Conversations on Repair and Restoration with the Dwight Hall Civic Allyship Initiative

At Dwight Hall, the New Haven Civic Allyship Initiative provides a bridge between students, seeking to thoughtfully engage with local organizing efforts, and community partners, who are actively working to produce counter-narratives on the history of structural racism, oppression, and the nature of predatory surveillance in New Haven.

This fall, Civic Allyship launched a workshop series to provide students into a window of activating allyship. 

In an effort to magnify ongoing community dialogue surrounding urban trauma, policing patterns, and multigenerational impacts of incarceration, the Initiative’s workshop series sought to deepen Yale students’ understanding of how carceral injustice is systemically examined. When initializing the workshop series, the operating questions were:  “What does it mean to be an ally? Is allyship enough in combatting systemic oppression?”

Left: James Jeter; Right: Joseph Gaylin ‘19

Civic Allyship Advocates-In-Residence, James Jeter and Joseph Gaylin ’19, wanted to sustain a space where conversations could be held on advocacy and practice, and not solely un-learning oppression in an academic format. By bringing community activists to campus in a way that is not packaged in a traditional academic learning environment, students can begin to identify, but also become a part of, the conversations of tangible advocacy and direct action taking place in New Haven.

Jeter, who spearheaded the workshop series, wanted to give students a grassroots organizing filter to their view of New Haven. “In order to have an affect on civic allyship, you have to get to know the community through community leaders,” said Jeter. “We want to give students an experience and an insight into how they live on the ground. Our goal is to bring New Haven further into Yale.”  

The ongoing Civic Allyship workshop series gives students access to a different knowledge that is not as attainable in the classroom. By hearing from community leaders, students begin to understand how leadership is molded in the community organizing space.

“The goal of the Civic Allyship workshop series is to create a space for students and members of the community to come together and have a conversation that is authentic, genuine, and outside of the traditional non-profit structure,” said Gaylin.

New Haven acts as a case study to understand activism, the longevity of inequality predicated on underrepresented communities, and how students can play a part in actively dismantling systems and structures that perpetuate injustice.

In crafting the trajectory of the workshop series, Jeter and Gaylin had the vision for community partners: “This is your space.”

The goal was to create the space, and continue creating these spaces where community partners and activists, who are actors in transformative justice, have an opportunity to directly present to uninformed communities in a digestible way. 

Workshop I: Young Adults Learning Evil with Nadir Salaam 

Nadir Salaam

The first of Civic Allyship’s workshops began with Nadir Salaam, a Community Activist in New Haven, who traced the historiography of Yale and its relationship to New Haven. “Salaam is a leader amongst black intellectual culture in the community,” said Jeter. 

The purpose of Salaam’s historical review was to have a robust conversation that is substantive in understanding how Yale’s relationship with New Haven over time has played a role in the inequities pervasive in New Haven today.

“The intention starting off with Nadir’s workshop was to lay a historical foundation for the rest of the conversations,” said Gaylin. The larger intention was to give everyone the background that the university’s foundation and development was not neutral.

Salaam’s workshop provided students with an opportunity for inquest. All of Yale’s history, its relationships to New Haven, and ongoing evaluations of this relationship can be found in Yale’s archive. Salaam provided a critical moment of reflection, and an opportunity for students to be informed that history must be comprehensively evaluated to reach conclusions on the state of the New Haven community.                                                                          

Workshop II: Death, Conviction and Exoneration: 30 Years of Policing and Prosecuting in New Haven 

Left: Jewu Richardson; Right: Jackie James

Civic Allyship’s second workshop took a deep dive into patterns of practice among conviction and exoneration in New Haven.

Jewu Richardson, a New Haven native and community organizer with the CT Bail Fund, explored the stories of exonerated community members and currently incarcerated people awaiting exoneration. 

Jackie James, a New Haven native with deep connections to local public service, and who currently works as the Director of Public Relations for Retreat Behavior Health, encouraged students to think about: “At what point do we exonerate? At what point does incarceration become too much to not actually fit what happened in the past?”

Richardson and James took a microscope to the widespread allegations of corruption that characterized arrests in New Haven’s police department in the 1990s. By creating a historical timeline of arrests in New Haven, Richardson and James questioned the legitimacy of conviction patterns in the 1990s. New Haven has seen a pattern of practice where police officers forced people into unfair situations in the criminal legal system, which led to convictions that were later overturned.

James emphasized the damage that is perpetuated on communities when drastically disproportionate sentences do not correlate to the caliber of the offense.

Connecticut’s carceral system, relying in part on the doctrine of the “fruit of the poisonous tree,” must be understood.  In order to get at the core issue, the entire tree is poisonous, meaning that the entire era of policing needs to be questioned. As our nation grapples with the legacy of mass incarceration, this workshop examined the era of “broken windows” policing on a local level and contextualized the effects of the War on Crime on communities throughout New Haven. 

In the discussion, James said we, as members of a system with agency, must ask, “How do you interrogate older convictions, and how do you frame that as part of a larger conversation that would nullify the entire system of policing and the legitimacy of policing in that era?” 

Workshop III: Social Justice & Advocacy for Incarcerated Families with Barbara Fair and Patrice Collins

Left: Patrice Collins; Right: Barbara Fair

Civic Allyship’s third workshop called into question: How are prisons funded? How do systems of solitary confinement function in Connecticut? How do we think about the multigenerational effects of incarceration on families? 

Barbara Fair, a longtime social justice activist born, raised, and educated in New Haven, has a longevity of perspective that is incredibly powerful. Fair’s work has been focused on improving prison conditions and addressing racial injustices inherent within the criminal legal system in Connecticut and across the nation. 

Patrice Collins, a doctoral candidate in the department of Sociology at Yale, not only took an examination to the impacts of multigenerational incarceration, but assessed responsibility, agency, and what students can do to be a part of organizing work to create a sustainable space that supports people who have been historically neglected in the criminal system. 

 “For every person that is inside, there is a family outside that loves them,” said Fair. Indifference exists inside of prisons, which creates systems of multigenerational trauma on families. Incarceration plays a role in structuring community and must be evaluated when understanding how society can establish humanity in the justice system. 

Civic Allyship Inaugural Student Cohort 

The project-based nature of the Civic Allyship program allows a space for students interested in advocacy work to learn, grow, and be a part of ongoing community activism efforts taking place in New Haven. The goal is not just to have students learn, but to direct them towards individuals who can enlist support. In doing so, Civic Allyship provides a framework for students to understand how to engage and support existing organizers and projects. 

When establishing Civic Allyship’s Inaugural Cohort, the goal was to create an intentional space to have less traditional conversations that can take place at Dwight Hall and also challenge students to think about, “What can I do now to materially shift and transform the undue burdens placed on this community?” 

Cohort students learn and spend a semester critically reflecting – and then begin to work with leaders where they can understand the larger social justice ecosystem that is fighting for justice and creating an intentional space that people can come back to. 

Civic Allyship presents a window for students to experience, how it [society, systems, and structures] actually functions. The workshop series is not a theoretical conversation – but in practice, is a reflection of what is occurring in the grassroots world. The reality of Civic Allyship’s interaction with community activists is that the leaders who have engaged in part of this program are either from New Haven or have direct experience in ways that allow them to speak authentically to the issues from a first-person counter-narrative perspective. 

Civic Allyship began as an initiative and strives to be a continuation of how to intentionally create carved space within Dwight Hall to connect people to transformative justice at the community based level in New Haven. 

Giving those from the city, who are passionate about these causes, a space for dialogue creates impact. These workshops help better define what is being taught to students, and those engaged in these conversations can see how the work affects those most vulnerable in our community. To hear the stories of these workshops is life changing for anyone who can partake in it.” – James Jeter, Advocate-In-Residence

About the Author

Lydia Burleson

Lydia Burleson served as the Communications and Alumni Engagement Associate for Dwight Hall at Yale, Center for Public Service and Social Justice from June 2021-June 2022. A first-generation low-income student from rural Texas, Lydia graduated from Yale cum laude in 2021 with a degree in English and a nonfiction creative writing concentration. During her college years, Lydia increased awareness of marginalized voices with the public writing she did for The Yale Daily News and the Yale Admissions office. Her Dwight Hall experiences included free college advising with student-led member groups REACH and Matriculate. Dwight Hall empowered Lydia to uplift other disadvantaged students and to increase access to education for people who might not have otherwise received these resources. She is currently completing an English PhD at Stanford University with a Knight-Hennessy Fellowship.