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For YSPH graduate, community engagement as important as class work

May 06, 2024

Sophie E. Edelstein, MPH ’24 (Social and Behavioral Sciences)

Graduation is a time when most students are deciding where to go after receiving their diplomas. Sophie E. Edelstein, however, is staying right where she is – in New Haven, where she was born and raised.

As an undergrad, Edelstein earned dual Bachelor of Arts degrees in 2023 at Yale College. One was in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology; the other was in the history of science, medicine, and public health. This spring, she will add another diploma to the list when she graduates from the Yale School of Public Health (YSPH) with a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree in social and behavioral sciences.

But not all of Edelstein’s work at Yale was spent in the classroom and library. She also spent a good deal of time working within the New Haven community. Local engagement is important to her.

“When I started at YSPH, I knew that I wanted to continue doing a lot of my work with the community,” said Edelstein, who will remain at Yale on a postgraduate fellowship.

The fellowship is divided among Yale’s departments of anesthesiology, vascular biology and biotherapeutics, and the history of medicine. Edelstein will be working with Marco Ramos, assistant professor in the history of medicine and department of psychiatry, and Daniel HoSang, professor of American Studies, to launch the Critical Histories Lab at the Yale School of Medicine. Under Dr. Micha Sam Brickman Raredon, MD ’22, PhD ’21, MS ’20, MPhil ’20, BS ’11, she will continue exploring developmental lung biology and mechanisms of homeostatic regulation.

She also plans to apply for MD/PhD programs and to pursue a PhD in the history of medicine – with a focus on the community health movement and health activism.

“I was born and raised in New Haven, and for that, I am very grateful,” she said. “New Haven is an incredibly diverse city, with people from so many different places, with so many different perspectives, all situated in very different power structures.”

Edelstein said she honed her perspective on community involvement working with her mother, who was constantly engaged in local politics.

“I spent a lot of of time as a child canvassing for local campaigns, learning about the richness of New Haven politics,” she said, “and, most importantly, understanding the significant socioeconomic disparities faced by many in our community. A lot of this is influenced by my mother’s background. As the daughter of immigrants, community meant a lot to her, and I think she has passed that down to my sisters and me.”

As an undergraduate, Edelstein worked with several community organizations. As a graduate student, as part of her Health Equity Fellowship in the summer of 2023, she helped the City of New Haven’s Office of Community Health Initiatives create a suicide prevention guide.

Edelstein said that several of her professors have appreciated her approach and encouraged her to bridge health and humanities. Among them are Ramos; Laura Bothwell, assistant professor of epidemiology of microbial diseases; Sarah Lowe, associate professor of public health (social and behavioral sciences); Michael Wininger, assistant clinical professor of biostatistics; and Tekisha Everette, MPH ’23, assistant clinical professor of social and behavioral sciences.

That bridge between health and humanities, between town and gown, inspired Edelstein’s MPH thesis, which is an exploration of the relationship between Yale and the New Haven community through the lens of community activism and the Black Power movement of the 1960s. Her focus is on the founding of the Connecticut Mental Health Center (CMHC), one of the country’s oldest community mental health centers, in 1966.

Edelstein is currently working on a larger project: honoring the legacy of longtime New Haven community activist Fred Harris. Harris, who now lives in Detroit, was an original member of the New Haven Black Panther Party and co-founder of the Hill Parents Association (HPA), a prominent grassroots community organization. He also served as community advocate at the CMHC, which is located in the Hill neighborhood.

Edelstein created and curated a community history exhibit, “Voices of Resilience: Fred Harris, the Hill Parents Association, and the Power of Community Organizing,” that is being displayed in New Haven City Hall through the month of May. It will then be installed permanently at the Courtland S. Wilson Branch of the New Haven Free Public Library. In addition, she led the charge to collect signatures for the renaming of the corner of South Frontage Road and Park Street as Fred Harris Way. The ceremony will take place this summer.

Edelstein conducted all the oral histories with residents of the Hill, and raised the funds to bring Harris back to New Haven. Throughout the project, she has worked closely with Ramos and with longtime local educator Pamela Monk Kelley, co-chair of the Hill North Community Management team and the historian of the Monk Family, one of the first Black families to settle in the Hill.

“For me, the most thrilling part of this project has been the opportunity to redefine how we think about and engage with history,” she said. One thing that I find especially gratifying about this history is how it manages to highlight both the optimism and pessimism of community work, and in some ways, it is a captivating demonstration of the strength of community – something that I think today’s generation has a lot to learn from.”

Edelstein shared two bits of advice for next year’s graduating class. One is “Challenge the way that we think about public health. In its current form, public health is an interdisciplinary field, but there is still so much depth that has yet to be explored. For me, this came in the form of studying the history of health activism at the local level.”

The other is to genuinely engage with the richly diverse New Haven community, especially beyond the academic setting.

“Beyond its role as the backdrop of academic pursuits, New Haven offers a wealth of experiences and lessons that can profoundly shape your understanding of public health,” she said. “By immersing yourself in the community, listening to its members, and acknowledging the complexities of their lived experiences, you will gain insights that your education in the classroom alone cannot provide.”

Submitted by Sabrina Lacerda Naia dos Santos on May 06, 2024