Sarah Eidelson walks in a few minutes late. She is coming from her day job (because alders are only part-time), doing graphic design for Yale’s unions. As it happens, she double majored in American Studies and Art while she was an undergrad in Jonathan Edwards; a college story in that she took her first art class junior year and never looked back. She designs her own campaign posters too—the yellow ones, with the buildings from around the city, are all her own creation.
Sarah is not your typical politician: she’s soft-spoken, but not quiet; she’s astute, but not intimidating. While we conversed, she would take time to think about her answers—she’s careful with her responses, perhaps unlike many pundits and lawmakers who grace our TV screens from Capitol Hill.
She freely admits, “I had never thought of myself as a very public person, or a kind of leader who’s up front and giving speeches.”
The question remains: how did Eidelson, an atypical politician, get to an elected position?
It began at home, in the outskirts of Philadelphia. Her family is Jewish, and her parents are both progressive psychologists. Her mother evaluates and testifies as an expert witness on behalf of torture survivors seeking asylum in the United States. Her father writes about psychology as it relates to progressive political change, focusing on torture as well. For her mother’s birthday last year, Eidelson gave her a map with pins marking the places with the people whose lives she’s saved.
“It’s really inspiring to me,” she says emphatically.
Despite a staunchly leftist upbringing, Eidelson was enrolled in a conservative Jewish high school. Because of her political values, she frequently butted heads with administrators.
“I am queer, and that was not okay at my school,” she reflects.
Her school did not allow Eidelson and her friends to start a gay-straight alliance. Instead, it provided a club known as ‘TASK.’
“It stands for Teaching Acceptance and Sharing Knowledge, or something like that—it was basically a diversity club,” she explains.
There was no space for students to explore other parts of their identities: their sexualities, racial backgrounds, genders, or their intersecting aspectsl.
“The environment around the LGBTQ community was not friendly,” she says, “so I was part of a group of students fighting tooth and nail with the administration to let us have a space.”
It would be her first important foray into activism and pushing for something that was of great value to her and to her community. Eventually, her group’s efforts paid off when they founded The Alliance. She recognizes the lack of “LGBTQ” in any part of the name, but is proud that it provided a space for a few different people to come out.
Coming to Yale was in many ways a development of her involvement with activism.
“I think I came to Yale in part wanting to learn how [structural change] happens on a larger scale,” she says. She also wanted to get more involved in activist efforts outside of class.
Out of her endeavors came one of her most meaningful memories from Yale. After collecting over 1300 signatures for a petition to get rid of the student contribution, she helped host a Speak Out in Dwight Hall, so students on financial aid would have a space to share their experiences. Eidelson describes the event as “overwhelming” because of the number of people who attended and the quality of the stories they told. They talked about how to split the cost of an Ikea couch and how to earn enough money at Yale to send home to their families.
The student contribution was not the only thing she protested, however. She and a group of friends started a group called the Responsible Endowment Project (REP) that looked at the ethics of Yale’s investment practices.
“Our campaign was about pushing [the Yale administration] to be more transparent in their practices so students could engage more actively in conversation around that,” she says.
Some of REP’s legacy lives on—in Fossil Free Yale, for example, which still aims to pressure the administration to divest from fossil fuel companies.
One of her most important experiences was working in the Community Voter Project over a summer in New Haven with a Dwight Hall fellowship. The project helps increase voter engagement and community responsibility in underprivileged neighborhoods around the city. On one day that summer, as Eidelson was out canvassing in Dixwell, an eleven year old boy was shot by a stray bullet from a gunfight that had broken out nearby.
Sarah is visibly moved as she tells the story. “He was just hanging out by the market in the daylight, and he [ended up being] okay—but it shifted the tenor of the conversation, because people’s fears were revealed to be completely valid.”
Her experience in New Haven that summer, surrounded by people who lived much differently from Yale students, inspired her run for office.
“Honestly, before I decided to run for Ward 1, I never in a million years imagined that I would’ve run for elected office. It’s not a thing that I aspired to,” she confesses.
It was not an easy transition for Eidelson to make. She found it difficult to assume the leadership role that her constituents expected her to fulfill.
“But as we did the work and had hundreds and hundreds of conversations with students about the city we all wanted to live in,” she tells, “it was incredibly inspiring to see how much my fellow students wanted to be a part of making New Haven stronger.” Eidelson saw herself as a way to bring that about.
After she was elected, Eidelson began building relationships with the other alders, since New Haveners are often skeptical about Yalies. She describes her first day as an Alder sitting in the wrong seat.
“My colleague came into the room and saw me in his seat, and said, ‘there goes Yale, taking over the Hill as per usual.’ He was teasing me, but it was symbolic of some very real dynamics,” she remarks.
Sarah’s approach to governing became one of learning and relationship building, and eventually, it paid off. Eidelson was elected to the leadership of the Youth Committee, which, to her, “felt like a quantum leap from when we started out.”
Sarah Eidelson saw herself as a part of New Haven ever since she came to Yale, but she didn’t consider it her home until graduation. Today, living in the city and not on campus, she feels connected to both Yale and the community beyond its borders.
More than anything, she respects the people of the city, and as she invested more and more of her time into the neighborhoods of the city, she felt like she was becoming a part of them.
“It’s the kind of thing that you don’t notice until it’s already happened,” she chuckles.
We have been talking for an hour, and it is getting late. We wrap up the conversation, talking about our plans for the night and the work we both had left to do—hers around governing, mine around a paper I need to write for class. We stand up; she smiles at me and gives me a hug, and answers one last question:
“My favorite dining hall is totally JE. JE’s the best—that’s an easy question.”
It’s been twenty minutes, and Ugonna Eze ’16, candidate for Ward 1 Alder, has yet to arrive. I’ve been doing some readings for a philosophy class, and my tea is almost finished. Blue State is Blue State; mundane chatter about classes and clubs fills the background. Suddenly, around the corner, appears Ugonna: apologizing profusely, he sits down across from me.
“I just ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in, like, 8 months,” he explains, “and then time just got away from me while we were talking.”
Ugonna is tall but not particularly so. He’s got an easy smile and expectant eyes that look intently at wherever they’re directed. We stand and make small talk before sitting down, chatting about the usual: classes, work, the weather.
“What’s that you’re reading?” he asks, pointing to my book. And with that, we begin a brief conversation about Plato and philosophy, as though we were the best of friends. This was our first time talking.
As it turns out, Eze is a Philosophy major: “I can’t keep myself away,” he says, sighing.
International relations is also an “academic interest,” and he’s pursuing that by doubling with Global Affairs. The diversity of his interests, he asserts, comes from his family: his parents, both from Nigeria, inspired him to read everything from fiction to political philosophy.
“My dad would read a lot, and we had Plato and Shakespeare and all sorts of books all around the house,” he explains.
Eze’s family is more than a source of inspiration: they represent his primary motivation, the driving force behind his ambitions, beyond school life and Eze’s reading list: for him, the best part of the race for alder “has been making my parents proud.”
When he talks about his background, Eze makes it clear that his successes come from his parents’ hard work. He grew up in a violent neighborhood of the Bronx, and it was his family that afforded him a chance at success by moving to a significantly more expensive district with much better schools in the Hudson River Valley.
“My parents worked 12, 14 hour days. They work really hard for my sister and I,” he says thoughtfully.
Both of Eze’s parents immigrated to the United States from Nigeria. Both were also “dirt poor,” his father one of seven children and his mother one of five. Neither was afforded equal opportunities in education: Eze’s father was never able to go to an organized school, since they were all closed—so he taught himself to read and write, and eventually studied nursing in a formal university. His mother took the Nigerian National Exam to enter higher education and scored perfectly, but a richer student in her school bought her scores from the administration and passed them under his own name. After that, she was ineligible for entrance to the best universities.
Nevertheless, both of Eze’s parents worked their way to the United States, gaining professional visas as nurses and moving to New York in the ’90s. Growing up there was difficult. Eze affirms, “I experienced a lot of issues with gangs, and violence…I had a very tough high school experience.” But his family remained close, supporting him through high school and into college, and when it comes to his successes and getting to Yale, he stays humble. “It wouldn’t have been possible,” Eze says, “without my folks.”
Being at Yale has been fulfilling for Eze. He is active in the Black Men’s Union, a former speaker of the Yale Political Union, and a valued member of the Conservative Party. For Eze, the Party is a place where he can discuss the interests he shared with his father at home. “My dad would read a lot…and coming to Yale and to the CP, I met so many smart people who were reading and discussing so much, that I felt right at home,” Eze says.
As we sit in Blue State, Ugonna often brings up “molding his identity.” One potential conflict still stood out: being a conservative at Yale, a place notorious for its progressive student body. As a member of the Conservative Party of the YPU, Eze has certainly explored the different facets of the right at Yale. But in the larger community, there is nothing especially uncomfortable about having a different political ideology. If anything, it’s constructive for Eze.
“I love debating and talking and figuring things out with people—my friends know me as a guy who is a conservative but who likes having a conversation.”
In that sense, Ugonna has always been the odd one out. He is the only conservative in his family and his sister works for a Democratic Super PAC. But, he assures me, “It’s been good for me: as I’ve been shaping my ideas, it’s been good to hear opinions from all different sides.”
For Eze, the diversity of opinion at Yale has helped develop his views leading up to the November 3 election.
“Our first public event was on environmentalism,” he mentions. “Yeah, I’m a conservative, but I care about left-wing topics.”
Ugonna’s time at Yale has in many ways been characterized by his relationship to the city of New Haven, a place he identifies with his upbringing in the Bronx, and in which he’s had many valuable experiences. From talking to residents on the Green to conversations with his barber on Whalley, Eze has made an effort to get to know Yale’s host city and has considered New Haven his home from the moment he started as a freshman.
“It’s a beautiful city,” he begins, “and there’s a strong tenacity of spirit in New Haven that I can really relate to.”
He constantly draws on his experiences in the Bronx when talking about the city. At one point, he mentions one of the BMU’s mentoring programs.
“I was a math major a couple of years ago, and one of the mentees at Hillhouse High School came up to me and told me that he didn’t know that a black man from the Bronx could major in math at Yale,” he says. It’s moments like these that make Eze feel connected to the Elm City in a way that he says “every Yalie should.”
But the most fulfilling thing for Ugonna has been watching the Elm City progress.
“It’s amazing to see New Haven fight,” he says. Furthermore, he thinks that Yale students have an important place in that community, especially in giving back.
Running for Alder is, for Ugonna, the best way to give back to a community about which that he cares deeply.
“I’ve been privileged to have a platform where people can hear my voice,” he explains, “I want to convey my thoughts and feelings in the right way, and it’s a constant thought—am I doing this right?”
If he wins, Eze says he will work to bring about changing Yalies’ perspectives on New Haven. If he doesn’t? That, he says, is not something he thinks about too often.
“I go where I’m led, where I can best supply my talents,” he says. And he hasn’t thought about his life after Yale too much either. “I have a vague idea of some things I want to do: write a book, one on philosophy, one fiction. I want to be able to raise a family…I like writing ‘music.’ I might pursue a J.D./Ph.D. at some point.” He says he likes focusing on the present.
The conversation is wrapping up—he’s got another friend to meet.
“My greatest strength is that I care a lot about people,” he tells me, and I can’t help thinking of the beginning of our conversation.
“My greatest weakness is that sometimes I give too much of myself. I see someone on the street, and I spend two hours talking to them, even when I have an assignment due that afternoon.”
Before we part, I ask him what his favorite dining hall is. “Commons,” he responds. “I really appreciate that [it’s] a central spot, where everyone can come.” And with that—a democratic statement if ever there was one—he shakes my hand and leaves, thanking me for a good conversation.