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Calls for morality, justice and passion at Epidemiology and Public Health ceremony

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2006 - Autumn


With a child under five dying somewhere in the world every 3 seconds and a child born into poverty in the United States every 35 seconds, “our global and our nation’s moral compass and our nation’s priorities need resetting,” said Marian Wright Edelman, J.D., founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund and the speaker at the 2006 Department of Epidemiology and Public Health Commencement. “We are the wealthiest nation on earth. The fact that we still do not choose to ensure healthy children, a healthy start for all of our children, is simply wrong and foolish,” she said.

Addressing the 123 graduates, faculty and staff gathered in Battell Chapel on May 22, Edelman cited the German cleric Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s belief that the test of a society’s morality is its treatment of its children. “We flunk Bonhoeffer’s test every hour of every day,” Edelman said.

In this country, Edelman said, nearly 9 million children whose parents work and “follow the system” are without health coverage. “Wealth,” she said, “should not dictate good health. … It is time for every child in this country and their parents—in fact, every American—to have national health and mental health coverage.”

Edelman concluded with an anecdote about Sojourner Truth, who once had a white man tell her that her antislavery efforts meant no more to him than a flea bite. She told the man that she would keep him “scratching.” In that spirit, Edelman said, “We need big changes. Enough committed fleas biting strategically can make very big dogs uncomfortable. And I hope everyone in this audience is determined that you are going to be a flea for justice, for children, for health care for all Americans. Believe it. You can do it.”

Aliya Jiwani, M.P.H. ’06, who gave the student address, urged her fellow graduates to “question everything ... notions, ideas and even the most popular theories of the day.” Above all, she encouraged her peers to “follow your passion—whatever it may be.”

Brian P. Leaderer, M.P.H. ’71, Ph.D. ’75, the Susan Dwight Bliss Professor of Epidemiology, who served as interim dean of public health and interim chair of the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health until July, urged this year’s graduates to be leaders “from the smallest neighborhood clinic to the largest of the NIH’s institutes. Your work will, directly or indirectly, improve people’s lives. … No matter what path you take, hold on to the ideals that brought you here, and move forward with confidence and courage.”

Trace Kershaw, Ph.D., assistant professor of epidemiology in the Division of Chronic Disease Epidemiology and in the Social and Behavioral Sciences Program, received the Award for Excellence in Teaching. Dean’s Prizes for Outstanding M.P.H. Theses were given to Heather Brown, Jessica Clague and Ann Liu. The Henry J. Chauncey Jr. Inspiration Award was given to Katrina Van Gerpen, and the Cortlandt Van Rensselaer Creed Award was presented to Erica Jackson. Christine Malino received the Wilbur G. Downs International Health Prize.