In new Neighbors-in-Residence program, knowledge flows both ways
“Dwight Hall and Tsai CITY saw the need in New Haven for Room for All — my affordable housing activism project — which contends that there should be room in this city for both my community and the luxury high rises,” said Kim Hart, lifelong New Haven resident and participant in the inaugural Neighbors-in-Residence program — a joint initiative between the Tsai Center for Innovative Thinking (Tsai CITY) and Dwight Hall, Center for Public Service and Social Justice at Yale.
Neighbors-in-Residence (NiR) launched in spring 2018. The program brought New Haven residents — each of whom was working on a community service project of different scope and scale — into Yale to work with Onyeka Obiocha, the inaugural director of innovation at Dwight Hall and current associate director of Tsai CITY, and Marquita Taylor, assistant director of innovation and leadership development at Dwight Hall. Taylor and Obiocha designed the program to connect Yale students with New Haven residents working on projects that help their community.
“Prior to starting as the director of innovation at Dwight Hall, I held a series of listening sessions with community members,” said Obiocha. “What I kept hearing was the need for well-intentioned Yale students to have a better understanding of New Haven’s structures, histories, institutions, and traditions prior to launching their efforts. It’s more harmful than helpful to go into a community without understanding who is already doing this work and how one can be most effective.”
From these conversations, NiR was born and envisioned as an opportunity for students to learn directly from New Haven residents how best to work in New Haven. According to Obiocha, the NiR program hopes to reimagine the relationship between academic and experiential knowledge.
Based on the idea of “mutualism,” NiR has tried to provide value for the individuals who are offering their wisdom and expertise. Thus, throughout their residency at Yale, the Neighbors received a stipend for their time as well as connections to the same resources and access that have been available to Yale students through Dwight Hall since 1886. Obiocha credits 2017 Yale World Fellow Baljeet Sandhu and the “Social Innovation Lab” at Johns Hopkins University for the inspiration for NiR.
“Baljeet has been doing work on ‘knowledge equity,’” said Obiocha, “which for Dwight Hall looks like asking ourselves how we can help the people who live in the half mile radius of Yale, people who are doing amazing anti-violence work or advocacy for better healthcare opportunities or other community service projects. Asking the question: How can we get them access to grants, public speaking training, or whatever tools and resources they need to be successful?”
According to Taylor, knowledge has been a better gift for the participants than any grant. “When we ask the Neighbors what they want and what they need, it hasn’t really been a certain amount of funding,” said Taylor, “More often, it’s: ‘I want to talk to someone who can teach me how to create a policy that makes it legal to X.’ Fortunately, at Dwight Hall, we have great relationships with the different schools and offices around campus, and they have been so great in partnering with us and lending their help to the Neighbors this year.”
In addition to having biweekly progress meetings with Taylor, the Neighbors were invited to participate in the inaugural class of the Social Innovation Lab, led by Obiocha, at Tsai CITY. Each had a very different project with unique needs to support and goals to develop.
“This incubation period was very intense,” Taylor explained. “We really fleshed out the projects they came in with, and we worked hard with them to strengthen the work they’ve already been doing. Dwight Hall isn’t doing Neighbors-in-Residence because it looks good. We really want to have an impact here.”
Per NiR’s design, however, knowledge has been flowing both ways throughout the program. “Arguably, the knowledge that the Neighbors are bringing to Yale is just as valuable as the knowledge that they are getting,” said Taylor.
“They’re experts in their own right,” added Obiocha. “Those who are closest to the problem are also closest to the solution. We want to highlight, center, and support their voices in order to build programming and structures to help them succeed.”
“The work that the Neighbors have done for Yale and the talks they have given have been so important to the undergraduate students and the university at large,” said Taylor. “A lot of students come to Yale wanting to change this community and the world, and many have brilliant ideas for how they might do that. But having that insight from people who are actually doing service work in New Haven is an essential piece of figuring out the how and why of affecting change here. Our Neighbors have helped our students so much with that.”
After all, added Taylor, “You can't be about public service and social justice without including the community that you’re serving in what you’re doing.”