Over 50 people showed up this Friday night and Saturday to discuss what YAAMNY could and should be. 32 of us were current board members, advisers, former YAAMNY leaders and alums new to YAAMNY. The additional attendees were spouses, kids and AYA Staff.
What a thrill it was to see kids running around during the meal breaks and to let some of our families meet each other and enrich the way we knew each other. To me this is the essence of community and reflecting this in a meeting about structuring services and programs for the Yale community made a lot of sense.
And as it turns out Family was indeed one of the consistent threads during the program. One of the first things we did was introduce ourselves and share what brought us personally to the retreat. Few are called to YAAMNY based on a clear Mission with a capital M. We aren't called together for the clear purpose of saving whales or polar bears, for example. But what tied almost everyone together was a sense of belonging with each other. Several called Yale home and Yalies, their family; and had felt that strongly from their first visits on campus even before attending. For almost everyone relating both to each other in the room and to Yale there was a sense of affinity that I think is something a bit different even than the obvious shared identity of all of us having attended classes in the same buildings.
Affinity groups are generally structured around affinity for something, like cars, sailing or alma matters. YAAMNY certainly captures an affinity for Yale and based on that affinity was originally founded in it's current form in 1988. But when people talk it seems a key affinity is simply for each other. I've heard a many times in this vein how what draws people to the social events we organize is simply the chance to have conversations and connections with people in a way that seems to be lacking for them in other groups.
This affinity is intriguing to me because it seems to a unique degree to particularly extend across identities that are often seen to be great dividers. Ethnic identity, political persuasion and generation are often impassable walls in much of our modern world. And in fact among Yale alums one of the current trends is to form alumni associations specifically along all types of shared identities just as class years have traditionally always had strong organizational associations.
Interestingly, just as Princeton was first to notice that the stronger an alumni identified with his class year the more likely he was to want to interact with other years, it seems that the more Yalies are identifying with specific identities, like the Yale Latino Association, Black Association, Asian American Association and dozens of others - the more they also want to interact with other Yalies generally.
Our retreat had incredibly energetic and diverse participation from members and leaders of many of these identity groups across ethnic, vocational and subject matter interests and identities. And a line tying everyone together was a strong desire to connect and share from within those identities and experiences to people with other identities and experiences, not just from Yale but in the world.
Which begs the question, what is the unifying identity? I do not think it is enough to harken simply to the buildings in which we all sat for some years. And it is important to recognize that these are people neither desperate or even willing to connect with just anyone. Almost everyone in that room had to sacrifice social or professional commitments to come together. These are people with heavy demands on their time and attention.
So what is it I keep wondering that pulls everyone together? And being together what should we do besides drink cocktails together and chat? Networking for business is usually enough of a reason, but I was surprised that this was not a central theme though no doubt it is an essential service.
I will never forget serving morning cocktails to incredibly affable old Anglo Saxon men at reunions when I was an undergraduate. These were appealing and very comfortable men who I think were used to a closed club and closed discourse that has been to some extent overrun by an explosion of diversity and cacophony of perspectives. Also, in this age of the internet and email, not only has that homogeneity of perspective been lost, but the communications channels have been hijacked.
Our group this weekend, as diverse as it was, had barely a handful of attendees over 40 years old and no one of the vintage I recall from morning cocktails with the classes of the 50s and older.
I believe it is a duty or reach out to these forbears not just to complete our collection of trading cards, but because they may understand better or at least a part better of what it is that ties us all together.
Whatever it is that we appreciate about our shared experience as Yalies is built on traditions, values and culture that came before us and to which we are merely adding and hopefully, enriching.
The weekend was remarkably free of fractiousness. Despite the energetic hopes and goals coming from such a diversity of perspectives, there was an impressive unity of intent to collaborate. This more than anything holds the appeal to me in attempting to form an organization to facilitate that collaboration.
At the same time the difficulties of martialling such different voices into one plan and structure should not be underestimated. I can see clearly that older alumni already feel left out and it wouldn't be hard to stick to some set of guns that left others out.
It is always an easier path to design some common denominator orthodoxy that captures most. And youth is not a bad place to start. But it is our own loss to leave out key perspectives that help define not only who we are, but what attracts us to who we are. I believe that a key point of family is often that finding ways to include the inevitable outliers of any given moment ultimately enriches everyone.