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New Activist in Residence program at YSPH targets social justice issues

March 22, 2022
by Fran Fried

Theory is one thing – bringing forth ideas and discussing and debating them in a classroom setting. Activism – taking these ideas and implementing them in the everyday world – is another.

In this spirit, the Yale School of Public Health’s U.S. Health Justice Concentration launched its new Activist in Residence program in February.

Ijeoma Opara, Ph.D., L.M.S.W., M.P.H., assistant professor of public health (social and behavioral sciences) and one of the developers of the initiative, said the program aims to bring activists who are engaging in current and impactful social justice issues to Yale to advance their platform and provide students with the opportunity to work on social justice issues “with the best activists in the world.”

“As a public health school that is dedicated to advancing health equity through a social justice lens, it is essential that students and faculty are working collaboratively with activists and leaders in other sectors that intersect with public health,” Opara said. “This is how the most innovative and impactful public health work happens.”

In turn, the activist in residence will have access to Yale resources and will be able to network with other Yale-affiliated scholars. They will also teach seminars, give talks pertaining to their work and meet with and advise students. The inaugural program runs through February 2023; new activists will be brought in annually.

Veteran activist, attorney and political strategist Angelo Pinto is the program’s first activist. Pinto, 39, of Teaneck, New Jersey, is co-founder of Until Freedom, a social justice organization devoted to police accountability and criminal justice reform.

An NAACP Image Award-winner who has been named to the Black Enterprise 40 under 40 and the Ebony Magazine Power 100, Pinto has devoted much of his adult life to the cause of justice. Among other things, he co-created a teach-in at Occupy Wall Street about the prison-industrial complex; co-founded Justice League NYC, which led mass demonstrations in the wake of Eric Garner’s death at the hands of the New York Police Department; and helped gain the release of rapper Meek Mill from prison.

The Activist in Residence program aligns with the vision Opara brought with her when she joined the YSPH faculty in July 2021 from the Stony Brook University School of Social Welfare.

“I came to Yale in July with a goal to bring the work of people on the ground and in the community to the front stage as a way to learn from them,” she said. “I’m a community- based participatory researcher, and the foundation of my work stems from working with and for communities who are often seen as voiceless or invisible. A program like this is essential because it trains the next generation of the public health work force to not just be public health practitioners, but to engage in activism with our communities to make real change in law and policy.”

This chance to work with a nationally acclaimed activist fits well within the larger curriculum of the U.S. Health Justice Concentration, which includes a class on Public Health Activism and Advocacy. The program allows students to take what they learned in class to make real change under the guidance of the activist in residence. U.S. Health Justice Director Danya Keene, Ph.D., noted that the program aligns with the larger mission of the concentration, which is to “help students develop organizing and advocacy skills that prepare them to advance health justice.”

Keene, an associate professor of public health (social and behavioral sciences), is optimistic about the program’s future at YSPH. “This is a pilot program,” she said, “but if the program proves to be successful, we hope to secure funding and support to keep it as a central component of the educational structure of YSPH.”

Trace Kershaw, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences and one of the faculty affiliated with the U.S. Health Justice Concentration, noted, “We are honored to have such an esteemed and influential social justice advocate like Angelo Pinto as our inaugural activist in residence. It really sets the bar high for our program. Angelo’s use of law, policy and community empowerment to bring justice and equity to communities who have been harmed by the system has been awe-inspiring. His presence at Yale over the next year will be life-changing for our students and faculty.”

Pinto, who grew up in Elmont, New York, just across the border from Queens, earned his B.A. in Criminal Justice/Sociology from Clark Atlanta University after transferring from Norfolk State University, and his J.D. from the City University of New York School of Law.

“I think I was always involved in community work,” he said. “When I was an undergrad, I learned more about mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex. I had friends and family who went through the criminal justice system, and I never made the connection. Once I got an awareness of what it was like, I was like, ‘Oh, wow – this is what my family and friends went through.’ And I realized the stigma involved. In the system, there’s a lot of shame and a lot of silence, and the more I learned about the system, the more I realized, ‘Oh, wow, this is why people don’t talk about it.’ So in college, social justice issues became my thing. I went to CUNY, the School of Law, as a way of giving back to my community and impacting society.”

Pinto said he first thought of the intersection of public health and incarcerated people when he worked with a medical malpractice law firm in his first job out of college. It’s a connection he wants to strengthen while at YSPH. He already sees some of the strengths the school has to offer: “a diverse student body – not just diversity in background and experience, but in areas I want to create change in the world. It creates a lot of intersectional points.

“Coming to Yale and connecting with the School of Public Health, I certainly want to raise coalition-building, connecting with the professors across the landscape,” Pinto said. “Also, the students today are very savvy; a lot of them have experience being activists and organizers.” He said one of the goals of the program is to provide students with training in community organization and other skills to help them realize the changes they wish to see in the world.

Submitted by Sabrina Lacerda Naia dos Santos on March 21, 2022