NEW YORK—Six years after leaving public housing in Westville Manor, Toddchelle Young prepared to wrap up a master’s degree at Columbia—by leading a lesson on a groundbreaking immigration policy hatched in her hometown.
Young (pictured), who’s 23, made her way up from the Brookside and Westville Manor housing projects to graduate from James Hillhouse High School in 2008 as the valedictorian. The last time the Independent checked in on her, in 2012, she was about to graduate from Georgetown University, with support from two public-school teachers who took her in when her family became homeless.
Since age 11, when she started braiding hair for money, Young has supported her family through formidable obstacles—homelessness, depression, lifelong debilitating disease. As she has gone on to pursue her dreams outside of New Haven, people back home have been tracking her trajectory, and projecting her accomplishments on video screens and in framed transcripts at her high school. Click here to read more about her life.
Young is now in the final stretch of a master’s degree at Columbia University’s School of Public Health. She is set to graduate in May from the two-year program, in which she has focused on ways in which minorities disproportionately suffer from poor health outcomes. Along the way, she has drawn on her experience in New Haven for examples of those disparities—and, in some cases, for solutions for how to address them.
This past Monday was no exception. As the final project for Professor Amy Fairchild’s class on Privacy, Public Health and Surveillance, Young and four classmates presented a case study in New Haven’s immigrant-friendly municipal ID card. The topic arose because New York is considering creating a similar ID card. When a fellow student brought up the topic, Young thought back to 2007, when she was a school student at Hillhouse High. It all came back to her.
“Oh, New Haven started that!” she recalled saying.
As their final project for the semester, Young and four other students led their peers through a case study Monday at the Joseph L. Mailman School of Public Health on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Young and her group got to the basement classroom early to set up.
They stocked the plates with chips, salsa and homemade guacamole and cued up some Mexican music.
When their classmates arrived, they assigned them roles. One played Mayor John DeStefano. Another played a small business owner. Others played Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, Yale law professors and immigrants slated for deportation.
To prepare their classmates for their roles, Young and her team assigned them New Haven Independent stories recounting time of fear, courage, conflict and hometown pride. Students read about how New Haven in 2007 became the first city in the nation to create a municipal ID card that would be available to everyone who lived in town, regardless of immigration status. How the city defeated an effort from anti-immigrant activists to expose the names and addresses of immigrants who signed up for the cards. They read about the immigration raids that took place two days after aldermen created the ID cards: 31 immigrants were swept out of Fair Haven homes, and later fought back deportation threats. They learned of the threats that New Haven would be flooded with undocumented immigrants.
They read about the promises of the card—that it would enable immigrants to open bank accounts, and therefore reduce the risk of them being robbed because they were walking around with lots of cash. The card didn’t end up meeting that goal: Not many people opened bank accounts. People didn’t flock to the library to open new accounts, either, as the city had hoped.
“So what is the point of these cards?” asked one student Monday.
The cards appeared to be “symbolic,” the class concluded. Were they a good idea?
An “ICE agent” in the room asserted that the ID cards put public safety at risk by making it easier for New Haven to harbor terrorists and those involved in drug cartels.
“I don’t think we’re asking the federal government to turn a blind eye” to criminal behavior, Young responded. “We’re just asking that you respect them as human beings.”
Others offered pressing questions: If the ID cards spread to New York, would the federal government respond with more raids? Is New York Mayor Bill de Blasio “too liberal” to garner widespread support for an ID card? And would the ID card prompt any significant changes to a broken federal immigration policy?
Mayor DeStefano offered a take on the latter question in an email to the Independent, relayed to the class Monday.
“I think the really big outcome was pride for the community at large and a sense of safety and welcoming for the undocumented. I cannot connect it to crime reduction,” he wrote. He pointed out that while Elm City ID card didn’t change federal policy, it did have statewide impact: Last year, when the state was considering offering driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, officials pointed to New Haven’s municipal ID as a model—and evidence that the worst-case-scenario threats of immigrants pouring into town would not come true.
“I think we made last year’s extension of driver’s licenses to undocumented a much easier matter for the Legislature,” DeStefano argued.
Young and her crew of presenters wrapped up the class by handing out their own version of the Elm City ID, dubbed the “Mailman City ID” after the school’s namesake and benefactor.
The class pondered whether New Haven’s experiment could work in New York, perhaps as part of a public-health campaign to expand immigrants’ access to health care.
A Return To West Rock
Monday was just the most recent time Young has looked to New Haven for answers to public health challenges.
“My experience in New Haven has informed every single thing that I’ve done,” she said.
She’s currently writing a paper about sickle-cell disease, which her 30-year-old brother has suffered from all of his life.
A previous public-health project took her back to Westville Manor, the West Rock housing projects where she grew up from age 5 to 17. She was working on a photo-driven assignment for a class on “urban space and health.” She recalled rolling up to the projects in her Ford Fusion—a symbol of her new mobility and rise from poverty. The car bore stickers from Georgetown and Columbia. She said she really didn’t want to flaunt her car, but she had to pick up her niece that day, so she needed wheels. She let out her little cousin to run and play with some old friends and continued through the neighborhood, which is now awaiting demolition.
She took photos of the abandoned West Rock Health Care Facility, of shuttered homes. She traced the entrance and egress: Just one way out, one way in. She pulled up health stats for people in her neighborhood, which is mostly black and Hispanic: much higher rates of hypertension, cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, and asthma than their wealthier, white counterparts.
“If people continue to live in these circumstances, they will remain impoverished,” and continue to have higher rates of chronic disease, she concluded.
Young said she still knows lots of people in Westville Manor. In her recent visit, she said, some people there looked her askance at first, thinking she was now too good for them: “Oh? You’re talking to me?”
They told her she looked “put together,” accomplished.
“No, things are not put together,” she remarked Monday over lunch. Her younger brothers, who endured homelessness as young kids, have found some stable housing, but are still split up from her mom. One brother, who has sickle-cell, is trying to raise a young daughter while he is long-term unemployed.
Last semester Young took on a full-time job in addition to studying full-time, so she could support herself and send some money home to her family. She worked a 40-hour-a-week job as an intern for the federal Department of Health and Human Services, focusing on health disparities for minorities. While some students live on campus, she shares a Harlem apartment with three friends. She saved some money to send home for food, to buy her brother a bed. She had to cut back her work hours to 20 hours per week to keep up with her studies.
Young said when she visits New Haven to check in on her family, she always swings by her high school.
“My high school made me,” she said. “It really made me.”
She makes a point to share her experience with New Haven kids.
“I have to use my story as a testimony,” she said, that “it doesn’t matter what your background is. You can do it.”
She’ll be returning to New Haven soon to watch her brother Jonathan graduate from Hillhouse. Young was in college when her mom lost their home; her brother became homeless starting in the 7th grade. She said he has avoided the fate of many of his peers, who have dropped out or gotten tied up in gun violence. Jonathan will head to college in the fall. His older sister couldn’t be prouder.
Shortly before 4 p.m. Monday, Young stepped out of the school of public health, approaching her own next milestone.
“One down, two to go,” she said of her final exams.
“I can’t believe I’m about to graduate again,” she said. “It’s really rewarding. It’s comfortable to know that whatever I plan to do next, that I will do OK.”
Not one to take a break, Young plans to return to Washington, D.C. this month to work for the federal National Institution of Health. Young said her long-term plan is to go to medical school and become a “public health doctor” who would encourage minority patients to seek preventive care.
She said she plans to share her public-health skills back in New Haven one day. She’s not sure how or when. Studying at Georgetown and Columbia has been a huge privilege, she said.
“I don’t want that privilege to get in the way” of remembering “where I’m from.”