Most of us recognize that our college experience is only possible because of the city we live in. Middletown residents and Wesleyan students belong to the same community, and if our community is struggling, we owe it to them to do what we can to help. Although our administration sometimes adopts this mindset, it generally does not act on it through direct cash redistribution. This is a mistake. The University should rectify it by setting up a fund to distribute money to nonprofits and community organizations in Middletown. An effort of this kind would benefit people in need and help bind Wesleyan and our community into a greater whole.
Wesleyan already goes to admirable lengths to serve Middletown. The University sponsors community engagement through the Allbritton, Jewett, and Patricelli Centers. It facilitates student-led programs that benefit children, the elderly, immigrants and refugees, and more. During the pandemic, it has helped distribute PPE to those who need it. Wesleyan students, too, frequently adopt a communitarian mentality: doing volunteer work, getting involved in local politics, and, since the beginning of the pandemic, helping out with the Middletown Mutual Aid Collective, which has raised over $60,000 and installed a community fridge in town. Students and staff alike have demonstrated that they are willing to devote time and energy to these efforts, and they have made a real difference.
But we can do more. Even before the pandemic, about 12% of Middletown residents lived in poverty, higher than the state average of 10%. Nearly 15% were food-insecure. Hundreds of families were homeless. These problems are not Wesleyan’s fault. But our university has an endowment of more than $1 billion and attracts students whose median family income is almost $200,000, about three times the median family income in Middletown. If we have the option of redistributing some of our school’s wealth to community members who are struggling, we should take it.
This is why we propose a new program: a Community Fund. Under our proposal, Wesleyan would set aside money each year to distribute to Middletown’s nonprofits, community organizations, event planning committees, and grassroots fundraising initiatives. To determine who would receive funds, the University would convene a board of advisors, primarily representing stakeholders from the community, that would review applications from local organizations. Crucially, while Wesleyan would be using some of its administrative capacity to support this important task, Middletown residents themselves would play the primary role in determining funding priorities. The Fund would be an enormous step in demonstrating Wesleyan’s continued commitment to its home city.
The model we propose has been tried before. In response to the pandemic, Yale University has funneled millions of dollars ($1 million in initial seed funding and more by matching fundraising) to organizations that provide New Haven residents with ways to meet their basic needs like shelter, food, and healthcare. These efforts have helped more than one hundred organizations serve their community. Wesleyan is a less wealthy school than Yale, and Middletown is a smaller city than New Haven. But we can still follow their example, and even go beyond it in two key ways. First, we can establish a high degree of popular control over the Fund, making sure that the people who we are trying to benefit are in the position of asserting their own wants and needs. Second, we can make a long-term commitment that outlasts the COVID crisis, so the Fund can make lasting change far into the future.
Despite these lofty ambitions, the Fund would not be a financial burden. We suggest that the University commit to spending just one tenth of one percent of its annual budget—currently, this would be a little over $200,000—to support the Fund each year. University administrators may still protest that now is the wrong time to create new budgetary obligations, but the school’s financial reports tell a different story: Wesleyan’s long-term investment holdings have grown substantially since 2016, with this trend continuing during the pandemic. The University’s self-reported total net assets not only rose from 2019 to 2020, but have risen faster than the previous year. What’s more, the University confirmed to The Argus that it had a relatively good fundraising year in 2020. Wesleyan can certainly afford an extra $200,000.
Just as important, it would be a moral failure to allow ourselves to be governed by austerity politics even as people in our community suffer. And although $200,000 is a drop in the bucket for Wesleyan, it would be a meaningful contribution to Middletown’s well-being. Our area is full of nonprofit organizations seeking to do good, but they receive the bulk of their funding from just four sources (Middlesex United Way, the Community Foundation of Middlesex County, the Liberty Bank Foundation, and the Peach Pit Foundation). These organizations cannot meet the community’s needs alone. The Fund would allow Wesleyan to give them some help.
The Community Fund would materially improve people’s lives by helping them meet their basic needs and organize in their communities. Perhaps more important, it would build a stronger relationship between Wesleyan and Middletown, forging connections between our school and our surrounding community.
We should share the wealth, and create a Community Fund.
The Wesleyan Democratic Socialists can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.