“See a need, have a passion,” advised Karen DuBois-Walton, PhD, chairperson of the State Board of Education, president of Elm City Communities, and secretary of the Housing Authority of the City of New Haven. “New Haven is a city of non-profits and they always need volunteers.” DuBois-Walton provided this advice in response to the question of how new residents can meaningfully engage with the New Haven community, during the second annual New Haven Voices (NHV) series at Yale School of Medicine (YSM). Initiated by four first-year MD students (Kyle Gavulic, Lamley Lawson, Roselyn Terrazos-Moreno, and Diane Zhao), NHV was launched last year with the goal of amplifying the voices of New Haven community leaders and creating a platform for health professional trainees to better understand the context of the community in which they serve.
In introducing this year’s session on October 3, Marietta Vazquez, MD, professor of pediatrics (general pediatrics) and associate dean for medical student diversity, pointed to the enormous opportunities health professionals and health profession students have to protect and support the health of the community. “It is our hope,” she said, “that, through this panel, you can better appreciate the institutional structures, systems, and resources that perpetuate inequality in this community. It is also our hope that leaving here you will feel empowered to become meaningfully involved in the city of New Haven and in these issues.”
The evening’s two other panelists— Justin Farmer, legislative councilman for Hamden’s 5th District, and Nadine Horton, founder of Armory Community Garden and research assistant at YSM’s SEICHE Center for Health and Justice, which serves as a hub for research and knowledge for policymakers, health professionals, students, and advocates seeking to address the health crisis of mass incarceration— also responded to the engagement question. Get out and spend time in neighborhoods: eat, walk around, go to Community Management Team meetings, volunteer in a community garden, Horton advised, adding, “don’t let the only time people see you be when you are doing a research study. When people see you on a consistent basis, they will trust you” and, “if you put yourself out there, we will embrace you.” In addition to visiting neighborhoods, Farmer encouraged attendees to “invite people to your space. Most people don’t get to see” the Yale campus from the inside. He also advised, “whatever you organize around, connect to other people.” (In response to another question, Farmer noted New Haven’s small size as “part of its greatest charm.” You can connect with so many people” he stated, and when you make mistakes, “there are so many people to catch you.”)
Second-year MD students Olamiposi Akinsooto, Elana Straus, and Kaitlyn Xiong organized and moderated the session, supported by faculty advisors Carmen Black, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry, and Lisa Puglisi, MD, associate professor of medicine (general medicine). YSM’s Office of Diversity, Inclusion, Community Engagement & Equity, and Office of Medicine Education hosted NHV.
Affordable housing crisis
While all the speakers are New Haven boosters, they also touched on challenges the city, and region, face, including affordable housing/housing quality, food insecurity, and public safety. DuBois-Walton cited the city’s history of redlining and decades of housing production that has lagged behind population growth as factors shaping the city’s affordable housing crisis. She encouraged everyone to read Elm City Community’s Breaking Ground Report for proposals about what the city and state should do to address this issue.
Mega-landlords are a significant part of the problem in Farmer’s view. He said the power of community groups organizing is a partial solution, pointing to the recent creation of tenant unions that already have experienced success in pressuring a large landlord. He also said Yale could hire more people from communities of need, increasing individuals’ ability to afford housing, and expressed his belief that Yale’s non-taxable property negatively impacts the city’s budget.
Horton stressed it is almost impossible for the prison reentry population to get housing. She said the city needs to help more, such as providing more direct resources to people in need and pressuring the mega-landlords to set aside housing for the reentry population. Piggybacking on Farmer’s point about the power of community groups, she stated, “You don’t need lots of people to push for change, you need a core, dedicated group,” and then others will join.
Perspectives on policing
The conversation about policing exposed a variety of viewpoints. Horton praised the New Haven Police Department’s district manager for her neighborhood, Lt. Ryan Przybylski, noting his innovation and community engagement. She emphasized the value of New Haveners serving as police, with their longstanding relationships and understanding of the city, and cautioned against using a broad brush to discuss policing. Farmer expressed concern with the institution of policing, criticizing the increased use of security cameras, arguing the city is overpoliced, and pointing to the millions spent on police overtime, which he says diverts money from other needs. DuBois-Walton referred to the city’s long history of policing—the birthplace of and, at times, a model for community policing, while also experiencing periods of policing scandals and abuses. For many, she said, those memories live side-by-side and can be ignited when police brutality happens in other locations. She also emphasized that when needs are met, there is less crime, citing the drop in calls for police services in well-serviced public housing communities.
Turning to New Haveners’ views on Yale and Yale New Haven Health System (YNHHS), Horton spoke of the need to improve training of patient-facing individuals—from receptionists to health care professionals—to engage with people from all parts of society. She said recently incarcerated individuals often avoid getting health care because they feel judged and not heard, leading their small health problems to escalate. Farmer spoke of his own experience, as a young, black man, getting handcuffed when he had a seizure, noting that at other times he received wonderful treatment. He spoke of the need for Yale and YNHHS to better connect with the community. Again turning to history, DuBois-Walton said Yale and YNHHS are primary employers in the community and each has a history of, at times, having challenging labor situations. The large presence of organized labor in New Haven today, she said, owes much to this history.