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Space for identity

Claire Thomas

When Woolsey Hall was built in 1901, no one envisioned that its stage would showcase diversity like this. On Oct. 19, prospective Yale applicants will watch Sur et Veritaal (Hindi a cappella), Blue Feather (Native American drums and dance), and Sabrosura (the Latin Dance Team) perform at Yale’s Multicultural Open House. High school students, primarily underrepresented minorities, will be treated to performances, meals, panels, and meetings with top Yale professors. It’s the best Yale has to offer in resources—academic and cultural.

At the center of the Multicultural Open House are Yale’s four cultural houses: the Afro-American Cultural Center, La Casa Cultural Julia de Burgos, the Asian American Cultural Center, and the Native American Cultural Center. Unique to the Ivy League, these institutions serve a dual purpose: first, to foster a sense of cultural identity through providing a space for minority students, and second, to educate the larger Yale community. For a university with a history of exclusion, the creation of these programs and their dedication to diversity is a radical change in policy. The majority of students attending the Multicultural Open House will have never been to Yale before; their first interaction with the school will be framed through the four cultural houses.

Through the Multicultural Open House, Yale Admissions is making a clear statement: as a minority, you are different from other Yale applicants. This is the experience you will have at Yale, and these cultural houses will provide a space in which you will feel comfortable.

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War protests, women, and the departure of ROTC all happened in 1969, a year of accelerated cultural change across the Yale community. Among the notable events of the year was the emergence of the Afro-American Cultural Center (known to students and alumni simply as “the House”). Fourteen black students in the same class—then a record number—had matriculated to Yale in 1967 and sought a designated place to talk about social and political issues. They formed the Black Student Alliance at Yale (BSAY) and began to meet at 1195 Chapel Street.

“From the sexual revolution, to the women’s movement, to the black students’ movement, there was just so much going on in the 1970s when the Afro-American Cultural Center got going,” said Victor Chears, TR ’74. Chears, a former chair of the Afro-American Cultural Center Board, has attended every five-year reunion of the House since its inception and plans to return this year for its 45th reunion. When looking back at the establishment of the House, Chears emphasizes that even with the political momentum of the era, student involvement and activism were essential in securing a space for black students.

“This whole concept was new in higher education in the 1960s,” said Rodney Cohen, Yale College Assistant Dean and current director of the Afro-American Cultural Center. “There was a series of conferences and meetings around the country—this was not just a movement at Yale, but a national movement.” Cohen and Chears also note that the Af-Am house owes its origins in part to the initiative of then-President Kingman Brewster, SY ’41. Chears commented that Brewster “regularly took on the establishment” to drive change at Yale.

In 1970, the House moved from 1195 Chapel Street to a prominent on-campus location on 211 Park Street. The current president of BSAY, Patricia Okonta, MC ’15, stated that this move reflected the relationship between black students and the University. “We’ve been getting closer ever since then,” she said. The House has enjoyed consistent and sustained alumni support for the past 40 years, showcased in 2006 with the completion of its 3 million-dollar restoration project.

1969 was also a significant year for Asian-American students at Yale, who organized the Asian American Students Alliance (AASA). In the early 1970s, AASA began looking for an independent space to organize and hold events. Nick Chen, PC ’79, and Grant Din, BR ’79, rallied support among the Asian-American community in 1978 to arrange a meeting with then-President A. Bartlett Giamatti, SY ’60. “It was our dream to have a cultural center,” said Din. “We had this dark little office in the basement of Durfee, and then a slightly larger little room in the basement of Bingham. Nick [Chen] was really smart and came up with the idea of having Giamatti come to our office, instead of us going to him.” Chen and Din asked attendants to leave their shoes in the hallway, a traditional Asian practice. When Giamatti arrived, he was greeted by a sea of shoes. He was forced to acknowledge the discrepancy between the size of the community and the quality of the facilities.

Following talks with Giamatti, the Asian American Cultural Center (AACC) opened at 295 Crown St. in 1981, sharing the red brick duplex with the MEChA, the Chicano (Mexican-American) student group, who at the time had also been petitioning for an on-campus space. It was known as the Asian Chicano Cultural Center—for groups that had been seeking independent, physical space, the name alone exemplified the problem.

Previously, Latino students on campus had two separate cultural centers: Puerto Rican students gathered in La Casa Cultural Julia de Burgos (“La Casa”) at 305 Crown St., founded in 1977, and MEChA was headquartered at 79 Howe St. “The [MEChA] house was in extremely bad shape and was about to be condemned,” reminisced Martha Chavez, GRD ’92 and ’04, who served as an Assistant Dean of Yale College from 1979 to 1985. “Sometimes, I still have dreams of walking to the third floor and the floor caving in on us.”

The property on 295 Crown St. was marginally better, though Chavez remarked that Yale students themselves finished the renovating and laid the tile and flooring; despite the precedents set in Yale’s other construction projects, the University did not provide support. “We all had a vision for the center,” Chavez said. “We wanted it to be a home away from home, but we also wanted it to be a place for other Yale community members to come to learn about our history and culture.” The center provided students with access to educational and work-study opportunities, while also serving as a hub for the minority community in New Haven through programs such as English classes for recent Asian and Hispanic immigrants.

In 1999, MEChA moved out of 295 Crown St. and combined with the Puerto Rican cultural center to form the current La Casa. Rosalinda Garcia, current director of La Casa and Assistant Dean of Yale College, explained that the choice to combine the centers came following the realization that many Latinos on campus weren’t being served by either of the two organizations.  “They wanted to be recognized as one community,” she said. They moved to 301 Crown St. after demanding that the University renovate the space. Many alumni opposed the move, which meant the loss of a Dean and decreased funding. However, Garcia stands by the decision, citing the increase in number of students supported.

Similarly to La Casa, the Native American Cultural Center (NACC) began as part of the AACC. In 1993, members of the Association of Native Americans at Yale (ANAAY) established the Native American Cultural Center (NACC) on the third floor of the already packed Asian Chicano Cultural Center. Twenty years later, this fall, the NACC moved into its own house at 26 High St., in a process Yale College Assistant Dean and NACC Director Theodore Van Alst described as “arduous.” ANAAY Co-Presidents Dinee Dorame, ES ’15, and Reed Bobroff, ES ’16, pointed out that the acquisition of the house comes alongside a jump in Native student admissions—the class of 2015 currently holds the record for highest number of Native American students in a class in Yale history. “We found the original mission of ANAAY and we’ve been able to accomplish almost all of it,” Bobroff said. “They wanted to establish more classes about Native Americans, bring more Native American students to Yale, have a Native American advisor, and get our own space. Having a space was key.”

For minority groups, space means a guaranteed place to be comfortable. In the past, this extended to physical safety. It also means acknowledgement of existence from the University and the community at large. But as they no longer have to fight to be accepted, the mission of the cultural houses has changed from political to social. AACC Director and Assistant Dean of Yale College Saveena Dhall reminisced that students in the 1980s and 1990s had different priorities. “They mobilized, they wrote papers, and they organized on an intercollegiate level,” Dhall said. “Now, the majority of our students host social and cultural events.” Is this because the needs of the population have changed? Partly, Dhall told me, but she also attributed it to a lack of anxiety about claiming space. “When there’s so few of you, you focus on activism and awareness. Today, you come in and take the presence of other minorities for granted.”

While the social and performing arts aspects of the cultural centers may be the most well known (after all, these are the aspects showcased at the Multicultural Open House), the houses have always played a large role in academic life. According to Cohen, “The Afro-American Cultural Center laid the foundation for Afro-American studies to be established at Yale and around the country,” and during her tenure as a Dean, Chavez pushed for the establishment of Chicano Boricua studies, which became the Ethnicity, Race and Migration (ERM) major last year. For students interested in studying their cultures, the cultural houses provided access to materials, faculty, and speakers even before Yale College recognized the African-American Studies and ERM majors.

Students involved believe that their cultural houses raise awareness about pertinent social and political issues in the broader Yale community. “For example, Native American reservations are some of the poorest areas of the country, and they’re often overlooked,” said Christian Brown, PC ’15, a NACC peer liason. “I think bringing those issues to the forefront of people’s minds is important.” Every year, the NACC celebrates Indigenous People’s Day, a counter-celebration to Columbus Day that highlights Native History and traditions. For Okonta and members of BSAY, the Af-Am house also serves to remind students of minority struggles in the past. “We’re lucky that discrimination isn’t as big of an issue now, but that past needs to be remembered, and the cultural house preserves that memory.”

For students coming to Yale from primarily minority communities, Deans Cohen and Garcia point out that the Yale experience can be both challenging and alienating. To address these problems, each cultural house provides a peer liaison program, which matches freshmen with upperclassmen mentors. “You go through culture shock,” Garcia said. “Having the resources we have is important for students because it gives them a place to get comfortable at Yale while everything else is still unfamiliar.”

The cultural houses also fill an important niche in supporting and addressing the issues of comfort and identity that aren’t the focus of the University overall. “I grew up being the Puerto Rican kid in school and the American cousin in Puerto Rico. It was always something I grappled with,” said Chris Melendez, ES ’15, a peer liaison for La Casa. “Then you come to Yale, and it’s amazing to find that there are other students who understand what you’re trying to figure out.”

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Identity issues are complex, but the entanglements they bring when institutionalized are messier still. Cultural houses face challenges, including clarifying their dual missions—which are sometimes at odds—and maintaining administrative support.

Mendy Yang, PC ’15 and James Ting, DC ’15, the student directors of the AACC, acknowledge that the missions of the cultural houses don’t necessarily align. “There is a tradeoff in targeting the audience of people who aren’t informed and targeting those who are entrenched in the community,” Ting said when I sat down to meet with him and Yang. Many students involved with the centers, including Ting and Yang, aspire to the model set by the Slifka Center, which hosts campus events widely attended by Jewish and non-Jewish students alike.

With 1,300 students on campus who identify as Asian, the AACC doesn’t worry about student involvement, but instead has the unique problem of establishing a cohesive pan-Asian identity. “One of the interesting things about the Asian-American identity is that it’s political,” Dhall said. “There’s no linguistic or ethnic commonality. It’s something that we Asians in America experience as the US placing the category around us.” The AACC now serves as an umbrella organization for over 50 independent organizations that often view it as little more than a gathering space. One of Yang and Ting’s current goals is to emphasize pan-Asian identity through increased group collaboration.

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When I arrived at La Casa at 6 P.M. sharp for their weekly Cena a Las Seis, it was empty. “People get here on Latino time,” joked Michelle Piñon, DC ’14. Sure enough, the chairs and tables were full around 6:30 p.m. and heaped with food.

Melendez gave me a tour of the facilities: crumbling exterior, crumbling interior, dimly-lit spaces for student groups, worn couches, and a basement full of boxes.  “There’s a lot of space that could be used here, but we just don’t have the money to make it usable,” he said. “La Casa faces a budget crisis which limits the activities and programming we can do. For example, we have to cap Cena, because there’s not enough money to offer food to everyone.”

Funding for each cultural house differs: each receives money from the Yale College Dean’s Office, but also draws upon other sources, such as alumni gifts or endowments. It’s a well-known fact that the Afro-American Cultural Center has the largest endowment and the most discretionary funds. The Asian-American Cultural Center also has an endowment, but it’s significantly smaller. (Dean Dhall declined to give me exact figures, but said that it is still working towards the goal of 100,000 dollars.) The Native American Cultural Center received a large gift from alumni in 2007. The generosity of that gift is apparent when visiting the NACC, which has a state-of-the-art kitchen, gleaming facilities, and a room specially devoted to Blue Feather, the dance and drum group.

However, according to Garcia, La Casa has no endowment and lacks strong alumni financial support, partly because La Casa’s alumni outreach program is still very young. “A lot of our alumni hated Yale, because it was a very racist place, and when they left, they never wanted to come back,” Garcia told me. “We’re slowly bringing them back and they’re seeing what their struggles have yielded, but we wanted to make our first appeal about coming together, not donations.” For Garcia and Dhall, the fight to secure funding and staff is a priority. Dhall pointed out that the AACC was designed for a population of 150 to 200 students, but with 1,300 students and counting, the AACC serves nearly an entire Yale college class without the resources to do so. “The NACC and the Afro-American Cultural Center are beautiful, but La Casa and the AACC need to be brought to the Yale level,” Dhall said. The AACC has worn furniture and needs renovations, but from what I saw, La Casa most desperately needs a facelift. The topic is near and dear to Garcia’s heart; when asked about it, she pulled out her phone and immediately showed me pictures of La Casa’s wear and tear.  “Look at the columns!” she pointed to a photo. “They’re rotting. The wood is spongy. It makes my blood boil to see how much money is put into other spaces on campus. We’re just not a priority.”

Garcia and Dhall both agree that the cultural centers have not been an administration priority, but are hopeful that this will change under President Salovey. “President Salovey was a Dean of Yale College, and he’s familiar and intimate with the centers,” Dhall said. “He’s been to them and sees what they need” Garcia added, “I do feel a commitment from him, and I’m hopeful about it.”

Notably separate are the voices of Deans Cohen and Van Alst, each of whom stated categorically that cultural houses have always been and remain a top University priority. “Each of the four centers is equally supported by Yale,” Cohen told me when I asked about the clear differences in quality of facilities. “I don’t think there’s a disparity of programming or that endowments come into it,” Van Alst added. “Students are given exactly what they need.” In any case, the sizeable endowment of the Afro-American Cultural Center and the newness of the NACC make it clear that some cultural houses are getting exactly what they need.

Cohen and Van Alst also emphasized the breadth of their role as deans—“We’re not quarantined in the center,” Cohen said—and discussed their roles in admissions recruitment, alumni outreach, and cultural scholarship. While Van Alst claimed that the Deans have all the staff and assistance they need from Yale to run the centers, Dhall pointed out that Yale is the only school in the country with cultural centers that operate with one administrator and no other full-time adult staff. She’s pushing for resources that match the size of the community the cultural house serves.

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The largest challenge the cultural houses face is proving that they are still relevant to the broader Yale community today. One common objection is that through creating communities that focus on a particular culture, Yale promotes minority isolation and self-segregation. Alex Fisher, MC ’14, lays out the problem: “We can either socialize based on things we have in common that we’ve chosen or we can choose to socialize based on things we have in common because of accident of birth. I think there’s something inherently healthier about option one and it baffles me that Yale embraces option two quite so wholeheartedly.”

Cultural house supporters point out that the houses represent only one of many available communities for Yale students, and that they are unfairly scrutinized when other tight-knit communities, such as acappella and Jewish life, are not. According to Cohen, “Any time someone says that it’s self-segregating, that’s the opportunity for a teaching moment. That’s like saying that St. Thomas More or the Italian Department is self-segregating.” However, students involved in the houses acknowledge that is difficult to combat the stereotypes of their centers as unwelcoming. “I can see how the AACC can feel exclusive, and I think it’s the burden of the people there not to make it exclusive,” Yang said.

For students like Fisher, it isn’t so much the existence of the cultural houses as the University’s support of them over other organizations that poses a problem. Fisher, a member of the Yale Political Union, told me that the YPU has faced a constant struggle to find space on campus after losing its house in the 1960s. “[Cultural houses] have spiraled to a position on campus that is somewhat out of proportion,” he said. “Let’s level out the playing field so that whatever your passion and interests are, you’ve got a fair crack at the University’s resources.” With equalized funding, Fisher believes that Yale students would be more likely to explore new opportunities in addition to cultural groups.

Other universities have embraced multicultural centers as an alternative to individual cultural houses; these provide a central location that hosts and administers all cultural and minority student groups. Alex Bae, BR ’14, is a strong proponent of multicultural centers. “I don’t understand why Yale has these four, arbitrarily defined cultural houses instead of a multicultural center that would serve to promote all kinds of culture,” he told me.

Garcia claimed that the main problem with multicultural centers was that larger minority populations tend to dominate the space, making it easy for smaller communities to fall through the cracks. Van Alst agreed. “What’s important is that Yale recognizes that distinctive cultures within the US bring a unique perspective,” he said. “The problem with a multicultural center is that it basically becomes a well-defined student union, like UConn has. I don’t think it’s a valid approach right now, not for this institution.”

Student cultural house leaders agreed that they prefer the individual houses to a comprehensive multicultural center. After all, experience has taught the cultural houses the value of independent space. Yet, as Okonta pointed out,  “We are still able to have collaboration and intercultural relations between the groups.” Yang and Brown remarked that the cost of converting to a multicultural center would be losing the tight-knit student relationships and alumni connections fostered by the houses.

“Obviously, cultural centers are a PR minefield—getting rid of them would be a problem, but it should be addressed as a consolidation of resources. Why frame it as a zero-sum game when there are absolute gains?” Bae asked. “I see cultural houses as a vestige of the old Yale. I think there needs to be support for minorities, but it needs to come from a more inclusive source.” Bae pointed out that through the cultural houses, Yale attempts to divide the population into categories and provide resources for each individual category, rather than embracing similarities between people and fostering dialogue. “There’s no space right now for people who share your views or experiences but come from different backgrounds,” he said. “For example, having parents who were immigrants is a very different experience from having parents who were not immigrants. A Japanese-American whose grandparents were interned probably has a closer cultural experience with someone who is African-American and experienced several generations as a minority in America, compared to my experience as a child of first-generation immigrants.”

Bae also believes that a multicultural center would provide a better space for students to discuss culture in the context of the broader human experience. Overall, he sees discussions of race and culture as more productive when they strive to be inclusive. “Eventually you might realize that, wow, maybe it sucks to be Korean or Jamaican, but it also kind of sucks to be a person, regardless of the color of your skin and cultural background,” he said. “We have that in common, and we all have hardships to deal with.” Without a multicultural center, this understanding is harder to come by.

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Every campus community seeks a space in which to have dialogue. Last year, Yale activist group Students Unite Now circulated a petition to create a center and peer liaison program for students on financial aid. Their aim was to provide a setting for discussions of issues surrounding socioeconomic class. Although the plan hasn’t progressed, it raises several questions. Is there a need for campus-sponsored houses not rooted in cultural heritage? If this is the case, have the most pressing divisions between students become centered on socioeconomic status?

To a student walking by this hypothetical house, the dedicated space would force an examination of class and its role at Yale. That is the very nature of space: it prompts discussion about its purpose and its use. Despite their stated goals, this is the deepest and most immediate effect cultural houses have had on Yale. There’s no ignoring it.

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