Mind Matter

Photo by Yehia Elkersh.

Kate Christison-Lagay grabbed a rubber brain off a countertop in the basement of Yale School of Medicine’s library and pried its two halves apart so that we could have a look inside. As a postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Hal Blumenfeld’s research lab, Christison-Lagay studies sensory perception, which she and her team believe can provide a model for human consciousness. She speaks seriously and energetically about brains, and clearly knows her way around one. After separating one of the lobes, she pointed to a small area marked in purple. “Here’s the first stop when someone sees something: the primary visual cortex,” she said. As she traced her fingertip forward through the cerebral cortex, I realized that the image of her moving finger was travelling down the very same pathway inside my own brain.

Behind glass panels lining the walls around us, hundreds of other brains—real human brains—floated in jars of formaldehyde. Many were whole; others had been sliced to pieces like melons. They all shone a ghostly white through the ambient yellowish solution. A century ago, these brains belonged to some of neurosurgery’s first patients. Once transferred into jars, they experienced second lives as a reference library for brain researchers and doctors. In their current incarnation, they form the centerpiece of a one-room museum dedicated to the man who originally operated on them, and collected them from his deceased patients: Dr. Harvey Cushing.

“He was a really big deal,” Christison-Lagay said, leading me through the Cushing Center, as the eerie underground space is known. “He was able to reduce the mortality rate associated with brain surgery from around 80 percent to 10 percent.” In addition to the brains, the Cushing collection includes thousands of glass-plate photographs, microscopic slides, and journal notes, testaments to the doctor’s meticulous research practices—and the many advances he pioneered in modern medicine, both at the operating table and in the laboratory.

A couple of weeks after our visit, I sat in a small basement room across the street from the Cushing Center, staring at a computer screen full of static. My chin and forehead rested on padded bars, while a pair of adjustable lenses held my gaze from across the table. The robotic device, called a pupilometer, was learning to read my mind.

Christison-Lagay and her colleagues in the Blumenfeld lab are working on solving one of the brain’s greatest mysteries: the physical basis of consciousness. They haven’t cut into any actual heads; rather, with the help of advanced imaging technology, they’ve been able to pinpoint electrical activity within the brain almost down to the level of individual cells. About a year ago, they published results from a breakthrough experiment, which involved flashing faces onto a computer screen and recording participants’ brain activity in response to the visual stimulus with an EEG (electroencephalography) test.

The researchers are worried, however, that they may have switched on more of the brain than they intended to. They had asked participants to press a button indicating whether or not they had noticed the faces popping onto the screen. As a result, the researchers can’t be sure how much of the brain signal they recorded came from the simple visual perception of the face, and how much came from the participants mentally preparing to report what they’d seen. “We’re potentially conflating two different events,” Christison-Lagay explained.

The set of trials I was taking part in was supposed to help lay down the groundwork for an improved experiment, which the team has dubbed “the no-report paradigm.” Through a stream of white noise accompanying the fuzziness on the screen, I strained my ears to listen out for fleeting sounds, like a whistle, a water droplet, or a laser zap. I pressed a button whenever I heard something. In the meantime, the pupilometer kept tabs on my eyes. According to Christison-Lagay, “our pupils change size clearly in response to light and the things that we’re seeing, but they also change based on our physiological arousal state.” In other words, by comparing my pupil dilations to the responses I was giving on the keypad, the pupilometer was figuring out whether I’d had a conscious experience without me having to report it.

Hal Blumenfeld has spent most of his career working with epileptic patients, performing surgeries and helping to develop treatments. Epileptic seizures often involve a disruption of consciousness, and Blumenfeld believes that insights into the workings of healthy consciousness can “point the way toward possible therapies for when consciousness is abnormally affected by disease processes.” If a conscious network is shut down by a seizure, for example, doctors may be able to electrically stimulate that area if they know exactly where it is, and turn it back on.

In 1934, Harvey Cushing retired from medical practice to New Haven, and brought his brains with him. He died four years later, but neurosurgeons continued to consult his data base for decades. Once CT scans and MRIs hit the scene in the nineteen-seventies, however, the brains were relegated to cramped storage shelves in the basement of the School of Medicine dorms, where they received only late-night visits from thrill-seeking students. In 1994, a Ph.D. student named Christopher Wahl approached his advisor about writing a thesis on the historical legacy of the brains, and administrators again took interest in Cushing’s materials. Since 2010, the collection has resided in its quietly lit, wood-paneled basement gallery, a kind of portal back in time to when humans’ most advanced knowledge of the brain came from hand-drawn sketches, photographic negatives of misshapen heads, and the organs themselves, spookily suspended in formaldehyde.

Our current understanding of the physical basis of consciousness is equally primitive. The split-second examples of sensory perception that Blumenfeld and his team have studied are a far cry from what we consider to be the essence of human consciousness, what truly makes us who we are. Even when Blumenfeld’s researchers move on into the next areas they hope to explore, like motor planning—the processes that make us kick a foot out reflexively or decide to raise an arm—their findings won’t begin to describe the limitless complexities that add up to how we each think and feel. Cushing taught modern brain researchers that progress comes gradually, through careful record-keeping and rigorous analysis. “The plan is hopefully to understand as much as possible in space and time, what happens during a conscious event,” Blumenfeld said. “To drill down to the level of hundreds—tens—of milliseconds in order to see exactly which neuronal populations are involved in a conscious experience.”

If there’s ever a museum built to commemorate the early days of consciousness research, I hope my pupils can be found in there somewhere, perhaps floating in a jar of formaldehyde.

— Matthew Kleiner is a sophomore in Saybrook College.


Illustration by Sam Oldshue.

Frankie Andersen-Wood stood beside a projected cartoon of a light bulb with its filament twisted into the shape of a heart. In front of her, five Yale students sat along one side of a seminar table. Upbeat pop music played in the background.

“Effective altruism isn’t something you can just learn about in two hours,” said Andersen-Wood, co-president of Yale Effective Altruism (YEA), going off-script from her presentation at YEA’s spring information session. She spoke quickly and in a soft English accent. “If that were the case, then the world would be solved.”

A social movement that emerged in the late 2000s at the University of Oxford, effective altruism aims to quantify and maximize the positive impact of individuals’ lives. In practice, this means identifying the world’s most urgent issues—those chosen by adherents include global poverty, animal suffering, climate change, and artificial intelligence—and recommending the most efficient responses. The movement recommends careers based on their social benefit and assesses charitable donations based on their impact and cost-efficiency.

The most active local effective altruism groups—YEA among them—are at elite colleges like Oxford, Harvard, Stanford, and Yale, or in large cities like London and Boston. According to Andersen-Wood, the YEA mailing list includes about seven hundred students and recent graduates, although only twenty-five are actively involved. YEA hosts speakers and career workshops, holds social events, and runs a semester-long fellowship designed to introduce Yale students to effective altruism.

A week before her presentation, I met Andersen-Wood at Blue State Coffee on York. She sat in an armchair by the window, balancing a balsamic-glazed tofu sandwich on her lap. Andersen-Wood is vegan and majoring in political science. This is not an unusual set of characteristics for Yale’s effective altruists (or, as Anderson-Wood prefers, “aspiring effective altruists”). Many follow animal-free diets; the majority study political science, philosophy, or a STEM field. Effective altruism also influences other facets of Andersen-Wood’s life: “what I buy and what I don’t buy, where I donate, if I donate, how often I donate, how much I donate, career choices.”

Aaron Gertler, who graduated in 2015, founded YEA during his senior year at Yale. Now, he works in communications at the Centre for Effective Altruism. He also keeps a personal blog, where he publishes his charitable donations; he gives ten percent of his income to charity every year, primarily to effective altruism organizations and the Against Malaria Foundation.

Joshua Monrad, the former co-president of YEA, arrived at Yale planning to study psychology. But under the influence of effective altruism, he switched majors to Ethics, Politics, and Economics, and now hopes to work in public health after college.

“I think I would have grown frustrated if I had felt like I wasn’t in the best path for helping others,” he told me over Skype. Monrad is from Denmark, but this semester he’s studying abroad at Oxford, the philosophy’s birthplace. Still, he acknowledges that being a perfect effective altruist is an ideal, not a reality.

“As an international student, I fly all over the world, which is expensive and emits a lot of carbon,” he said. “There are a lot of things that I own, that on a very extreme conception of effective altruism, I maybe didn’t have to own.” Effective altruism, he said, encourages him to think more about these issues, and to try harder to mitigate them.

The effective altruists at Yale seem wary of their public perception. In an email responding to my interview request, Monrad warned, “I have a tendency to be quite careful about how I represent effective altruism,” citing experiences with “unfortunate misconceptions about what the broader effective altruism movement is and what it involves.”

One point of controversy is effective altruism’s relationship with “earning to give,” the strategy of pursuing a high-paying job in order to donate more to charity. Especially early in its development, the effective altruism movement gained a reputation for recommending careers on Wall Street. But according to Sebastian Quaade, YEA’s strategy advisor, effective altruism has since reduced its emphasis on earning to give. An article published in 2015 on the website of 80,000 Hours—an offshoot of the Centre for Effective Altruism named for the average number of working hours in a person’s life—clarified the organization’s stance, asserting that earning to give is only one effective path among many. That attitude seems to be reflected across YEA: Quaade is interested in economic development, and none of the other five current or former YEA board members I talked to planned to pursue consulting or finance.

Shelly Kagan, a Yale ethics professor, outlined a more philosophical question the movement faces. Since governments are better than individuals at enacting change, he wrote in an email, some might argue that effective altruists should focus more on government reform than individual actions. “Roughly, politics, not charity,” he wrote.

Another criticism focuses on the fact that effective altruism attracts a disproportionate number of white men. Two thirds of the 2,607 respondents to a 2018 demographics survey on the Effective Altruism Forum were male. Seventy-eight percent were white, down from a staggering 89 percent in 2017. The 2018 survey notes that the drop was likely due to an increase in people who opted out of the question, not an increase in people from underrepresented groups.

Eui Young Kim, a board member of YEA, acknowledged this problem. The movement has historically attracted people from “quantitative subjects, like cognitive science or math or physics or artificial intelligence,” fields that are “not exactly diverse,” Kim said.

Diversity seems especially important in a movement that aims to decide which problems are most pressing—a point Monrad acknowledged. Diversity helps “avoid blind spots and reduce the risk of overlooking important causes or approaches to doing good,” he said.

Jessica McCurdy, the other co-president of YEA, said that YEA’s members are the type of people who enjoy confronting uncomfortable moral questions. She described late-night discussions about the trolley problem and outlandish moral thought experiments.

“It’s like, ‘Oh, how do I actually feel about that?” she said. “How many chickens is a human life worth?”

According to Andersen-Wood, effective altruism isn’t a philosophy or a set of answers, but a shared project. She and the other effective altruists at Yale find a unique home in YEA: a secular congregation examining the meaning of a moral life.

— Eli Mennerick is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College.


Illustration by Merritt Barnwell.

“A hat is a timeless piece,” Ben DelMonico declares. The manager of New Haven’s DelMonico Hatter sits across from me in Java Café with a mint tea, tapping the visor of his grey wool baseball cap. His hat — a Wigens, he informs me — complements his crisp button-down and grey wool sweater. Ben chooses his words carefully, massaging one hand with the other as he focuses on a point over my shoulder. The 44-year-old New Haven native isn’t used to being interviewed. The last news coverage of the business was in 2017, when the New Haven Independent showed up to document an unusual customer: a possibly-rabid possum, which Ben had to call the police to remove. The possum might have made a good hat, but it certainly wasn’t going to buy one.

In the early twentieth century, there were twenty-seven hat stores in New Haven. Now there is only one. Established in 1908 by Ernest DelMonico, senior, DelMonico Hatter sits at 47 Elm Street, a block southeast of the Green, between a menswear shop and a rubber stamp store. Ben is part of the fourth generation of DelMonico hatters –– his father and grandfather spent their whole careers behind the counter. As a young boy, Ben helped out in the store over the Christmas holidays, but he didn’t return to it until about five years ago, when his father, Ernest, asked him to come home to help run the business. Since Ernest’s death last year, Ben has taken charge.

From the street, you might mistake the store for a tea parlor. A large, colorful sign graced by an enthusiastic Mad Hatter hangs in front. Displays of carefully-posed hats in the windows hearken back to a time when one may have casually left one’s derby on the dressing table or one’s bowler on the baby grand. DelMonico’s stocks forty-seven types of hats, from sombreros to skullcaps. You, too, can suavely drop their names (Tricorne, anyone? How about a pork pie?) by consulting the store’s newly updated online glossary, designed to act as translator for a younger crowd unfamiliar with hat lingo. When you do, you will learn, shockingly, that the first incarnation of a beret debuted in the Bronze Age, and, less shockingly, that “the core purpose of the helmet has remained the same, to protect the head from injury.”

Ben’s desk is at the back of the store, behind labyrinthine rows of hat racks and hatboxes. DelMonico’s assistant manager, Christina Urdanivia, and retailer, Vijor McCray, huddle around a countertop computer opposite him. All three are on the phone with customers. “What was your last size? What color?” they ask. One hat is going to South Africa.

When she finishes her call, Christina offers to show me the back of the shop, where they resize, steam, and flatten hats. Behind Ben’s desk, we enter a museum of perfectly preserved millinery equipment. Lining one wall are small wooden busts of head circumferences, disk-shaped, almost like tree rings. Christina points to the hat-steaming machine, a voluminous, aluminum mushroom cap connected to a shaft. They don’t do as much in-store repair work, she tells me; they don’t do much in-store business, period. Ernest DelMonico wisely embraced the dot com boom in the early 2000s, ahead of the curve for the hat world. Most of their sales are online, with clients from out-of-town and abroad.

People just don’t wear hats the way they used to, Ben explains. The turning point for hat culture in the U.S., he says, was January 20, 1961: John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. Kennedy was the last President-elect to emerge from his motorcade wearing a top hat. After he was sworn in, Kennedy, one of the most photographed men in the country, seldom donned a hat. The public subsequently christened him “Hatless Jack.” The majority of American men put their hats on the shelf, and the industry petered out. Now, hat-wearers in America are an eclectic group, equal parts ardent traditionalists and bold statement makers.

Ben manages DelMonico’s daily operations, and Christina, a five-year veteran of the industry, provides abundant enthusiasm. (She tells me, “You need to find the right hat for the shape of the face, but also the right brim, the right color.”) Vijor, age twenty-two, is the entrepreneur. While I talk to her, she deftly runs through shipping receipts, organizing and cataloguing them. She’s wearing a sleek black tracksuit and her hair is pulled into a neat ponytail. It’s only her fourth day on the job, but she’s already cased the joint, and she has ambitious plans for the business’ future. “Our new photo shoots are going to be bold, daring,” she says decisively. “I think hats, all different kinds, should appeal to a younger clientele.”

The homburg, for instance, may be staging a resurgence. It has a tipped-up brim and a defined center dent. First popularized in the 1890s by King Edward VII of England, it is known as the “Godfather Hat,” after Marlon Brando in the movies. It’s also the hat of choice for one of DelMonico’s most loyal customers, Ramblin’ Dan, a popular Connecticut bluegrass player and the proud owner of a DelMonico white straw homburg with a small feather in the cap. He wears it all the time, according to a post on his blog. When he first left the store with it, he reports, a man across Elm Street shouted “NICE HAT!”

Dan isn’t the only local celebrity who gets his headwear from DelMonico’s: Mayor Toni Harp has been in a few times, usually to buy a Betmar, Ben tells me. Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, of Connecticut’s third district, recently purchased a Borsalino. On one occasion, Yale President Peter Salovey dropped in to buy a traditional straw-brimmed Panama hat.

Local customers are appreciative of the store’s history. That’s what matters to Calista Washburn, Ben DelMonico’s niece, who will start college at Yale in the fall. She helped out over the Christmas vacation, the store’s busiest time of year. “So many people came in and told me about buying hats from my great-grandfather,” Calista tells me over the phone. I ask her if she wears hats herself. “To be fully honest, I don’t like hats. Maybe the odd baseball cap,” she confesses. “My grandfather, though—now there was a gentleman who really wore hats.”

A happy customer leaving DelMonico’s has to weave through rows of classic hats –– a reminder that they’ve just bought into a history of sophistication and elegance. Walking out, I think of Rosalind Russell, the 1940s film star in “His Girl Friday.” She plays a gutsy female reporter with a silk-padded chevron-striped top hat — one I could see on a bolder version of myself.

— Beasie Goddu is a first-year in Silliman College.

Photo by Robbie Short.

Trinity sits with her manicured hands folded neatly, flanked by her fellow Christian motorcyclists on a black leather couch. Mary Magdalene, Zephaniah, and II Timothy sit to her left; Sheba and Eve to her right.

“I like to wear pumps when I ride,” Trinity says. “My husband doesn’t like it, but I like the look.” Sheba, whose name appears on a black, diamond-bedazzled headband and in a tattoo in Gothic lettering on her right arm, laughs in agreement. “I wear a dress with leggings on my bike all the time.”

Each motorcyclist wears a bright red shirt under a leather vest embroidered with a rider name (“Zephaniah”), a leadership position (“Road Captain”), and various patches ranging from crosses to quotes like “Christians aren’t perfect…just forgiven.” The back of each vest is emblazoned with a canary-yellow Bible inscribed with Matthew 28:19-20 and a crest that reads, “Rydas 4 Righteousness: Motorcycle Ministry.”

Trinity (legally, Melanie Perry) is the president of the Connecticut chapter of Rydas 4 Righteousness. To put it simply, members say, R4R is “a church on wheels,” bringing Christianity to communities by motorcycle rather than requiring individuals to come to church themselves. R4R was founded in 2002 by Trinity’s husband, Solomon (legally, Arthur Perry), who is currently the ministry’s national president. Now in its sixteenth year, R4R maintains chapters in Ohio, North Carolina, and Connecticut.

Riding makes spreading the word of God far easier for the eighteen-member chapter, and allows them to bring a new approach to traditional ministry work. “I wanted to be that light,” Sheba says. “I just wanted to be different.” Eve, a member with black, thick-rimmed glasses, short, dyed-blonde hair, and glittering diamond hoops, echoed her sentiment. “I thought that combining ministry and motorcycles, because [each is] just something that I’ve always had a love for—it’s just the best thing since running water for me,” she says.

As a co-ed, mostly Black motorcycle club, R4R challenges what people see in movies like Hell Ride and Wild Hogs and hear in songs like “Motorcycle Man”—motorcycle culture is typically portrayed as non-religious, male, white, and felonious. The women of R4R defy stereotypes. “Just by seeing a female on a bike, [spectators] are going to stop me, and they’re gonna wanna know, ‘Wow. You’re a woman, you’re riding a bike. Why?’ Then I get into my name, then I get into my Scripture, and then it opens up the door for ministry,” says Trinity.

The ministry’s members primarily focus on prayer and community outreach. Over the past five years, R4R has held a back-to-school backpack drive, built homes for Habitat For Humanity, given away turkeys and hams on Thanksgiving, and sponsored a “Lupus Ride” to raise donations for the American Lupus Foundation. As for prayer, the ministry readily assembles when others call on them. “I wanna say we’re like first responders,” Eve says. Her fellow members murmur in agreement. Other motorcycle groups call on R4R when prayer is needed, and the group comes to people’s homes to pray for family members who have died.

R4R’s biggest event by far is its “Annual Bike Blessing” weekend held for the last fifteen years and attended by Motor Cycle Clubs (MCs) from all over the country. Trinity explains that other clubs typically will not come to an event held at a church, out of fear of being judged by churchgoers for a lifestyle of drinking, smoking, and swearing. So R4R holds a prayer service in New Haven’s Career High School instead. Trinity says that even though other MCs “don’t ‘do church,’” they never fail to attend.

Other motorcycle groups differ from R4R not only in religious disposition, but also in their treatment of male and female riders. “Because we’re a motorcycle ministry, we’re kind of separated from protocol, from the [motorcycle club] world,” Trinity says. In many other clubs, men and women ride separately, she says.

Eve adds that although more women ride today, she shared the road with far fewer female riders when they first organized their motorcycle ministry. “When we started sixteen years ago, if you saw a woman on a motorcycle, you questioned their sexuality,” Eve says, prompting Sheba to exclaim, “Somebody asked me that yesterday! He said, ‘Are you gay?” I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘I thought all women on bikes were gay.’ I was like, ‘What?’” Once, while surveying bikes at a Harley-Davidson dealership with her husband, a man approached Eve and asked, “‘Did your husband get the sissy bar put on the back for when he’s riding you?’ I just looked at him and laughed,” Eve remembers. “I said, ‘Riding me? I rode that bike off the showroom floor.’”

Before Trinity joined R4R, she was apprehensive about riding. She didn’t think it was possible for women who rode motorcycles to also be feminine. Yet, from the moment Trinity learned to ride, she was hooked. “Now, I’m one of those women,” she says. “It became my serenity.”

When Trinity passed her license exam, she was sure to tell her husband that she’d beaten his score. “He said, ‘I don’t believe you can ride.’ I said ‘Pull your bike out,’” Trinity recalls. “I had hair rollers in my hair, I had bedroom slippers on. He was like, ‘You can’t ride with bedroom slippers on.’ I said, ‘Watch me.’”

Trinity began to spend all her spare time on her bike. She says that her dedication to riding has only grown since she lost her brother, also an R4R rider, to a motorcycle accident eleven years ago. The Ministry was out on the highway when, in the middle of a turn, Trinity’s brother accidentally veered onto the dirt. He flew off his bike. and died a month later in the hospital. Trinity says that her brother taught her a lot of what she knows about riding, and she has no intention of slowing down. “I thought I would do him an injustice by stopping. Because he was passionate about riding. He was a rider rider.”

The passage from Matthew on the back of each motorcyclist’s vest reads, “Go ye therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” R4R’s motto is a corollary to the passage: “reaching the lost, one soul at a time.” As a ministry, R4R’s members fulfill their mission by helping freewheeling “souls.” But they also do this for each other. “They have come and cleaned my house, brought my family food, visited me every day in the hospital, picked my kids up from school—it’s not just an organization we’re part of,” Eve says. “When I say family? Family.”

Zola Canady is a first-year in Trumbull College.


Photo by Carina Gormley.

One evening in late September, I walked into the Aldermanic Hearing Room on the lower level of the New Haven Hall of Records. The room’s walls were lined with maps, planners, and varnished wood trim. Michael Harris leaned against a table as he chatted with the people gathered at the front of the room. When all twenty-six students had arrived, Harris pointed to a city map and requested that we each find our ward. Then, he thanked us for coming, and class began.

Harris was leading a session of Democracy School, an initiative founded by then-New Haven mayoral assistant Kate McAdams in 2002 to provide New Haven residents an opportunity to learn about the workings of city government. The free, eight-week, application-based course hosts just over two dozen New Haven residents each fall. Each class session focuses on a specific city department, and Harris, who has run the program since 2015, invites relevant officials and city residents to discuss their work. Harris also serves as Special Assistant to Mayor Toni Harp, and was consequently well-positioned to explain the basics of governance and city funding and lead discussions on emergency services, New Haven’s education system, and city neighborhoods. A red-haired man with clear eyes and a perpetual grin, he is an enthusiastic teacher. “Did you know that New Haven has thirty alders?” he asked during an informational presentation at the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking in May. “That’s crazy. Almost no city in this country has close to that many elected officials representing the interests of their constituents.” Inspired by that presentation, I applied for the 2018 session and in the fall, I joined Democracy School’s sixteenth class.

This fall’s course underscored the challenges, big and small, that drive the work of city officials. During one lesson, Doug Housladen, the Director of New Haven’s Transportation, Traffic, and Parking Department, told students that only 27 percent of jobs in the Greater New Haven area are within a one-way 90-minute commute from New Haven on public transit. Much of the problem, he explained, is in the city’s excess of bus stops: 4,000 in a region with an estimated need for only 2,500. As busses make unnecessary stops, commutes drag on and on.

The classroom also provides a space for residents to discuss the tensions of life in a highly segregated, budget-strapped city. One student, a woman in her forties who works with substance abuse rehabilitation services in New Haven, asked Maurine Villani, a tax collector who presented during one class this fall, about the city’s contracted tow-truck companies. “I’ve lived in New Haven all of my life, and in many different types of neighborhoods in the city,” she said. “It seems like your vendors disregard tax-delinquent vehicles around Yale—and I know that they’re tax delinquent—yet tow lots of the vehicles, even non-tax-delinquent ones, in neighborhoods that are far from Yale. They took my car once, and it wasn’t tax delinquent,” she said. Villani didn’t quite know what to say.

Nearly every class discussion of the Board of Alders or the city budget this fall circled back to the frustrating nature of “functional home rule.” In the context of New Haven, functional home rule means that the city has limited autonomy over its legislative processes because municipal rules are largely defined by the state. For example, the Connecticut Constitution limits cities’ tax revenue-raising power to property taxes––an issue Harris and four city officials raised during the second class. This limit on taxes presents a challenge for New Haven, where 54 percent of local property is designated tax-exempt. Yale University alone represents about 2.5 billion dollars of non-taxable property assets; the growth of its property holdings continues to reduce the city’s potential revenue. And despite the city’s obvious fiscal challenges, the state continues to allocate fewer and fewer state funds to New Haven. The city’s public education system has particularly struggled. Its schools, which serve the largest student population of any district in the state, faced a $19 million budget deficit this spring, forcing firings and school closures. In class, Harris and New Haven Controller Daryl Jones explained that last year, the city was forced to make these cuts because state and property tax revenue had shrunk so much.

This year’s Democracy School attendees ranged from high school students to an Escape New Haven employee to a retiree who had worked at a New Haven telephone company for decades. Some had just moved to the city, while others had lived in New Haven their entire lives. Still, the student body represented only twelve of the thirty wards; most students hailed from wards closer to downtown. To address this issue, Harris said he hopes to create an online curriculum that makes the course readily accessible.

Democracy School’s alumni include many young and active community members. Caroline Smith, who graduated from Yale in 2014, said the course taught her that “the foundation of any good project is relationship-building.” She now coordinates New Haven Bike Month, participates on several city committees, and co-founded Collab, which helps local residents pursue entrepreneurship. Democracy School helped her form connections to local officials and students, facilitating her community-based work, she said. Johnny Shively, a 2015 Yale graduate, works for SeeClickFix, an app that allows users to report non-emergency issues, such as problems with infrastructure. He told me that learning the terminology of city governance has helped him engage with New Haven politics. John Martin, the founder of the popular Bradley Street Bicycle Co-Op, said that he tries to informally foster the program’s values—connectivity and agency—at the Co-Op. The course, he said, gave him the confidence and agency to serve as a community leader. In the face of massive economic challenges, former students are waging efforts to create economic opportunity, to help the city run, to bring people together. If New Haven is “a city that is fighting for itself,” as Caroline Smith put it, Democracy School is evidence of the city’s hopes for victory—and the stalemates its residents face.

—Carina Gormley is a junior in Morse College.

Design by Meher Hans.

Every Sunday morning around 6:00 a.m., the interior of College Street Music Hall undergoes a subtle metamorphosis. The bar is shuttered, coffee urns appear in the front lobby, and rows of chairs replace the Saturday-night concert detritus strewn about the 2,000-person venue. The concert lights and an earplug dispenser stay in place. Church starts at 8:30.

As congregants meander into the building under a marquee advertising this season’s concert lineup, which features Dirty Heads and Lil Yachty, volunteers clad in black t-shirts distribute grins, information cards, and “good-morning”s. Soaring vocals fight their way through the bellowing synth and guitar and into the lobby:

Who the Son sets free, oh!
Is free indeed—
I’m a child of God,
Yes I am!

Vox Church, known until June as City Church, holds three services every Sunday morning. In 2011, Christian-rocker-turned-pastor Justin Kendrick started the ministry out of Toad’s Place. The non-denominational, born-again congregation has since outgrown Toads’ 750-person space and spread beyond New Haven, with a campus down the coast in Bridgeport and another set to open in Stamford in 2019. Vox has also floated up the Connecticut River into North Haven, Middletown, and Hartford, and just crossed state lines this October into Massachusetts—a state where less than one in four people attend religious services weekly, according to Pew’s most recent Religious Landscape Study.

Connecticut isn’t much more pious; Pew ranks it as the forty-sixth most religious state, ahead of Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. Despite these statistics, the landing page on Vox’s website trumpets a mission “to see New England become the most spiritually vibrant place on Earth.” The church’s success is especially surprising given the recent drop in the number of born-again and evangelical Christians, which fell from 26 percent of the nation’s population in 2007 to 17 percent in 2016. Only a tenth of evangelicals are under 30. Vox seems to buck these trends, among others. As Kendrick quipped in a sermon this summer, “This ain’t the church Grandma went to.”

The sermons at Vox begin after a thirty-minute musical performance by the church’s “worship team,” often led by Justin’s wife, Chrisy. They belt out pop-hymns in front of LED rectangles. Yellow and fuchsia concert lights sweep over the crowd, illuminating a diverse array of congregants, some with hands raised in praise, others with heads bowed in worship, and at least one infant wearing noise-cancelling headphones. As the band ends on a crescendo, Kendrick, his dark hair and five o’clock shadow visible from the back of the hall, rocks onstage in time with the guitar. He greets the assembled with a voice at least as loud as the band he’s replacing: “Welcome to church!” It’s when he’s behind the microphone that I wish I’d grabbed earplugs on the way in.

Kendrick reminds everyone that Vox is “one church in five locations.” His sermon is live-streamed to the church’s offshoots. It’s also posted to the Vox website, with a dubstep-drop intro slapped onto the beginning, so viewers can attend church wherever there’s WiFi. The digital revolution isn’t only for the ministry: Churchgoers with glowing phones aren’t texting during Kendrick’s sermon—they’re following his scripture references with an online Bible.

The congregation, which numbers 2,000 each week across the church’s campuses, matches Kendrick’s energy. Applause erupts almost a dozen times a sermon, and concert-worthy woooos are more common than you’d think. Vox encourages its parishioners to take notes, which is challenging because Kendrick’s pace is quick: he zings from childhood stories to Biblical exegesis to TED Talk–style life lessons. Once or twice a sermon, he stops to announce, “If you’re taking notes today, you can write this down,” before presenting some of the day’s distilled wisdom. One Sunday in September, Kendrick used a blowtorch, Drano, a straitjacket, and a tennis ball as part of an extended vulnerability metaphor that brought the house down. Minutes later, the woman next to me was moved to tears by the pastor’s story about apologizing to his eleven-year-old son.

Tim Gnaneswaran, Connections Director for Vox’s New Haven Campus, says he knows why the services are so powerful. “The Holy Spirit,” he tells me. “[The Gospel] is the book we’re sharing, but the Holy Spirit is moving in our services, and that’s what makes them dynamic.”

Raquel Sequeira, a Yale sophomore and one of several Yale students who regularly attend Vox, wasn’t sure about the church’s “rock-and-roll” vibe at first. But alongside the theatrics she found a pastor who takes the Bible seriously—often delving into the original Greek—without losing sight of personal spiritual experience. The flashy style mattered to her less than the biblical content. “What ended up being true was something [Kendrick] says a lot: ‘Connecting with God is more than your brain, more than your mind, more than your emotions.’” For Sequeira, the central question of a religious space is, “Do I feel like the Holy Spirit is here?” She says the answer at Vox is yes. Plus, unlike other churches in the area, Vox doesn’t feel “tailored to students.”

Sequeira’s only hesitation is that among the bells and whistles and blowtorches, the church can come off as “appearance-focused,” especially compared to the Anglican parish where she was raised. When the pastor is in ripped jeans and the church is in a concert hall, the branding is so pointed, Sequiera thinks, that it might appear disingenuous.

Timothy White, a junior, went so far as to call Vox’s marketing tactics “somewhat nefarious.” White, who is gay and grew up as the son of an Evangelical minister, told me that a lack of clarity and inconsistency between marketing and doctrine can make parishioners feel excluded from a community that otherwise espouses, according to their website, “respect and Christian love.” At Vox, he said, “They present an image of diversity, while excluding people under wraps.” White said the church isn’t up-front about its belief, lifted from Corinthians I and common among evangelicals, that sex is a spiritual experience only appropriate in a marriage between a man and a woman. Since White stopped attending in 2016, Vox has held a sermon on sexuality (also featuring a blowtorch) that clarified its adherence to that interpretation of Corinthians.

The name “Vox” also arrived after White left, and is part of a push to showcase the church’s self-proclaimed uniqueness. “Although the name City Church carries so much meaning for us,” explained Kendrick in a video announcement of the name change on the church’s YouTube channel, “it’s also a name used by many churches across the country.” Vox has a more distinct flavor. Meaning “voice” in Latin, the name is inspired by John 5:25, which Kendrick quotes later in the same video: “Truly I say to you, an hour is coming and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear”—with or without earplugs, one assumes—“will live.”

— Noah Macey is a senior in Timothy Dwight College.


Photo by Robbie Short.

This fall, Adam Moftah’s expenses added up quickly. He spent $15 Xeroxing old graphic designs to make new compositions for a project. Then, after he turned the project in, he learned from his professor that he’d approached the assignment incorrectly, and would have to start anew. Meanwhile, he had two credit card bills due soon — nearly $200 for books, school supplies, and other expenses from the start of the semester.

For Moftah, a senior from New York City, majoring in art hasn’t come cheap. He estimates he has spent at least $1,000 over the past four years on materials and printing fees. One course cost him $650 alone. One of the main expenses art students face is paying for materials, which, unlike textbooks, cannot be rented or downloaded as a PDF online. For students who are financially secure, then, taking an art class may require only shelling out a couple hundred dollars more. But for students who, like Moftah, receive nearly full financial aid, the extra financial burden can mean the difference between paying bills on time and taking on debt.

Recently, Moftah has started combining coding and art to explore virtual reality. Currently, although he is an undergraduate, he works as a graduate fellow at the Center for Collaborative Arts and Media (CCAM). This past August, Moftah’s work with virtual reality was exhibited in a virtual gallery maze at the CCAM called “Labyrinths.” He hopes to graduate with a job at an advertising or marketing firm, or at an art studio.

But at Yale, financial strain has affected Moftah’s creativity, he says. In trying to buy the cheapest materials and use as little as possible, Moftah says, you’re “basically reducing your experimental ambitions.” Now, he’s starting to take more digital video courses instead of graphic design courses because digital courses don’t charge additional fees to students.

The Yale School of Art offers classes to both undergraduates and Masters of Fine Arts graduate students. At the undergraduate level, courses typically require about $150 in course fees, paid directly to professors to cover communal supplies, visits from guest speakers, and transportation costs for field trips. These fees don’t include the cost of textbooks or materials fees.

Art students pay course fees once they turn in their schedules, weeks after paying tuition. As a result, these fees are not calculated in students’ cost of attendance, or in financial aid scholarships. To help art students finance summer opportunities abroad or at work, the School of Art offers the Robert Reed Scholarship Fund, but it does not provide scholarships to cover costs incurred during the academic year.

Director of Undergraduate Studies in Art Lisa Kereszi says that over the past few years, art students have frequently come to her for help with course fees –– so often that Assistant Dean for the Arts Kate Krier decided to buy cameras for students to borrow from the Cushing/Whitney Medical Library Circulation Desk, near the School of Art. Previously, the desk had only offered help with laptops.

Still, Kereszi admits, “I can do very little, honestly. And I don’t know if my students now feel resentful.” When a student comes to Kereszi, she suggests that they ask their head of college or financial aid officer if a portion of their financial aid can be applied directly to course fees.

This year, Moftah received $600 in addition to the $60,887 he typically receives in his financial aid package. The grant was labeled “Supplemental Allowance,” funds Yale projected he would need for “senior expenses.” In years past, with no additional funding, Moftah had resorted to working up to three campus jobs during the semester ranging from shelving books in Sterling Memorial Library to modeling nude for other art classes.

Sometimes, professors try to help. Hazal Özgür is a junior art major from Turkey. Özgür says that an art professor once offered to pay for her materials, but she didn’t take him up on it. “I was like, ‘Nah, I can do this, don’t worry.’ Because I’ve been doing this anyway, $50 isn’t going to solve my problems.” While Özgür praised her professor’s kindness, she does not feel comfortable accepting money from faculty. “It’s a sticky situation to be in,” she said.

As a professor, Kereszi typically uses course fees to fund field trips to museums and host guest critics or lecturers. In early October, Kereszi took two of her classes to New York City and used the course fees to pay for her students’ train tickets, metro cards, and museum tickets. While she realizes that these fees are an extra burden on students — Kereszi was a low-income art major herself — she says that trips like these are necessary for a quality art education.

Beyond course fees, there are still more hurdles. Traditionally, juniors who are art majors have worked in studio spaces in the sculpture building, but due to the recent growth in the number of art majors, juniors were not offered studios this year. While some of her wealthier friends rented spaces in New Haven, which can cost $600 each month, Özgür didn’t have the money to do so. Working in her apartment isn’t an option for Özgür; it’s small enough to trap toxic paint fumes. For now, she can’t afford to buy canvases, so she can’t tackle her artistic specialty — large scale paintings. In fact, Özgür is currently working on only one piece, since she lacks the money to do more.

“No one really talks about these issues in the School of Art, and in this major in general,” she said. “It’s sort of like an unspoken thing. Because [majoring in art] implies that you know what you’re getting yourself into. It’s like, ‘We’re not forcing you to do this, you’re choosing this for yourself.’”

Kerezsi acknowledges that this dynamic is an issue. “I know how hard it is to go to a wealthy school and be one of the students who’s a ‘scholarship kid,’” Kerezsi says. “It’s really important to me that one of the many ways Yale is diverse is class.”

Meanwhile, Moftah says that being asked to re-do his graphic design project was an informative experience. Now, when he works on projects, he is forced to account for the financial uncertainty that accompanies doing art at Yale and contend with his steep printing costs. Creating art, for him, is no longer exploratory. “There’s pressure to be doing well. Part of doing well is figuring out printing, and part of doing that is having a lot of money to spend on printing,” he said. “I need to figure this out sooner. I can’t be as experimental; I have to be more deliberate.”

— Zola Canady is a first-year in Trumbull College.


Spectators in the luminous gallery room of Artspace press up against one another, wary of bumping into the artwork on display. Detailed portraits, written messages, penciled outlines, and colorful decals cover the walls. Music commences, and the attendees part, making way for 15-year-old Jordan Walker. He struts in time with a pulsating house beat. When he reaches the other side of the room, a grand-finale backbend provokes wild applause. The music ends, and Walker poses in front of his portrait: Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, her fist raised and brow furrowed. A man in a wide-brim baseball cap takes Walker under his arm and exclaims, “I taught him everything he knows!”

“I really am a shy person, until you get to know me and that really takes a long time, but I thought, what the heck, I might as well do a dance,” Walker said later. “I was able to break out of my shell.”
Walker was one of nineteen student performers in Paying Homage: Soil and Site, the show that concluded Artspace New Haven’s 2018 Summer Apprenticeship Program (SAP). Housed on Orange Street just south of the New Haven Green, Artspace focuses on providing a platform for contemporary artists to create art and connect with wider audiences. SAP, started in 2001, brings New Haven high school students under the instruction of a master artist each year.

The man embracing Walker was ceramicist Roberto Lugo, this year’s artist-in-residence. For three weeks this summer, students from Greater New Haven worked with Lugo to honor their communities and the figures that have shaped them. At Lugo’s urging, for the first time, the program invited students from abroad to work alongside students from Connecticut: two teenage visitors from Riobamba, Ecuador.

Lugo, who is of Puerto Rican descent and calls himself “the ghetto potter,” found ceramics inadvertently. Growing up in Kensington, a Philadelphia neighborhood, Lugo says his education was substandard. After graduating from high school, he was caught in a cycle of dead-end jobs. At 25, Lugo enrolled in ceramics classes at a community college, seeking change and companionship.

“[In] my culture, mostly having blue collar types of employment…you figure out how to make things with machines,” Lugo said. “[Ceramics] seemed like the most natural way for me to work.”

Today, much of Lugo’s work is Victorian-inspired porcelain-ware, ranging from urns to tea sets. The artist pointed to porcelain as a symbol of class division; the material has historically been reserved for the elite. But his pieces typically portray hip-hop artists like Kendrick Lamar, civil rights leaders like Lillie Mae Carroll Jackson, and victims of gun violence like Freddie Gray. By painting historically marginalized icons onto the pottery, Lugo says he reclaims the material. Recently, he’s been returning home to Kensington with a generator and pottery wheel. By crafting ceramics in the streets, Lugo hopes to invite pedestrians to experiment with the sometimes-alienating art form.

In their own work, the summer students honored a wide range of figures––from nationally recognized icons to their own relatives. Adara Huq chose to honor prominent Black trans activist Marsha P. Johnson, a leader in the 1969 Stonewall uprising. In the portrait, Johnson poses in front of collage of bright colors and wears a shirt patterned with the outlines of protesters holding up signs reading “Stonewall means fight back.”

“The movement has been white-washed a lot,” Huq said. “Not a lot of people know or realize that a Black trans woman was the lead of it.”

India Wolterstorff’s piece paid tribute to Estelle Griswold, who gained notoriety for the Griswold v. Connecticut case brought before The Supreme Court, which set the stage for reproductive rights by legalizing contraception for married couples in Connecticut. Griswold was the former head of Planned Parenthood’s New Haven branch, where Wolterstorff herself teaches other teens about sexual health.
“It was really important to me to do someone who is local to New Haven,” Wolterstorff said.

But none was so lucky as apprentice Jaida Stancil, whose subject came to the opening celebration. Stancil honored her grandmother, a construction worker in Connecticut, for her strength in choosing a field that employs few Black women.

“Yeah, she’s going to cry,” Stancil said, nervously checking her phone as she awaited her grandma’s arrival.

Helen Kauder, director of Artspace, said the program directors have begun to opt for emerging artists rather than veterans as instructors; the first summer of SAP, renowned conceptual artist Sol Lewitt, 73-years-old and at the peak of his artistic career, led the program. They’ve also focused on recruiting artists who resemble the majority-Black and Latinx students at SAP.

“What I found really refreshing working with these students was that we were able to find intersections and support one another. It created this space where we understood each others’ plight and we could celebrate in one another’s differences,” Lugo reflected after his own performance.

Compared to Sol Lewitt, whose wall drawings involve carefully calculated instructions to be executed with incredible precision, Lugo is less scrupulous.

“I’m sort of a perfectionist, and Roberto helped me let go a little bit because clay doesn’t always turn out how you first want it to when it gets fired,” Wolterstorff said.

Resourcefulness oftentimes doesn’t lead to perfection; in these cases, messy is most beautiful. A Wexler Gallery video from 2016 captures Lugo in an abandoned lot near his childhood home, spinning clay from the detritus that he finds in the neglected urban space. In the video, Lugo intently constructs his potter’s wheel from what seems to be a spoke, hubcap, rope, and an empty tin can. He sifts dirt from the lot, and pours a discarded 40-ounce beer over the unmolded mass, forging clay. Slapping his wet clay pot onto a graffiti-covered cement wall, Roberto can be heard reciting a poem: “I got my two hands up, one is up to ask a question, and the other is up ‘cause I have the answer –– to prove to you, I can make something beautiful out of dirt. I am ghetto. I am resourceful. I am brown.”

The commercial art world doesn’t always encourage messiness. Critics prefer stark white walls to the urban lot. Messy is the antithesis of Josef Albers: it’s the borders of the students’ murals crafted from scrap clay into intricate design. It’s the scene of nineteen teenagers frantically installing their work the day before the opening, doodling on empty space of the gallery walls. To Lugo and his students, it’s a source of pride.

– Addee Kim is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College and Sarah Pillard is a sophomore in Silliman College.


Can you imagine what it might be like for a child whose parents are not allowed to be married?”

The day was March 26, 2007. Anna Heller, a 39-year-old social worker from Willimantic, Connecticut, testified during a twelve-hour hearing before the Connecticut legislature on H.B. 7395, which would grant same-sex couples in the state the right to marriage. She spoke on behalf of Love Makes a Family, an organization that lobbied for the bill.

Heller’s testimony, and the rest Love Makes a Family’s records, are now housed at Yale Manuscripts and Archives, in the northeast wing of Sterling Memorial Library. More than sixteen miles of pages line the walls of the main reading room. But the Love Makes a Family archives aren’t found in the bound books lining the walls or folders stashed in the Library Shelving Facility; they sit in two desktop computers sitting patiently in the far-right corner, waiting to be dusted off and started up. “That’s where you’ll be working today,” the librarian at the reference desk said to me, gesturing towards the corner.

After spending an hour skimming through dinner party planning correspondences by Love Makes a Family’s associate director, Carol Buckheit, I stumbled upon an email exchange in which she sent a copy of Heller’s testimony to a professional writer, Alison Cashin. I double-clicked on the Word document, waiting for the software to boot up. But what appeared was not a wall of black text; it was a red sheet full of cross-outs and underlines that covered the original draft like a heavy blanket.

To professional archivists, emails and Word documents are more than lines of text on a computer screen; they are “born-digital” archives, materials created and preserved in a digital form—including audio recordings, floppy disks, digital musical scores, and entire hard drives and laptops. Two decades ago, Yale’s archives were limited to physical objects like books and manuscripts. Now, Yale owns the virtual records of contemporary public figures ranging from playwright Paula Vogel’s teaching files to poet Charles Bernstein’s academic emails. Archivists are becoming more interested in born-digital materials, which often reveal crucial information missing from physical materials. This was certainly the case in Buckheit and Cashin’s emails:

Buckheit: Can I ask your wise counsel on one question on the attached? I’m afraid some of this reinforces that gays should not have kids because we are hurting them emotionally—what do you think?

Cashin: Oof. You’re totally right, Carol. As a rule, I try to avoid anything that can be seen as reinforcing stereotypes—this totally does that…we are trying to emphasize the messages that correspond to other testifiers’ messages.

Buckheit and Cashin’s goal was simple: to frame Heller’s story in a more loving light, replacing phrases like “I wish I did not have to spend my adolescence in fear” with “I feel blessed with my mom’s love and support throughout my childhood.” Heller’s testimony was not a spontaneous release of emotions but a careful construction, crafted and approved by the organization to optimize Heller’s two short minutes in front of the judiciary committee.

The week before my library visit, I met with Mary Caldera, the head of arrangement and description at Manuscripts and Archives. She works with the archives of historically excluded groups, including ethnic minorities and LGBTQ communities. “A lot of the little off-hand correspondences used to be more formal,” Caldera said. “But now, most people have these phone conversations or write quick emails, which can be very informal and reveal a lot more about what they really mean.” By combing through essay drafts and brief emails, archivists uncover the author’s thought process. And because electronic material is often seen as disposable, born-digital archives serve as a repository for an author’s most private musings. For the testifiers of Love Makes a Family, born-digital archives reveal sentiments in more detail than physical archives likely would.

Caldera is one of four members of the Born Digital Working Group at Yale, created in January 2015 to devise guidelines and assemble resources for born-digital archives. “We want to make sure the libraries are able to store digital materials as well as we store all our other materials,” she said. One of the resources the group has incorporated is the Digital Accessioning Service, a collection of technological equipment used to redact personal information like Social Security and bank account numbers, scan for viruses, and capture files from digital media.

But employing high-tech preservation methods is not the only challenge the group faces. It must deal with issues when its forensic toolkit interferes with donors’ rights to privacy. To learn more about these ethical quandaries, I met with the Beinecke Library’s digital archivist Gabby Redwine at 344 Winchester Avenue, a long, sweeping building with lofty glass windows, home to the Beinecke’s back-end technological services. Redwine is the first person at Yale whose job is entirely dedicated to born-digital archives. “One of the main issues that comes up is intentionality,” Redwine explained. “What sets born-digital apart from physical archives is that we can capture information from digital media that hasn’t been overwritten.”

Redwine explained that when users drag their files into the trash bin, most think those files are beyond recovery. But really, the computer only deletes the file “pointer”—a roadmap that leads the computer to the file—while still keeping the file itself. This means when Redwine and her colleagues receive a hard drive, they can use the Beinecke’s forensic tools—which, she noted, are the same tools the FBI uses—to uncover mounds of deleted files that the donor may not have intended to hand over. When archivists work with materials from well-known cultural icons like Vogel or Bernstein, deleted files are a gold mine of novel drafts, essay fragments, and browsing histories. But, until they receive consent from the donor, they must follow library policy, abstaining from opening those gigabytes of potentially valuable but sensitive information.

The available born-digital archives are enough to give us a glimpse into the private lives of all sorts of people, from authors to activists to everyday citizens. Often, the most colloquial exchanges are the most striking. On October 10, 2008, more than one-and-a-half years after Heller’s testimony, Buckheit received an email from Laurel Hoskins, a friend of Love Makes a Family, about a Connecticut Supreme Court ruling:

“I KNOW you are NOT sitting around your computer right now because the decision JUST came down and Stephen and I are just THRILLED and you must be over the top! 4 to 3 decision is good enough. So what if all our money is in the toilet—start planning your weddings!”

– Amber Hu is a sophomore in Saybrook College.

 

Illustration by Julia Hedges.

Krazy Legz Nikki is barreling down a flat track in quad skates, looking for Your Mom. Your Mom, a blocker, has a decision to make: she can either help Legz, her jammer, carve through a glut of skate-wearing women, or she can get in the way of the opposing jammer, Sass Squash. To make it through unscathed, Legz will have to “dance by” Lehigh Valley’s blockers using the precise footwork she’s been practicing since 2012. Or she can just barrel right through.

“We prefer just running people over, in all honesty,” Legz admits after the bout. 

I drive to the Connecticut Roller Derby Travel Team Double-Header (one match between the CT All-Stars and Lehigh Valley, the other between the CT Yankee Brutals and Shoreline Bella Donnas), fully expecting to be one of maybe thirty or forty spectators. But when I arrive at the Insports Center in Trumbull, Connecticut, the parking lot is full, and I am forced into parking behind a caravan of cars down the street. After ten minutes waiting in line for a ticket, I am greeted by a maple hardwood floor the size of three basketball courts, two commentators, an elaborate sound system, and a projection screen displaying the score. Dozens of vendors line the gym and hundreds of people—from grandchildren to grandparents—sit around the track in home-brought portable chairs brought from home. I didn’t realize this was BYOC.

I sit close to the track in an area called “The Danger Zone.” You must be eighteen to sit here because there’s a possibility that one of the roller girls will careen off the track and crush you and your ice-cold Coors Lite. Before I have time to evaluate the risk of my seating location, the buzzer sounds and the bout begins. Eight women, all wearing skates, knee pads, elbow pads, and helmets, begin bodying each other for position. Two skaters, one from each team, fly around the back straightaway. The crowd rumbles in their portable chairs. Perhaps this is not such a niche sport after all. 

In 1935, roller derby was basically a cross country endurance race. Teams of two would circle around a banked track over and over, covering three thousand miles in total, approximately the distance from New York City to Los Angeles. After realizing crowds enjoyed the collisions more than the skating, Leo Seltzer, the sport’s founder, tweaked the game to add more physical contact. It took off.  By 1949, the National Roller Derby playoffs sold out Madison Square Garden for an entire week, and the sport was broadcast on CBS. When that contract expired, ABC started televising games. But by the early nineteen-seventies, the sport sputtered out. The 1973 oil crisis made it prohibitively expensive for teams to travel, and the Roller Games’ International Skating Conference’s uncompetitive, circus-like approach to the game turned off fans. 

In 2000, Daniel Eduardo Policarpo, also known as “Devil Dan,” attempted to re-ignite the sport as an all-women roller derby-themed spectacle with winners selected before the match. After a highly suspect logistical meeting in a bar, the recruited women decided to ditch Dan and form their own organization: Bad Girl Good Woman Productions. They changed the rules and formed a league. Winners would no longer be pre-ordained. Now it wasn’t just a show; it was a competition. And it wasn’t “women’s roller derby” –– it was just roller derby. (Men’s derby exists, but it’s not nearly as popular. For men, there’s a wider range of highly physical, competitive outlets to choose from. Roller Derby is also one of the only sports that allow trans athletes to compete as women without undergoing hormone therapy, distinguishing it from any Olympic event.) The sport continues to grow in popularity. In 2006, the CT Roller Derby began with about fifteen skaters. Now they have about sixty-five. 

“We have moms, we have younger women, we have older women, we have cis women, we have trans women,” Your Mom, also known as Nolan Smith, tells me. “We have every race and age you could think of. Everybody has a home here.”

Roller derby consists of two thirty-minute halves, each broken up into two-minute sections called jams. Each team plays with five athletes at a time, and there are two main positions: jammer and blocker. The jammer’s goal is to score, which she does by weaving through a horde of blockers and lapping members of the opposing team. Blockers, four on each squad, play offense and defense at the same time. They help their jammer get through the pack and prevent the other team’s jammer from doing the same. At the end of each jam, new jammers and blockers switch onto the track.

The game shifts between fast and slow. All-Star jammer Black Cherry weaves, hops, and sprints through small holes in the Lehigh Valley defense. Legz looks for an opening and pile-drives through. At times, the jammer gets stuck behind a wall of opposing blockers. When Black Cherry hops over a defender’s outstretched leg, the crowd cheers. 

About ten years ago, the sport was high-speed and punk-rock. Players drank beer before matches, wore fishnet tights, and pummeled each other. Roller Derby was little more than flying around the track and laying hits. Derby names –– Your Mom, Krazy Legz Nikki, Puke Skywalker –– are a carryover from this campy era. 

“For a long time it was just skate fast, turn left,” Smith says. “It was never a show, it was never pretend … but over time it’s changed from a game where people go as fast as they can to a game with strategies and formations.”

Today, players treat the game more seriously. The CT All-Stars practice three days a week, two hours each day. They practice formations and watch tape. Athletes on the All-Stars are also expected to cross-train outside of practice –– weight lifting, running, core workouts. If you’re not strong, you’re more likely to sprain an ankle, break a clavicle, or tear an ACL. Almost every athlete I talk to, from Scorin’ Kierkegaard to Midwife Crisis, has an injury story; during the match, I notice All-Star Captain Puke Skywalker standing on the sideline with a walker. 

The bout ends with a score of 287–153, a convincing All-Star win. But they’re not done for the day. After they change out of their game uniforms, they’ve got other jobs to do. Some coach the B-team, the Yankee Brutals. Others walk around the court selling raffle tickets to keep the nonprofit club afloat. Players, refs, coaches, announcers, and staff are all volunteers. 

Holding a jug of 50/50 raffle tickets amidst the noisy crowd, Krazy Legz Nikki finds some time to talk. “So you’re gonna write about how awesome we are? On and off the track? Should I put my hair down and try to fluff it up? Don’t mention the sweat—or the pops and bruises.” She points out a welt on her shoulder that seems to become darker each minute I talk to her. “This one’s gonna be good if you want a picture of that.”

Jacob Sweet is a senior in Grace Hopper College.