Note: This essay was originally published in the Yale Daily News.
In my first month at Yale, a senior suggested that if I wanted to see change in New Haven, I should just start doing things. At the time, I was scared and worried about the future of this country under President Donald Trump. I wanted to know who I should reach out to. Legislating seemed like the thing to do.
But I didn’t think I was the right person to “just start doing things.” I felt clumsy and naive, knowing I would be infringing on spaces that didn’t belong to me. My thinking still remains the same: I am young and the daughter of an academic with cultural capital. It’s true that I’m a woman of color and queer, but that’s only half the story. Just because I clearly see privilege permeating some of my reality doesn’t mean I catch it at every step. In truth, I have just stumbled into New Haven. In the fall, I had just begun to fall in love with New Haven’s seasons, the way the city brought me batches of fresh colors like saffron trees yet to lose their leaves and branches sagging with snow. Winter has taken me beyond the hems of Old Campus and Yale’s border into this small city and its complicated history. Living here for such a short period of time has taught me so much. I can only imagine how much I am missing of this city and how much I have left to learn about its contours and streets.
So, this past fall I didn’t start “doing things” on my own. I knew I would make mistakes, would be hurting someone somehow. I didn’t want to do that. I thought I might learn from the “experts,” so I joined the Yale College Democrats. I’ve learned a lot about politics and local legislative advocacy. This spring, I’ve done a lot of observing.
When my friend Carrie asked if we could organize something post-Parkland, my thinking hadn’t changed. I was still a first-year student, still learning how my privileges affect life in ways that, to me, are only starting to become visible. Hesitantly, I suggested we organize a vigil. We got together speakers, borrowed candles from the Chaplain’s office and made a Facebook event. People came to speak and it was truly moving. I felt so fulfilled to have helped, to know that I had done something to make this small gathering happen. I didn’t even know that I was capable of something like that. But vigils don’t end at mourning. They’re about what happens next.
Shortly after, we got together a group of students. We were discussing how the Parkland students’ high school education on gun policy made them the incredible activists they are. One senior, Brandon, suggested that we host a teach-in. He emphasized that it should be for New Haven and Yale students alike. Over the past month, me and an incredible group of students contacted organizations from Connecticut and New Haven. We’ve been in touch with high school and college students, advocacy organizations and local representatives.
Through it all, I’ve learned that my concerns were legitimate. I’ve been insensitive, spoken when I shouldn’t have and taken up space when I shouldn’t have. But this whole planning process has forced me to lean in to my discomfort. It has required that I accept that I’m going to make mistakes. But I know that people will push me. Brandon will suggest that instead of sending an aggressive email talking about how “we’re hosting an event” that I attend a few meetings and plant informal roots. Democratic Socialists of America will tell me about more New Haven organizations I haven’t heard about. Ala from Black Lives Matter will suggest that we offer a stipend to students and activists who speak at our event.
But I’m ready to learn, ready to apologize for and remember the mistakes I made. Next time, I’ll attend meetings instead of sending an email stating my position as a Yale student. Next time I’ll remember that, if possible, individuals who speak at an event should be given compensation because not everyone has the luxury of free time. Next time, I’ll do less talking and more listening. I’m thankful to be taught by people who see things I don’t so that one day I’ll see them too.
What has changed, really, between last semester and now? Now I see sometimes you do have to start doing things. Sometimes, you have to make mistakes so you can learn the right way to be a better citizen. Especially here at Yale, it would be easy for me to sit back and do nothing. But I want New Haven to do well because of, not in spite of Yale. And that’s never going to happen if we don’t accept that we’re going to be wrong sometimes. We just have to be ready to learn.