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What’s Next?

Graphics credit Claire Sheen YH Staff

 

On Mon., Nov. 8, 2015, about 1,200 bodies stood on Cross Campus. Most had gathered in the narrow walkway between the Afro-American Cultural House and the Yale Cabaret before spilling onto Park Street, then down Crown past the Asian American and Native American cultural houses, then past the frat houses on High. Now they stood surrounded by the stone turrets at the center of James Gamble Rodgers’ medieval village, illuminated white in the cool sun. The buildings on Cross Campus—Sterling Memorial Library, Berkley College North Court and South Court, William L. Harkness Hall, Calhoun College, all architecturally varied and meticulously placed—seemed much closer to each other now that the lawns, paths, and steps between them were obscured by a plane of people.

This afternoon of chanting and singing and dancing on Cross Campus was the University’s first introduction to Next Yale, although they didn’t know it. The March of Resilience was perhaps the single most iconic moment of a semester consumed by Halloween incidents that had little to do with Halloween. The name Next Yale had not yet been chosen, and the March was technically organized by Down Magazine. Chants like “Another Yale is possible!” foreshadowed Next Yale’s official advent, but it wasn’t until Down published a piece on Thurs., Nov. 12 that the name became ubiquitous. The piece was a list of demands addressed to University President Peter Salovey, GRD ’78. Next Yale was the only signatory.

This signature is Next Yale’s entire online presence. There’s no website or Twitter or Facebook. There is no list of members or officers. There are no listed headquarters. There is no email address for fielding questions. In short, this is a tricky story to go about writing. Without an involved friend of a friend to get the ball rolling, it might have been an impossible story.

I’m lucky enough to have the right friends with the right friends. But my relative proximity had done little to dispel the fog around Next Yale. Last semester, as the editor of the Herald and as a student at Yale, I read most of what there was to read about the racial unrest on campus. That didn’t help much either. Before two weeks ago, despite knowing people involved with it, I understood little more about Next Yale as an entity than the amorphous implications of those two words below the list of demands.

Next Yale’s accomplishments last semester, which include doubled funding for the Afro American, Native American, and Asian American cultural houses, and La Casa, and new systems for reporting discrimination, were far more significant than anything else realized by a group of students within institutional memory. Nevertheless, most of Yale knows as little about the entity behind the change as anyone else scouring the internet. We know that Next Yale made demands, and we know that President Salovey felt compelled to address them. But, of course, it took work to get there. And, depending on who you ask, there might be lots more left for Next Yale to do.

***

Next Yale must have had a beginning; this is one of the few points on which the people I spoke with, who can’t quite be called members, agreed. Consensus about when that beginning was, however, was hard to reach.

Some say it grew out of Unite Yale, which was a rally organized on March 27 to draw attention to various student demands, including divestment from fossil fuels, reformed mental health policy, and increased funding to cultural houses.

Or maybe Next Yale began in Eshe Sherley’s, MC ’16, apartment at the beginning of fall semester, when a small group met to discuss the departures of notable faculty like Jafari Allen from the Ethnicity, Race, and Migration department.

Or Next Yale might have begun on Thurs., Nov. 5. That was the day students chalking on Cross Campus spontaneously engaged with Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway, and later in the afternoon, chalking in Silliman Courtyard, confronted Silliman Master Nicholas Christakis, ES ’84. That day ended in President Salovey’s office in Woodbridge Hall, in a meeting Karleh Wilson, SY ’16, described as “traumatizing” for the way students of color were asked to recount instances of discrimination. Wilson says Next Yale was already in full swing by then, but Jamie Hobson, DC ’17, president of the Black Student Alliance at Yale, thinks the harrowing meeting jolted Next Yale into existence.

Sherley says that group in her apartment wasn’t Next Yale. She’s not even sure Next Yale began with the March of Resilience. “You could say, on Nov. 8, Next Yale began,” she said. “But we weren’t called that then. We didn’t know what we were. We were just a bunch of students.”

“It really arose around the time that it submitted the list of demands to Salovey,” said Alex Zhang, CC ’18. That’s when the name was chosen.

But Wilson disagrees. “If you wanted to say that the start of Next Yale was the day we decided on the name, that would be fallacious.”

***

Though those involved with Next Yale don’t have just one answer, it seems that it was born sometime on or before Thurs., Nov. 12, the night Next Yale read its demands in front of President Salovey’s house. But what was it, exactly?

When it comes to Next Yale, terminology is tricky and personal. There are different understandings of what exactly the name represents. “Next Yale is not a club,” Zhang said. “It’s not an organization necessarily. It’s more a movement than anything else.” “It’s a group of people,” said Sebi Medina-Tayac, DC’16. “It’s a self selecting group of students of color at Yale,” said Wilson. “In my head, what it became was a movement,” Nat Aramayo, TD ’17, said. “I’ve been really resistant to calling it anything,” Sherley said. “It’s not an organization, I will say that. Unless someone makes it one in the future. It could totally become one. I guess I wonder why it has to be anything.”

Next Yale is certainly a name, regardless of what sort of thing it denotes. “I think there’s something powerful about naming a moment,” Sherley said. “I think even if it doesn’t become an organization, and a group of people under that name stops doing things, I think it will always be powerful as a signpost that says something about all that was happening, and in a lot of ways that’s the most important thing a name can do.”

That name gained even more significance because it was all the information made available about Next Yale. That was an intentional choice. “Next Yale isn’t a firmly defined organization,” Medina-Tayac told me. “It has no internal structure, no very official networks of communication. There’s no discussion of incorporating it into a student organization.” There’s no president or treasurer to interview.

“There’s never going to be a website for Next Yale,” Wilson said. “There’s no link…there’s never going to be a list [of members].” Wilson understood Next Yale to be a movement first and foremost, which would only be hindered by the limitation of an articulated online presence or publicly identified group of people.

Aramayo also acknowledged the constriction an online presence would represent. “I personally feel like having a website, having a Facebook page or something like that reduces Next Yale as a movement to a specific group,” they elaborated. That specific group would be limited to a number of interests, and vice versa, certain issues might become the sole responsibility of that group.

But beyond avoiding the constraints that a digital presence could pose, Next Yale may have been well served by the air of mystery its unexplained announcement produced. “I think it was strategic,” Sherley said of the decision not to provide a broader context for the name Next Yale. “It looks like it worked, because people were still asking, ‘What is this thing?’” When the demands were published and attributed to a group no one outside of it had heard of, it drew people in, if it didn’t alienate them.

“Next Yale is a grassroots organization,” Wilson said, “so you’re not going to get a very clear picture of what we are ever.” That’s because there isn’t really a clear picture to get. “People think it’s an organization that meets in secret every week, but it’s literally an email thread that people are constantly getting added to, and people are constantly taking themselves off of,” Medina-Tayac explained. “When enough people agree to have a meeting, then there’s a meeting.”

Though Next Yale’s lack of structure is somewhat deliberate, it was also in part a byproduct of the short period of time in which Next Yale responded to events on campus. It’s easy to remember conversations about race dominating all of fall semester. But Associate Silliman Master Erika Christakis emailed her college about Halloween costumes on Fri., Oct. 31, and Next Yale read its demands outside President Salovey’s house the night of Thurs., Nov. 12. That’s not a long intervening period.

“There wasn’t really time to stop and say, ‘You know, maybe we should organize as an official University organization that has a board and a structure and everything,” Aramayo said. Without a board or defined membership, there wouldn’t be much information for a nextyale.com to display. Next Yale’s vague projected image might have been its most accurate representation.

***

A central tension began to emerge in discussions about Next Yale. On the one hand, Next Yale was grassroots. That meant that there was no defined leadership or officers of any kind. Zhang insisted on the egalitarian nature of the group. “So far it’s been all students, all members, all organizers: it’s been from the bottom up that decisions have been made and priorities have been set,” he said. “We don’t need a Next Yale Corporation as far as I can tell.”

But on the other hand, Next Yale was able to act effectively in a matter of mere days to enact drastic change on campus by producing a list of demands. That’s not the sort of action typical of a completely egalitarian group. Zhang said responsibilities were divvied up evenly— but someone had to do the divvying.

Sherley said Next Yale was driven by consensus decisions, but that that wasn’t the whole picture. “That is a true answer, it’s just an incomplete one,” she said. “People who were going to run the meeting would come in with general questions or proposals about how we would move forward from where we were last time, and then you would facilitate a discussion.” In other words, there was leadership of some sort. It may not have been a single person, or even the same group of people from meeting to meeting, but the meetings had an agenda, and someone composed that agenda. She noted that Next Yale drew crowds of over 50 students to meetings, some of whom didn’t have experience with activism, “and that’s what’s beautiful about movement, they pull in people who weren’t doing that work before. But,” she paused, “I think that that just creates friction.”

 

Some leaders from the cultural houses, which fed into Next Yale, simply have spent more time honing political organization skills, and have more experience working with each other. They also had spent months galvanizing their own communities and could use their already strong relationships to draw people into the movement: “Building trust is a process,” she said. Sherley herself was vice president of BSAY last year. Even among those who attended Next Yale meetings, Sherley said people felt excluded by the group of more experienced organizers.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine that Next Yale could have done so much without guidance from seasoned leaders. Whether or not the March of Resilience predated Next Yale, many of the major players were the same. It drew an impressive and enthusiastic quarter of Yale’s undergraduates. And the teach-ins Next Yale sponsored filled Battell Chapel, one of Yale’s largest auditoriums, over capacity.

And on Tues., Nov. 17, President Salovey sent an email to the entire Yale community titled “Toward a Better Yale,” in which he addressed the demands Next Yale put forth. Although he did not promise an ethnic studies department, Salovey did announce plans for a center for the study of race and ethnicity. He doubled the funding for all four cultural houses, promised mental health resources in the cultural centers, and publicized upcoming reforms to Yale’s financial aid policy. He announced that he and all other Yale administrators would receive anti-discrimination training along with instating new mechanisms for reporting discrimination.

Not everyone was equally pleased with Salovey’s response. Many of Next Yale’s demands went unanswered. But most people I spoke with deemed the response a victory, if not an absolute one. Sherley is satisfied with the change Next Yale has effected. “I think it’s done its work,” she said. “I think if we never heard anyone use that name again, it’s done more to change this institution than any other group of students in the last few decades.”

But much of that change is less about University policy and more about culture. “If you think about Birgit Rasmussen’s class Race and Gender in American Lit and the way it’s been oversubscribed so much, that this class is in such high demand that the University doesn’t really know what to do about it, that’s incredibly amazing and important,” Aramayo said. According to the University’s online statistics, 608 students shopped the course on a single day.

***

At some point in speaking with people for this piece, I realized that one of the primary reasons talking about Next Yale is so difficult is that really, there are two separate entities that both go by that name. One is a movement or a moment or a feeling, and the other is a group of people. Only something as intangible as a movement could produce the cultural shift Yale has undergone, quantifiable in the unprecedented number of students interested in an ER&M course, but more readily experienced by students on this campus in the sorts of thoughtful, sensitive, and rigorous conversations that have continued to take place.

But a movement didn’t write a list of demands. Moments can’t do that— groups of people do. An understanding of Next Yale as the more abstract or concrete of these two entities determines every impression of it, from its founding to its function, from its role in the future, to the state of its current existence.

This last question—the question of its status today—unexpectedly proved one of the most contentious. “It doesn’t exist,” Medina-Tayac said matter-of-factly. “Next Yale was something that was needed in a particular moment.” That moment is passed. The group can disband, and in the view of some, it has. The moment might not even be as brief as the time since Halloween. Sherley sees the newly achieved funding for the cultural house as the final resolution to some of the problems behind Unite Yale. “It feels like the final endpoint,” she said.

But the broader movement has no such visible endpoint. “Next Yale exists,” Wilson told me. “Even if it takes a new form or takes a new name or has no name, Next Yale exists. It will always exist as long as Yale continues admitting students who are lower income, who are people of color, and who are not represented by the faculty.” In other words, Next Yale the feeling cannot dissolve. Even if it ceases to dominate conversation on campus, it will never disappear.

Though there is still progress to be made, the kind of activism performed last semester might be simply unsustainable as we begin the new year. Much of Next Yale is seniors who will leave here in a matter of months, and who have much to do before then. Last semester was exhausting; schoolwork suffered. Many feel that it’s time to go back to being a student.

“Sometimes staying on the battlefield means you’re at the front of the fight with spear in hand, charging forward, and sometimes staying on the battlefield just means healing your wounds so you can go back at it again,” Sherley said. “Since the second semester of my freshman year, I’ve been fighting this battle at the front, and I wouldn’t do that any differently, but also one of the biggest battles any student of color can win at this campus is to graduate. And so it’s time for me to win that one.”

 

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