Reflections on FOCUS on New Haven

Focus. Wherever you are, close your eyes and picture yourself stepping out of the front door of Sterling Memorial Library. Walk your imagined self in any direction away from that auspicious tower, away from any building with the unmistakable blue square plaque on its front. Keep moving away until you can no longer remember the streets and the intersections, the colors of the buildings, the names of the shops. How far can you get from campus? Two blocks? Ten? All the way to Hamden? Or Milford?

I come from a town in Pennsylvania with a downtown around eight blocks long and three blocks wide. I lived about four miles outside downtown in a Lincoln Log cabin in the forest. When I arrived at Yale in August of 2019, I could not find its library standing a mere block away from it. The first building I entered was Dwight Hall. I had come for the student-run pre-orientation program FOCUS on New Haven, and it was headquartered there. Although Yale’s place amid New Haven was one of the reasons I liked the school, I knew little about the city itself, and had joined FOCUS to acquaint myself better. Now, nearing three years later, I have been a group leader for two FOCUS programs, working under our exceptional rotating board.

FOCUS (which is capitalized for emphasis, not acronym) emphasizes bringing new students into the city itself. Throughout the weeklong program, students volunteer at local nonprofits, eat food from local restaurants, navigate the city bus system, and place Yale within its geographic context. I have been fortunate to work with the organization Neighborhood Housing Services over two years, located northwest of the Green on Sherman Ave. I knew my way to their office before I could find Commons.

While geographic familiarity is an important and helpful first step to discovering New Haven, FOCUS also aims to provide a civic orientation to the city. The New Haven residents with whom we work are often involved with the city on multiple fronts: owning small businesses, participating in local government, and organizing advocacy and activism. In their work, the university comes up frequently, sometimes as a partner, but also as an under-taxed property owner, employer, and pervasive force in Connecticut and New Haven politics. Thus, FOCUS reflection also turns inwards, asking us to examine our presence in the city and take an active role in shaping it. The so-called “Yale Bubble” that insulates the people in our institution from the community in which we live only works one way: New Haven has no bubble to insulate it from Yale. 

If I could sum up FOCUS in one word, it would be just that. Take in the details of the city and the people who sustain it. Think of yourself as a temporary (perhaps permanent) resident of New Haven, and confront your role, and Yale’s, within it. Cultivate and participate in the dialogue and work across university and city institutions. Start somewhere, do the work, and keep showing up. 

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