Fellowship nurtures Yale students’ connections to New Haven
In his first year at the Yale School of the Environment, Carlos Velazquez had hoped to explore his new home city of New Haven and meet some of its residents. Concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic, however, kept the now second-year master’s student from traveling much beyond the Yale campus or the East Rock neighborhood where he lives.
This summer, a President’s Public Service Fellowship (PPSF) gave him an opportunity to learn more about the city’s history, people, and neighborhoods.
Velazquez was one of 28 Yale undergraduate or graduate students selected for the competitive summer internship, which allowed him to work for the Urban Resources Initiative (URI), a Yale-based nonprofit that partners with the city on community forestry and environmental education initiatives.
As a community forester, he supported various community groups — mostly in the Hill and Fair Haven neighborhoods — with environmental rehabilitation projects. He advised them on tree and garden plantings as they transformed vacant lots into pocket parks; created urban oases to attract birds, bees, and other wildlife; or beautified their neighborhoods by planting trees along the street, among other projects.
“I was able to travel all over the city and meet dozens of people from different communities,” said Velazquez. “It was amazing. I went into their neighborhoods to teach them about trees and plants, but the most fulfilling part for me was learning about the different spots in New Haven and what they mean to people. I am much more emotionally connected to the city than I was before.”
Established in 1994, PPSF gives students the opportunity to work on economic and human development initiatives and neighborhood revitalization in New Haven full time for up to 11 weeks each summer. This year, in addition to URI, students were placed in agencies dedicated to youth development, child care, and education; feeding homeless or near-homeless individuals or families; or caring for the elderly, among other services. Some worked in city government departments such as New Haven’s Department of Arts, Culture, and Tourism, and others spent their summer assisting university-affiliated programs like the Yale Prison Education Initiative.
“I am inspired by and proud of each year’s cohort, and this year is no exception,” said Karen King, director of PPSF and community relations associate in the Yale Office of New Haven Affairs. “Our fellows rose to the challenges faced while working during this ongoing pandemic, and praise continues to pour in from their host sites for their incredible efforts.”
Making new friends while planting trees and more
Most of the fellows this summer worked remotely because of the ongoing pandemic. Velazquez and his School of the Environment classmate Musa Joko, who was also placed with URI, tackled projects that required university-approved, in-person support and could safely be undertaken outdoors.
Joko, who worked as a forester in Zimbabwe before coming to Yale, applied for a President’s Public Service Fellowship because she wanted to “leave a mark” on her temporary home city, one that could last after she graduates.
“As someone committed to community-building and development, I enjoyed seeing people work together on environmental restoration,” Joko said.
Like Velazquez, Joko worked with neighborhood groups to ensure that they had the tools and materials they needed for their projects, including trees, shrubs, plants, mulch, equipment, and more.
“I also conducted biophysical surveys and carried out site visits to determine the best site for tree planting and to help identify the ideal trees for the site,” said Joko. “In addition, I acted as a mediator with the city parks department to alert them on whether the grass needed mowing, or if there was a dead tree that needed to be removed, or a brush pile that was ready for collection. I also assisted with plant identification at neighborhood sites, especially during weeding.”
Joko relished working with city residents on this work. “Seeing groups grow as more people showed interest in environmental work, especially the youth — the next generation — has melted my heart,” said the Yale student.
In addition to gaining technical skills, Joko said she now has greater knowledge of New England plants as well as more knowledge about the city. “A passion to do more has been stirred in me,” she said. “Some groups I worked with have more than 20 years of experience, and it is humbling to learn about the great work they have done.”
Becoming rooted while advancing a health campaign
For Ng Akingbesote, now a second-year doctoral student in Biological and Biomedical Sciences at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, her internship with the Sickle Cell Disease Association of America-Southern CT (informally called “Michelle’s House”) helped ground her in New Haven.
“As an immigrant, I learned that what gives me roots is to connect with my community,” said Akingbesote, who moved to the United States from Nigeria as a high school student in 2012. “I did not want to spend what could be six years at Yale without getting to know the New Haven community.”
At Yale, Akingbesote is researching the connection between cancer metabolism and exercise in the Yale laboratory of Rachel Perry, assistant professor in medicine/endocrinology and cellular and molecular physiology. During the summer she had hoped to work in science education. She found that in her work with Michelle’s House, where she spent her days helping to advance the Sickle Cell Association’s campaign to reduce the incidence of the incurable genetic disease and to raise awareness about it.
The goal of Michelle’s House is to improve the quality of life and wellbeing for people affected by sickle cell disease, a painful blood disorder that primarily affects African Americans and impacts all areas of their lives, said Akingbesote.
Akingbesote helped to foster Michelle’s House partnerships with scientists at Yale and other Connecticut universities in the hopes of producing much needed data-driven scientific research about the disease, and met with potential collaborators on various other projects. She also collected information from individuals who have the disease about their challenges and experiences, including the academic challenges of school-aged children who miss school due to hospitalizations.
“I was kind of a point of integration for these various projects,” she said. “This whole process made me really appreciate the people behind the scenes who make things work. It showed me that no community runs on its own.”
Akingbesote said she is especially grateful for the weekly meetings attended by all of the President’s Public Service Fellows, who shared news of their own work and accomplishments. They also heard from various civic leaders and community organizers about their efforts to improve or enhance life for fellow New Haven residents.
“I had a lot of moments where I would think, ‘Wow, trees are being planted all over the city’ or ‘wow, pedestrian-friendly roads are being planned and it’s because of the work of particular group of people,’ Akingbesote said. “So many people are putting in hours to make the city a better place to live. It’s a very beautiful experience to see it happen.”
Diving deeper into New Haven history
Kyler Schubkegel, an M.A. candidate in Religion and Literature at the Institute of Sacred Music (ISM), spent the summer as an intern at Discovering Amistad, a nonprofit social justice organization dedicated to teaching people about the 1839 uprising by African captives aboard the cargo schooner the “Amistad.”
“It would have been easy for me to drop in for my academic program and move on without even beginning to know and understand my neighbors, like a one-way transfer of services,” Schubkegel said. “I hoped to participate in a culture of mutual service, but it’s sometimes difficult to find ways of doing this that are practical and financially sustainable. PPSF gave me the support I needed to dedicate an entire summer to community service.”
Schubkegel assisted with Discovering Amistad’s marketing, recruitment, and communications. In addition, he researched prospective educational partnerships and collaborations and helped with the organization’s curriculum development and adaptation.
“One of the things I’ve most enjoyed about my summer has been taking a deep dive into the history of the Amistad Uprising in 1839 and the commanding example of resistance we find in the illegally transported Africans who continued working for years in defense of their own freedom and dignity,” said the graduate student. “As a student of literature, I was amazed by the several Africans who learned English in prison to make their own case more powerfully (in speech and in writing) and to influence the strategies of their legal defense.
“More broadly, I learned about the resources they draw from their own rich and varied cultural backgrounds which became essential tactics in their struggle for freedom — an important reminder that our responses to injustice can never be homogenous.”
The summer experience as a President’s Public Service Fellow made Schubkegel even more aware of “the ways our lives are so deeply enmeshed.”
“We are networked people,” he said, “and the many spheres of community life — food access, modes of transportation, medical service, housing, to name just a few — necessarily influence each other… . I find myself feeling proud of New Haven residents’ remarkable energy for improving these systems from the ground up, and for improving the city holistically through collaboration.”
Many of the President’s Public Service Fellows expect to stay involved with the New Haven community in the future.
“This internship has been life-changing for me,” said Velazquez. “It combined so many things I’m interested in and helped me develop skills I wanted to develop, like community organizing and social justice work, while allowing me to be working outside with my hands and planting trees. It’s been one of my favorite summer experiences of my life.”