The fun factor
Janna Wagner ’95 has helped mobilize New Haven residents to do good and have a good time. View full image
New Haven native Janna Wagner ’95 has been on the “cool” list since 2005, when the Hartford Courant featured her among “12 Cool People who Make New Haven a Great Place to Live.” Wagner spent two post-college years with Teach for America in a third-grade classroom in the Bronx, earned a master's in education at Harvard, and then came back to New Haven in 1999. There, with Jessica Sager ’99JD, she founded All Our Kin, a nonprofit group that helps low-income parents establish high-quality child care businesses.
Y: People tell me that you know pretty much everyone in New Haven. Is it true?
W: I know a lot of people. When you're a super-extrovert and you come home to the place where you grew up, you end up knowing everybody. I find joy in connecting people that don't know each other.
Y: When you returned to New Haven, you organized a social network for young professionals called The Group With No Name.
W: It really started organically among friends who were socially conscious nonprofit folks. We decided that if the group could create fun events for people our age, then maybe people could be organized to show up at city planning meetings, or write letters to the editor, or become aldermen. I just checked today -- we are 1,041 members. Our marquee event is Cluefest, a scavenger hunt around New Haven. Last year we had almost 300 people. It ends with a big party -- and that's a TGWNN [pronounced TIG-win] theme. If we're going to go to a Board of Aldermen meeting, we'll go for cocktails beforehand. The idea is that becoming involved is essential to participatory democracy. TGWNN makes it a little more fun.
Y: How have TGWNNers affected the city?
W: By staying. This is a group of people who can live anywhere they want. They change New Haven by buying houses here. If people are happy, if people feel committed to their place and connected to people, they stay. You see it downtown. I know TGWNN is a success because I can't find a parking place on Saturday night anymore.
Y: Do Yale students see the city differently from how they did when you were a student?
W: When I was at Yale, people went home over the summer. Now people stay in New Haven. We have one or two volunteers at All Our Kin who are Yalies, who take the bus here, who stop for Guatemalan food in Fair Haven. Ever since President Levin took office, the message is that we're proud to be in New Haven. I think that before, it was “If we could pick up the university and leave, we would.” And I think the involvement [of Yale students] in the city is well planned out. It isn't charity, it's social justice. It's reciprocal.
Y: In what way?
W: Yale students don't have the attitude that the “poor kids” should be grateful that the Yalies are giving them their time. The Yale students are grateful that the kids are giving them their time. The city and local organizations and schools have a better handle on taking advantage of the smarts and the energy and the drive of the Yale students. And the students know that one-shot deals don't make a difference. In programs like the public school interns or the Dwight Hall mentoring program, they commit for three days a week, three hours a day.
Y: What's the best thing Yale has done for New Haven?
W: If I have to choose one, it would be the Homebuyer Program, which gives Yale employees a large grant to purchase a house in New Haven. It's allowed a lot of my friends and tons of Yale employees to put roots down in the city. It's great for the employees, and it's great for their neighbors -- that kind of concern and engagement is contagious.
Y: Do you own a house?
W: Sadly, I don't. I had tons of student loans, and I'm still in debt 15 years later. And I'm not willing to move to a suburb to afford a house. I want to live in New Haven, in a kind of house that I want to live in, and in a kind of neighborhood that I want to live in.
Y: Does all the renewed vitality extend beyond the Yale campus and its periphery?
W: A vibrant downtown and strong Yale impacts everyone. Does it extend enough? No. But we're in a better place than we were. The story isn't the same story that we used to tell about New Haven -- that it's dangerous, that if you were a Yalie or if you grew up in New Haven that you would want to leave. Every day I do see people who are struggling to keep their families together and survive. They care so much about other citizens that they make sacrifices. One of the child care providers we work with at All Our Kin chose to go on heating assistance rather than kick a family out of her program when the family hit hard times and couldn't pay.
Y: Are you worried that the economic crisis will harm New Haven?
W: Yes. We see it in All Our Kin. I'm worried about state cuts, especially to programs that support our poorest and most vulnerable families. I think it's just going to get worse. But if any city could weather it, I think it could be New Haven because of the community. I see it in this group of smart, intelligent, motivated, committed, and thoughtful people that are making New Haven their home. And in these [child care] providers making sacrifices for other people's families. These are different kinds of people, but they're all working in their small way to make New Haven more livable for everyone. That's why I have hope.