Connecting communities and causes
Photo courtesy of Sophie Phillips March 01, 2022
Master’s student Sophie Phillips creates connections through her reign as Miss Delaware
For Sophie Phillips it’s all about connections. Connecting with communities. Connecting young women with opportunity. Connecting service with policy. Connecting with her own family heritage.
Since June, she has been able to do all of that through her reign as Miss Delaware 2021 and her studies in the University of Delaware’s Joseph R. Biden, Jr. School of Public Policy and Administration, where she’s earning her master’s degree in energy and environmental policy.
With a pageant platform focused on ensuring everyone has access to state and national parks, gardens and other environmental assets, she made one of her first official events as Miss Delaware the launching a community garden in the Southbridge neighborhood in Wilmington, Delaware.
“A resident had the land, and I was able to help secure funding to work the soil, buy mulch, fruit trees, vegetables and even create a pollinator garden, so the neighborhood families can use it for food and for education,” Phillips said. “With the food from the garden, I helped create free cooking classes for people in the community so they could learn not only how to grow and harvest their own food, but how to cook with it as well. We gave the rest of the harvested food out at a free market this fall. We’ll go back in May and replant everything with the kids in the neighborhood.”
As Phillips continued to work in the lower income communities along the Route 9 and 13 corridors in Delaware, she quickly realized how important it is to speak with long-standing residents to gain an understanding of their needs. She made sure she had long chats with the older women in the neighborhoods to hear more about their vision for their communities. Phillips learned that the younger generation needed some help in finding direction.
“From conversations in the community, I learned that young women were motivated to make changes and make a difference in their own lives and their communities, but didn’t know where to start,” Phillips said. “I started workshops for young women ages 13 to 26 to teach them confidence, help them find their talent, learn to share their stories, work on writing resumes, build their networks and find a cause in their community that meant something to them.”
Phillips chose to focus on the specific age range to address the concerns of the community members but also to teach the young women skills they would need if they chose to one day compete for Miss Delaware’s Outstanding Teen and Miss Delaware. As a woman of Black, Indian and Caribbean descent, she strives to create more diversity within the pageant world, opening scholarships and opportunities to underrepresented young women.
“From the board members to the participants, the Miss Delaware and Miss America organizations are not very diverse in background or ethnicity, and I want them to bring new stories and new perspectives to the organization,” Phillips said. “I want to shift the focus so women in lower income communities, particularly women of color, are represented and to make sure the scholarships and opportunities are going to those who need them the most.”
The desire to increase diversity, equity and inclusion goes beyond the pageant world for Phillips. Her master’s thesis in UD’s Biden School is centered on environmental justice and increasing diversity in both state and national parks. She is specifically working in Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., and Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park in Baltimore. Phillips' research asks questions like, ‘Who is using the parks and what are they using them for?’ as well as ‘Who isn’t using them and why? How are they policed and how does a person’s past experience in a park hinder them from going back?’
Her family heritage is a main driver for Phillips’ studies and community service.
“Being multicultural is one of the main reasons why I got involved with environmental justice. Family members who are darker than me and live in cities have less access to tree coverage and park systems than I did growing up in New York where we valued the environment differently,” Phillips said. “I wondered if there was a historical reason for that and the answer is yes. Environmental justice issues are so relevant right now and resonate with me. I grew up in a predominantly white area, which was challenging for me as a woman of color. Working with more diverse communities today helps me feel closer to my family and closer to who I am.”
Phillips hopes her studies, pageant work and passion for diversity, equity and inclusion will be her life legacy.
“When I graduate and move on, I want to be a park ranger. It’s really important for me to leave a legacy of helping with diversity, equity and inclusion in parks and STEM careers, where there are not many women and even fewer people of color,” Phillips said. “I want to help change the statistics and help get kids out into parks, the community gardens etc., so they know about the careers that offer benefits and opportunities. I hope I end my year as Miss Delaware with more diversity throughout the organization. The stories of diverse and low income women are stories we all need to hear, and we need to let all women compete or we’ll never know if we have the best women participating.”
Learn more about how Women's History Month is being celebrated at UD.