and local yokels and neighborhood activists. We would be fooling ourselves to think that the world begins and ends at Phelps Gate, and we would be depriving ourselves of a whole lot of fun. The New Haven Field Trip Society exists to knock down those walls around campus and expose the city for what it really is: our home. And if that sounds like a cool mission to you – or if you really want to live out the adventures that you crave – I invite you to join us. No permission slip required.

If I can't rope you into joining me, can I hula hoop you into an expedition? Not even if I do it in front of a whole festival full of bemused people?

Welcome to the Society (and, for future purposes, email me to get on the panlist or click here to read more.)

Yours in urban questing,

J

Last Stop, New Haven?

26 Aug

For the past week, I have been one of the leaders of FOCUS on New Haven, a pre-orientation program at Yale meant for rising sophomores and incoming transfer students. I, along with my fellow leaders, organize, transport, counsel, and challenge the 60+ participants in the program through panels, discussion groups, project sites (Ronald McDonald House of Connecticut for the win!), alternative tours, and even a scavenger hunt containing some New Haven-related quests created by yours truly. As a participant, I found FOCUS to be overwhelming, thrilling, full of no sleep and instantaneous friendships. As a leader, insert all of the above, with the addition of a self-consciousness with regards to my choices and wording during my time as a conduit between these students and the city around them and the subtraction of several more hours of sleep.

This being a program about New Haven, it is something that matters a lot to me. This being a program about service, political awareness, and the dirty, time-consuming process of forming opinions about local issues, it is something that matters to me. This being a program that clashes some of the most open student minds against their surroundings with often spectacular results, it is something that matters to me. In short, in case you haven’t caught on yet (repetition alert!), FOCUS as a program matters very much to me.

Tonight, I spent some time thinking about what I would want to share with participants if given the opportunity. What do I have to say – even for just a few minutes – about New Haven? About this program? About experiencing a city from my point of view?

Here are some thoughts, in speech form, for starters. I’d better eat my Wheaties to prep for this one.

I want to take a moment, after a week of being a FOCUS leader, to tell you what scares me about New Haven.

For a lot of people, the scariest part about this city is the crime map. Where violence takes place, what might happen to them. For others, it’s the statistics, like the number of students who graduate without adequate levels of literacy. And for still others, it’s those moments of coming face to face with someone they don’t know how to deal with, like Daksha’s encounter with a homeless woman, that make them, on some level at least, afraid.

That’s not it for me. Instead, I am scared, scared beyond anything else, to leave. Scared to find a job in another city, to change my homepage from the New Haven Independent to a different local paper, to fulfill what I think is an expectation of Yale students that we haven’t talked enough about during this week: the expectation that we will not stay, that we are transitory, and that our work, however well-meant, is rooted more in our conscience than in our physical place. The expectation, in short, that despite diving into urban affairs with all of the verve of a neighborhood activist, we will eventually cut ties and move away in a way that a homeowner here never could. I don’t know when this tie-cutting might be. I don’t even know if this will be – some of us may well settle down right here. But I can’t know that for sure, and that uncertainty at my core changes me from a resident to a traveler.

This is something that I want to share with you because it is a voice in the back of my head that I don’t acknowledge very often when I am out in the community, the voice telling me, “But what about when you are gone?” Instead, I work harder with all of you each hour, each minute, to prove how committed we are in the number of questions we ask in panels or meals we serve at the Ronald McDonald House. I don’t let myself ask why I am putting all of this effort – why all of us are putting all of this effort – into a community that we may not belong to in two or three years from now, into the absorption of localized knowledge that won’t apply to any other grid of streets. But what if, for a moment, I do allow myself to ask that question: the “why?”

This is what I thought about last night, and this is what I want to talk to you about during this morning charge.

There are generalized answers, of course, reasons that are completely valid and, in many cases, very powerful. Here, I think of our innate desire for justice, our sense of reciprocity and service, and our eagerness to belong to a group and to contribute value to that community.

But the specific answer that I have settled upon, at least so far, is one that acknowledges our potential transience by stating, simply, that as much as we are students and citizens of the city, at this moment of our lives we are also travelers by nature. I don’t mean to imply that we are jetsetters, though perhaps some of us are, or that we live out of our suitcases. I merely mean that in a very concrete sense, we have not yet committed ourselves to a “home” in this world, and until we do (perhaps by buying a house, accepting a long-term job, or running for local office), we remain travelers.

Well, this is not helping, Jess, you are thinking. I was having such a nice cereal breakfast before you undermined my entire relationship with New Haven. I understand what you are saying. But bear with me on this for just a few more moments.

I choose the term “travelers” very specifically. The word actually comes from the French verb “travailler,” which, roughly translated, means, “to work.” And it is in this etymology that I find my answer about engaging with New Haven.

In this context, traveling is not merely observing. It is not just taking classes and walking by the Green every once in a while or writing cutesy blogposts about the PechaKucha nights in town (though, incidentally, the one that I attended tonight was pretty darn cool). It is, instead, the act of WORKING, of putting your own energy into your physical surroundings, of expending effort to make connections and to leave each place better, safer, happier, brighter than how you found it when you first arrived. In other words, traveling in New Haven, for us, as Yale students, ought to be seen as our job.

In this light, FOCUS and other New Haven outreach programs make all the sense in the world. Despite the fact that we can move away and leave this city – perhaps because of that fact – we, as travelers and visitors of both the physical and intellectual kind, have a responsibility to work while we are here, to earn our hospitality and our right to call ourselves members of this community for even the shortest time.

This is what I want you to have in mind during today, your final day of project sites. This idea of you having an identity in the city that does require thinking, hard work, moments of forcing yourself to go that extra step, to make the awkward introduction, to do the obvious service like tutoring but also the less obvious outreach like saying hello to everyone you pass on the street in an unfamiliar neighborhood. This whole scholar-citizen thing isn’t easy; it requires work. But that same work acts as a legitimate retort to the stereotyped  here-today-gone-tomorrow assumption about Yale students, and it is a large part of the reason why I, at least, feel responsible for and excited about doing as much as possible with the citywide community, whether it will prove relevant to my future life or not. So over the next twelve hours – our final twelve hours – see what you can do with your traveler identity. What can you give, how can you leave your site better off for the next arriving traveler or the people who live there, how can you choose to approach your day in a light that moves you from outsider to included participant? I can’t wait to see what you’ve got. CHARGE.

From Nation-Hops to New Haven

26 Aug

This is no travel post. This is no cute-baker-with-coercive-pastries post, nor vino-et-veritas-and-professors post, nor even a ramble-about-Rome post. In fact, this is not much of a typical post at all, for “Jess on a whim” has grown roots, and gone home, and moved in, whimsy and all, to this room in New Haven.

During the weeks right after I last posted, I cooked at least six different spaghetti sauces and got into regular, heated debates about the value of affordable, fresh food on every street corner. I narrated my way through hours of pictures for my patient, smiling-through-their-yawns family members and even considered buying the occasional coffee-related beverage. In short, I was in cultural withdrawal.

Now (fast-forwarding through some Mickey ears and my parents’ TWENTY FIFTH anniversary — now that’s something to emulate), I have come here. To this place for which I, like many college students, have made room in my heart for a second home, one connected more to a web of people, places, classes, and clubs than to a Thanksgiving table. And all of a sudden the patterns of streets and paths and faces are automatic again; my mind at ease in this hammock of familiarity.

And it is in this state of mind, and in this place, and with this sense of still having something that I want to say, to challenge, to peel apart or hold up to the light, that I start blogging again.

Besos,

J

P.S. But seriously, three cheers for my parents, who are now mortified and probably dialing me on the cell phone to make me remove these words off this post “or else we will take away all of the books on your bookshelf, young lady” (their atom-bomb-level threat for when I am really out of line), but who also taught me so much about respect, love, and gratitude for each and every day and each and every person in our lives. Not to mention the fact that they look supah-supah stylish in mouse ears. I love you, and thanks.

P.P.S. But seriously, Mom, don’t you lay one finger on that poor, innocent bookshelf in my absence…

A Note for a City – One City in Particular

24 May

The world is a very big place until something happens at home, and then, somehow, it all shrinks down. Down from the country to the state, down from the state to the city. And, in my case, down to one teacher and one classroom program in the City of New Haven.

When I first met Marcella Flake, I felt like I was truly in the presence of what a teacher ought to be. She led the classroom by demanding respect from the students because she gave it to them in return; she didn’t treat them like children and she didn’t tolerate childish behavior. “Do you think someone who is drunk or drug-addicted and homeless still deserves help?” she asked them bluntly. “Tell me what you think.”

And slowly the stories came out, and the critical thinking. One student relayed a time when his dad had given money to someone on a street corner and the personal story that had resulted, concluding, “I’m glad he helped.” Another, from her eighth grade perspective, just couldn’t understand why anyone would be stupid enough to drink in the first place. And so the conversation shifted there. Throughout it all, Ms. Flake called on the students by name, probed even further into their assumptions with follow-up questions, and shared with the classroom her own beliefs in respecting and helping every human being, simply because we have no idea what they have been through. “Does any child ever dream of growing up to be homeless?” she asked them. “Did any of you? What are your dreams for yourself? Do you ever think you might stumble and need a helping hand?”

I was there with my friend Joe as a representative of the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project (YHHAP), a community service umbrella organization that I’m on the board of at Yale. Ms. Flake had contacted us and asked us to come speak to her class about hunger, homelessness, and service during a week of awareness that she was planning, and so we arrived armed with a few handouts, some heartwrenching statistics (they are still heartwrenching now), and an exercise that I had rewritten from my high school days about the varying conceptions of service. We were impressed by this teacher and program before we even walked through the doors – after all, who else organizes outside visitors to teach middle schoolers about complex social issues? – and we left even more energized by the discussion and by the program. Several weeks later, the students organized and held a huge fundraiser with the help of their teacher and donated the proceeds to social service organizations in New Haven. From this one little corner of the city, citizens were being made.

So why am I writing this now? This spring, Joe and I were invited back to the classroom to give another presentation in preparation for another big fundraiser: this time, a karaoke contest pitting a local TV station against YHHAP board members, one college’s students against another, policemen against students. It was a rip-roaring good time and both an intellectual and financial success, and at the end, we wrote an appreciative email. “We can’t wait to see you next year!” we concluded. This was quickly become an eagerly anticipated YHHAP Board outreach tradition.

And then, last week, we got it. The email from Ms. Flake that begins: “Unfortunately, there may not be a next year for us.” Due to budget cuts by the mayor of New Haven, the city is cutting all support for its Talented and Gifted Program, which is what Ms. Flake (among others) organizes. These kids – ones she has known since they were in the very beginning of grade school, the same ones she worked tirelessly to challenge and to engage, to open up and to inspire – will go back into the regular New Haven classrooms full time, at a level above those of their classmates but without any extra support to keep their minds working. For her part, Marcella Monk Flake is worried about gifted students turning into at risk students because of boredom. For my part, I am watching the critical future citizens of New Haven – the ones who are confident and informed enough to speak out, who can lead their friends and neighborhoods – lose an enormous set of opportunities.

Mayor DeStefano announcing the budget cuts, courtesy of Thomas MacMillan and the New Haven Independent

I don’t pretend to know everything about Talented and Gifted programs elsewhere in the country. Maybe they are, indeed, a form of fluff. But I do know about this classroom, about this crazy and all-encompassing New Haven program that brought in two Yale professors to teach eighth graders biomedical engineering and forced students to articulate their hopes and dreams. And I know it shouldn’t be lost. I’m writing a letter to Mayor DeStefano today to say so and to attempt to turn rant into change.

And again, why write this here? First, because it’s weighing heavy on my mind, and I think it’s something that everyone ought to be aware of. Because this is a problem not just in New Haven but in almost every city across America. There is just not enough to do it all, not enough to do even half of it all. This cut comes alongside less policing and the elimination of community celebrations like the annual tree lighting and Fourth of July fireworks. Cities are gasping for air and funds, and they can’t raise taxes but they also can’t keep pulling funds away from their futures in an effort to contribute pennies towards their rickety present. And if I’m truly going to learn how cities work, this is where it happens – in the giant gaps between what ought to be and what is.

I’m also writing this because, no matter how much traveling I do, I still belong to these communities. I’m rooted right here. My homepage will remain The New Haven Independent, and I will still take good note of the cupcake truck’s latest location. In today’s world, I think this is a balancing act that a good amount of us have to learn: how to fold ourselves into every inch of a new destination while keeping home somewhere at the top of the compass.

So for today, even as I pack suitcases for Rome and drive around the streets of New Hampshire, my mind is sitting up straight in a chair in the front row of a certain classroom. Let’s keep that kind of education alive.