Burning Bridges

An earlier version of this article misstated the circumstances of Makana Ellis’ departure from the Center. We have since confirmed that, rather, her contract was not renewed. The New Journal appreciates this correction to our online records.

– Julia Calagiovanni and Eric Boodman, editors-in-chief, January 2015.

At the end of this past May, Makana Ellis TD ’05 was informed that her contract would not be renewed for the following year. When her supervisor at Yale’s Office of New Haven and State Affairs (ONHSA) called her in to explain the change, she had been working for over two and a half years as coordinator of the Dixwell-Yale Community Learning Center (DYCLC), an initiative that works to bridge the gap between Yale and the Elm City. “They told me they wanted to take the Center to another level,” recalls Ellis, “but they never told me prior that what we were doing currently wasn’t what they were looking for.” Ellis describes her reaction as one of frustration. “I was extremely disappointed, and…saddened by the event. I had definitely planned to continue to stay there and work with the youth and members of the community.”

Since opening its doors in January 2006, the DYCLC has welcomed hundreds of regular members for basketball tournaments, after-school programs, and classes that range from tax preparation to the well-loved line dancing. But this semester, ONHSA, fearing that the Center’s organization had grown too lax, suddenly opted to replace many members of its student and volunteer staff with certified teachers and educational professionals. The resulting controversy has sparked a debate about the optimal method of organizing and running mentoring programs in New Haven. Did the free-form, essentially student-run framework employed in the Center’s original incarnation provide enough oversight and structure to improve the lives of the city’s most under-served children? And, on the other hand, does the Center’s new commitment to professionalism marginalize the role of Yale students, so integral to the Center’s goal of bridging the gap between the University and the city?

Ten years ago, the Ashmun Street property that now houses the DYCLC and the Yale Police Department was a “vacant, blighted industrial structure,” says Michael Morand ’87 DIV ’93, associate vice president for New Haven and State Affairs. After Yale learned that a hazardous waste removal company wanted to buy the property “to park industrial equipment,” the University decided to nab it in the hopes of adding “security to the neighborhood.” The YPD moved in, followed, in January 2006, by the Dixwell-Yale Community Learning Center.

As the Center’s first coordinator, Ellis, a New Haven native newly graduated from Yale, was at first “the only full-time person there,” she remembers. “It was a huge responsibility, especially for someone coming straight out of college, but I was enthusiastic about it.” Even before the Center opened, Ellis energetically set about creating policies and infrastructure by conducting “a lot of door-to-door work, handing out surveys, trying to see what sorts of programs the Dixwell neighborhood would be interested in.” The community wanted youth programs, so the Center opened with after-school and student programs Tuesdays through Saturdays, special programs on Sundays and Mondays, and a plan for continued expansion. Ellis continued to canvas the
neighborhood and by the end of June had signed on over a thousand youth and adult members.

Recognizing the Center’s unique potential to forge relationships between Yale students and their younger charges, Ellis hired freshman and sophomore interns “because I knew they would be there for three or four years and have that consistency with the students and establish a great relationship with the members.”

The strategy seems to have worked. “It was really meaningful,” says former intern Nora Jacobsen SY ’10. “It was not just tutoring where you’re with the kid for an hour and you don’t know them…this was such a connection. It was probably the only place on the Yale campus where you could get something like that, and it was amazing.”

Jeremy Harp TC ’10, who played basketball with the Center’s high school students, agrees. “I learned so much,” he says, “and my views of how to reach older kids have changed.” Interested in becoming a civil rights attorney or community activist, Harp discovered the importance of sports as an arena “where men and youth bond” and where Yale students can teach local students “the importance of education.” He was shocked by the social and psychological division between his world and that of his charges. “I found it amazing that they live so close physically but they might as well be miles away,” he says. “The bringing of the two worlds together is at the Dixwell Center.”

Through the diligence of its staff and interns, the DYCLC successfully bridged that invisible gulf between Yale and New Haven. Adedana Ashebir MC ’09 remembers the mutuality of her experience interning at the Center. “We did our best to share what we learned and they returned the favor, maybe even two-fold,” she says. “It’s the Dixwell-Yale Center.” Each intern brought individual skills and interests. Ashebir took students to the Yale University Art Gallery and screened Saturday movies, and Harp played basketball with the older boys and talked about how gang violence was affecting their lives.

One semester, Jacobsen organized a tolerance discussion group to which she invited members of Yale’s Arab Students Association and Women’s Center. While she knows that “you can’t completely change kids all at once,” she did see a tangible impact that she attributed to the steady presence of the interns. “A lot of the interns worked a lot of hours, and the kids really did get to know us, and when you say to them that Arabs aren’t terrorists, that you have to respect homosexuals—for that to come from someone they know is really important.”

But despite strong student presence at the Center and the emerging cooperation with various Yale organizations, the ONHSA was not satisfied that the Center was fulfilling its potential. One problem, administrators worried, was discipline. Claudia Merson, the Public School Partnerships coordinator at the ONHSA, was concerned that the interns didn’t “know what is natural entropy of children and what is disorganized.” She cites occasional phone calls from parents about bullying at the Center, which she said “shouldn’t even be a possibility.” Control was so lax that the administration hired a retired police officer, Charles Barbour, to help keep things orderly.

Ellis had a different take on Barbour’s presence, remarking that “he was sort of a grandfather figure, helped to maintain discipline and order, helped a lot of students with their homework.”

Jacobsen agrees that he was “an excellent role model for the kids” who “related to them in a positive way.” To her, discipline wasn’t a problem. “Things were never out of control,” she says.

When the interns returned to school this fall, they waited for the usual scheduling email from Ellis. It never arrived. After a month of radio silence, the ONHSA informed them that they needed to reapply for their positions. Merson admits that the failure of communication was “100 percent my fault, I can own up. A piece of it was that I don’t think any of us understood the arrangement the director had with the interns; it’s the antithesis of everything I’ve encountered in this Office.” Merson says she had expected interns to reapply on a regular basis rather than having their contracts automatically rolled over from year to year.

The change in procedure left many of the interns confused and hurt. “We all got the vibe that we weren’t wanted. Whether or not that’s true, I’m not sure,” says Ashebir. Unsure of their positions at the Center, former interns began frantically searching for other jobs to pay for books and to cover fall tuition.

This frantic search, Jacobsen explains, should have been avoidable. “Part of the responsibility of Yale to its students is that when they provide this kind of a job, they make sure that they deal with the students responsibly and not just as disposable workers who go through here in four years,” she says. “It’s not just a job for us.”

Apart from their sudden unemployment, the former interns were most troubled by their broken relationships with students at the Center. “It doesn’t make sense for us to break ties with the youth so abruptly,” Harp says. “I haven’t talked with any of the kids since I left the Center last semester. I can find them on Myspace now but that’s about it, and I’ve lost touch with some of the older kids who I was talking with about gangs.”

When Jacobsen visited the Center earlier this semester, she worried that the students she had mentored felt abandoned. “There was one kid who was a foster kid and it just felt like another person who’d gone, that’s the impression I got from him,” she remembers. “I was pretty close to him by the end of last year…It was hard, I was coming back from the summer really looking forward to that.” She decided to cut contact after this last visit. “Some of them have been hurt a lot by people who have come in and out of their lives,” Jacobsen explains. “I don’t want to be one of those people.”

Morand defends the employee turnover by emphasizing that Ellis was hired on a year-to-year contract—“which is not unusual in the world,” he adds. He believes that the OHNSA honored both Ellis’ contract and those of the interns, and at least one intern was re-accepted to work at the Center.

That leaves at least two former interns who were not even granted interviews when they reapplied, though one had worked at the Center for four semesters as well as the summer, and the other had averaged fifteen hours a week the previous year. The ONHSA readily admits that it mishandled the transition on a personal level, and Merson expresses her willingness to help past interns find other positions in education and service.

The final decision-making, however, rested on Morand, who is quick to emphasize that “it is important to focus on L in [DY]CLC, to structure the place with a focus on training and education. You might call it the education professionalization of the Center.” Keeping in mind Morand’s goal of making the DYCLC “not a drop-in center but a true learning center,” the ONHSA decided to seek leadership based on professional education experience.

“We were moving away from a
student-run place, moving towards professional educators,” Merson says, expressing a wish to educate not just the Center’s kids but its student interns. “As models of an excited learner,” she continues, students interested in a career in education “can learn a lot from professional educators.”

The ONHSA is still searching for a permanent coordinator to direct the Center, but the background of Jeffie Frazier, the current interim director, offers a glimpse of the type of leader it hopes to pursue. Morand describes Frazier as a “well-recognized educator” who served as a principal in the New Haven School District for 23 years before retiring from her post at Wexler Grant High School. Frazier “knows the neighborhood, knows education,” he says, and is beginning to create a “networked and plugged-in place” that is “part of a fabric, an ongoing conversation we have with the neighborhood with a focus on learning.”

Like its former interns, Frazier recognizes the Center’s potential to bring two worlds together and has tried to use the organization as a vehicle to bring Yale resources to New Haven youth and to allow them to discover the neighborhood in which many of them have lived their whole lives.

Frazier lowers her already-soft voice to an ardent whisper as she relates a trip she planned with a group of children from the Center. “We were going to the Grove Street Cemetery”—across the street from the Center—“and the kids were complaining that it was too far away. I took them outside, and said ‘Look! It’s right there!’ They had no idea it was so close.”

For now, the Center is operating with slightly scaled-back hours—the after-school program ends an hour earlier and the calendar shows no regular youth programs on Saturdays—and no longer caters to students over 13. Ellis, still on the Center’s mailing list, expressed concern that she had not received any publicity materials this semester. But she is trying not to look back. While she would like the former interns to be able to resume their positions at the Center, she herself is thinking of law school. An important step she thinks the ONHSA could take to avoid misunderstandings like that which put the interns out of work is the formation of a board to monitor programming and hiring decisions. The board might include Yale students and faculty, she recommends, as well as “teachers, principals, police officers, librarians, parents of youth members, and even a couple of youth members.”

Much of the infrastructure that Ellis constructed, however, lives on, and Frazier counts thirty students enrolled in the after-school program, 17 of whom attend regularly.

The current interns have started initiatives of their own. Some practice music with children who are learning to play instruments, and Francesca Slade PC ’10, who worked with One Laptop Per Child at MIT this summer, has begun teaching basic computer programming to students at the Center.

All of this comes as good news to the interns whose contracts were not renewed and whose semesters have been fraught with concerns for the Center’s well-being. “The community needs to move on, these kids need to move on, and they need the Center,” Jacobsen says. Along with Ellis and the other former interns, she’s not protesting. She knows that’s the last thing the Center needs.