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Faculty Profile

Neal Sofian

Neal Sofian

"No one trusts a smoking cessation counselor who has never smoked," Neal Sofian observes. Sofian will be sharing this and other insights about forming meaningful support networks around public health issues when he joins the Extended MPH Degree Program this winter to teach a course on using online social networks and interactive media to create individual and population change. From his experiences building communities to support smokers trying to quit, individuals coping with diabetes, and caregivers in end-of-life situations, Sofian stresses that the community connection is most powerful when people feel kinship with their fellow community members. "For information to become usable knowledge it must be contextual. It is hugely more powerful when it comes from someone similar to us: if information resonates with our own experiences and concerns, it is more likely to change our behavior."

Sofian's vision of support networks includes connecting individuals with the same health issue and similar characteristics like race, national origin, and sexual orientation. These highly specific communities provide, in Sofian's words, "a Microculture of Meaning (MoM)," which better serves patients than generic support groups or general health information. Sofian's work has centered on finding and uniting people who might benefit from these narrowly defined communities. Instead of the traditional approach to community development, which focuses on a geographic area, Sofian's expertise lies in using technology to unite geographically dispersed individuals in groups that speak to their specific needs.

Yet, Sofian recognizes that the value in technology is only partially its reach. To be truly powerful, he argues, "technology must also increase the richness of the interaction and mimic the relationships people have in more intimate settings otherwise we will not help individuals." Thus, Sofian believes technology can provide a platform for individuals to tell their stories since "there is tremendous power in personal narrative. Through story, we sense the truth, we make a personal connections, we share personally vetted resources, and we help others."

Sofian currently uses his insights about the reach and richness of technology as the CEO of the NewSof Group, a Seattle-based consulting group helping clients, such as AARP (American Association of Retired People), the National Cancer Institute, the Association of Washington Cities, and the American Cancer Society, to improve knowledge-sharing and support networks. Sofian will also bring this expertise to the classroom. In particular, as his course will have both an online and a classroom component, he hopes to have students learn about building communities by building their own classroom community. "I look forward to working with the Extended Degree Program students who are professionals in their own right;" he says. "They come to the classroom with different experiences and capabilities a community is all about sharing these perspectives." In thinking about the ways in which his professional accomplishments inform his classroom presence, Sofian says, "I've spent 30 years creating communities and taking advantage of new technologies. I have theoretical knowledge to offer, but this is grounded in the fact that I've gone out and done things."