Rebecca Cooper wants to make the Washington area healthier, but through more than diet and exercise. She’s getting her master’s in public health from George Washington University and exploring the ways community design impacts health.
Cooper, 24, grew up in New York but came to Washington after college to spend a year with Avodah, the Jewish service corps. WJW caught up with her to get the prescription for healthier communities.
Between your studies and your experience, how do you think the D.C. region is doing in terms of public health policy?
It’s complicated because the city is changing so fast. It’s split, going from “Chocolate City” to “Cappuccino City” and people living under the federal poverty line and above it have extremely different experiences. But the D.C. council is trying to address that with things like the 11th Street Bridge project, the new bus line on 14th Street, and all the new bike lanes that are popping up. We’re trying, but it’s really hard.
You’re going back to school this week, what are you looking forward to?
Classes start tomorrow and I’m really excited. I’ll be taking this course called “Designing Healthy Communities” that I’m really looking forward to.
Each group gets a ward in D.C. or a community in Maryland or Virginia, and you do a case study on different aspects of the community, like age, the built environment, how accessible parks and trees and biking and things like that are. Access to nutrition and grocery stores is another important component. It’s all about how the community is designed and how that ties to its health.
What was your year with Avodah like?
When I was in Avodah I worked at an affordable housing organization in Maryland, so I sort of have a skewed perspective of community health and mental health issues. Especially in D.C., it’s so hard to find comprehensive mental health services that really follow people through and work on the connection between physical and mental health.
Did it strengthen the tie between your Judaism and your work?
I think being Jewish informs what my priorities are. I went to a Jewish day school in New York for four years and stayed involved in the Jewish community after. But when I was younger I had the viewpoint that to be Jewish you had to do charity and good work, and I think that evolved through Avodah. Judaism and social justice go hand in hand. There’s charity, but I started to feel like you have to take it to the next level and help make bigger changes. The highest value is doing charity when people don’t know that you are, you’re doing work for others but you don’t need that validation from people.
Where do you see yourself after school?
I wanted to get my master’s because I’ve found that non-profit direct service work is so straining in the way that you can help an individual, but through policy you can help shape communities. But I also don’t want to be in my glass castle looking down and tweaking things. I want to be in a combination, doing direct service and policy, because if you don’t at least know of people you’re helping, how do you stay connected to it?
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