environmental justice

LISTEN: Diana Hernández on housing and health

"The fight for social justice can't just be about people who want more, without also the engagement of people who have more."

Dr. Diana Hernández joins the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast to discuss how housing and energy impact our health and well-being.


Hernández, a tenured associate professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, also talks about “social impact real estate” and how she’s investing in her South Bronx neighborhood.

The Agents of Change in Environmental Justice podcast is a biweekly podcast featuring the stories and big ideas from past and present fellows, as well as others in the field. You can see all of the past episodes here.

Listen below to our discussion with Hernández, and subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, Spotify, or Stitcher.

Transcript

Brian Bienkowski

My guest is Dr. Diana Fernandez, a tenured associate professor of socio Medical Sciences at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. She talks about her work on energy, equity, housing and health, and how she's investing in the Bronx. Enjoy. All right, I am super happy to be joined by Dr. Diana Hernandez. Diana, how are you doing today?

Diana Hernández

I'm alright, I'm doing well. Thank you.

Brian Bienkowski

Where you today? Where are you talking to us from? I see a beautiful brick facade in the background, looks very urban.

Diana Hernández

It is. So I'm at the Russell Sage Foundation. It's where I've been for the past few months. I'm on sabbatical this year. And I'm on a visiting fellowship here at Russell Sage. And this place kind of brings together a bunch of social scientists that are working on issues of race, ethnicity, immigration, or social inequality, and other kinds of topics that are related to the social condition to support various forms of scholarship, but oftentimes book projects. And that's what I'm doing. I'm working on a book.

Brian Bienkowski

Excellent. Well, congratulations. And I'm sorry, at the same time because I know book projects can be just a huge heavy load, but good for you. I'm excited to read it because I've through this interview research, I've gotten to know what you've been up to. And it’s really fascinating stuff. And I'm really happy that you're here today. So I'd like to start at the beginning. So you are from the Bronx, proudly from the Bronx. So tell me a little bit about your upbringing, and what role if any, it played in you wanting to become a researcher focused on health injustice.

Diana Hernández

I mean, I think a lot of it has made more sense to me in hindsight. Growing up working class in a really poor neighborhood, just was my kind of normal reality, I guess, when I was growing up in the South Bronx. And I was born in a section eight building. And my parents were among the first to occupy that building, it was new construction at that point. There were facets of the building that to me are kind of fascinating today, because they kind of link back to some of the things that I work on, including a community garden that was basically a designated space off to the left of the building, if you were looking at it straight on. And my father, being a migrant from Puerto Rico, with you know, a bit of a kind of agricultural background, like he had his little plot of land in the garden. I guess he would grow peppers and other things and make the hot sauce that he would ultimately like put on my finger, my thumb on so I would stop sucking it. Well, that's kind of besides the point, and I don't know that this that needs to be like part of this discussion, but you know, that's some of the things that I remember. The other pieces of my kind of life, I often think about my life is kind of by place. And, and that place just by zip code, but also by like the address. And that's a lot of how I think about my research.

So I went from a building in the Morrisania section of the Bronx to a condo that my mom purchased kind of post divorce and working full time and after... I guess the year she graduated that was her gift, she finished her BA when I was 13, and we moved in 1995 to this condo. And it was an interesting kind of what I like to call "moving to opportunity" because she became a homeowner. I saw that kind of in real life, that transition. It was also like a very different place. Because there were other kinds of middle income families. We were probably one of the only households with a single parent as head of household, most of the other households were kind of intact. And then after that, I actually became a homeowner myself, when I went to Cornell, at the age of 19, for my PhD. And that transition also really helped me to understand like what it means to be a homeowner, but also how to manage a lot of different things. And, and then, when I moved back to the Bronx, after finishing my PhD, I ended up also, I had a partner at that time that was in real estate. And I learned a lot from him about how to like manage properties. And then I ultimately started to buy properties on my own.

And I was doing this kind of in parallel with this kind of research agenda that was trying to kind of get at housing in a more nuanced fashion and kind of understand it not just as a platform for... it is a platform for life, right? Like I mean, we launch our lives from our homes every day, but also, that it's not just about affordability. And it's not just about neighborhoods. And I think at that time, when I was kind of working on housing research, it was that or conditions. And I've since started to kind of tie a bow, I guess, around the concept of housing, and what its kind of dimensions are to better understand then ultimately how it links to health. And it's both kind of a social and environmental platform, or environment, that ultimately kind of affects health in a number of ways.

So that's, I guess, the long story short around like how my upbringing in some ways has kind of influenced this nuanced understanding of poverty and housing. And my goal, I think, ultimately is for people to enjoy decent, affordable housing that is stable over time. And that is situated in a neighborhood that offers the kinds of institutional connections and other kinds of opportunities for people to live their best life, regardless of the zip code, or the race, ethnicity or other kind of dimensions of composition, I think this is something that we all deserve.

Brian Bienkowski

So you mentioned Cornell briefly. And so you went to Hunter College and Cornell for both your masters and PhD focusing on sociology at all three of them. So what was it about the field of sociology that grabbed you and made you feel like you could make a positive difference through this sociological research?

Diana Hernández

So I remember having like these long walks with my mom, so like anybody that knows me and knows that I love walks and talks, and I think maybe that just like started really early in my life. And in that time, like, I think I was making sense of my social world. And it was really easy for me to process and analyze things in the social world. And then when I went to college, I guess I was in a hurry. And I took like, a whole semester, but like six classes worth of 18 credits of sociology. And so I was basically immersed into sociology. And really, after that time, there was no turning back, it was to me like, extremely interesting. And it provided a lens and a language by which to understand and process my own lived experience, but also the different worlds that I was straddling at the time. So right now, I'm, in fact, coming back to Russell Sage, feels like full circle, because Hunter [College] is just four blocks away. So I'm on 64th street now and Hunter's on 68th Street and Lexington. And the Upper East Side is one of the wealthiest communities in the United States and even the world in terms of like, the concentration of wealth, and I was traveling to this very wealthy area in New York City from one of the poorest areas in the US. And so that contrast and the kind of inequality to me was extremely fascinating. But somehow I hadn't really like processed the fact that I was so poor until I went to college. Which is just weird, right? Like I guess we all get like enculturated and our realities our normal lives. And it's only when you see some kind of alternative that you realize like there was kind of, and in my case, like it was there was just such a vast difference in opportunities and and how people would navigate things. So, sociology for me has always been kind of a little bit of an anchor in being able to conceptualize like, the social condition as well as kind of understand social patterning, and the people that are kind of the winners and losers in some ways. And I hate to put it that way. But I guess, in some ways, I focus so heavily on, you know, issues of inequality that it does kind of naturally, you know, like, have this contrast between people that are doing well, and people that aren't.

Brian Bienkowski

So before we get into some of that research, you're talking about, I've been asking everyone on the podcast, what is the defining moment or event that shaped your identity up to this point? and that can be personal professional.

Diana Hernández

Um, I guess, I mean, there's so many ways. So I guess my racial identity, for instance, I remember sitting on my aunt's lap, and at that point, I don't know why, but like, I just identified as white at that point. And my aunt was very quick to tell me like, "you're Puerto Rican." And over time the ways in which I understand my own kind of identity is more rooted in these cultural histories and things like that. But I was, I'm so happy that, you know, she sat me down and was like, you know, just kind of, like, told me the truth –Like, I'm just Puerto Rican, you know. And that was great. But I think I identify as a boss, not because I'm like, the best manager, but but I do understand that I am a visionary, and that I am gifted with the Power of Inspiration. And to me, that's what leadership is about, is about bringing people along so that they start to see the world in a way that you see it. And I actually learned that from developing housing. Because I love the fact that I could take, you know, something that was dilapidated and vacant and underappreciated, and invest in it in all these kinds of ways, but really kind of set a vision for what it could be, even long before it was that. And so I've been really kind of fortunate to have this like parallel existence as a housing practitioner, because that has helped me to form this identity as a boss. I try to live up to that, but I don't know. But I, you know, it's something that because I was successful in doing it in this one realm, I do feel like that kind of carries over into other dimensions of my life and my work.

Brian Bienkowski

Well, I can say that everybody I talked to about your work, the idea of you being a visionary, you are not the only one that holds that. That that came up a lot. And in people I spoke to getting ready to talk to you.I do want to talk about your real estate, because I find that fascinating, but let's start with some of your research. So you focus on the intersection of energy, equity, housing, and health. And you're one of the kind of the foremost researchers exploring energy insecurity. So I think there was an incredibly kind of painful example of this in January, right there in the Bronx, where you're from when a faulty space heater caused a deadly fire. This is just, you know, a few weeks back. So can you walk us through what that term mean in your research? that term energy insecurity. What makes people most vulnerable to this insecurity and some potential interventions you've seen in your research or other literature that that we could use to combat this problem?

Diana Hernández

So I like to kind of at least start with the idea that recognition is the first step to justice, right? We can't correct for something that we can't name, and that we can identify as a problem. And I'm fortunate, because I listen, and I trust people. And I came to understand this problem of energy insecurity, because I observed and I listened to people that were like dealing with this, ultimately, this hidden hardship, right, like this thing that I mean, kept them home, and they were cold, or they were like, totally nervous about their bills, they were totally indebted and behind in their utility expenses, they were juggling between different expenses. And it all had to do with their household energy and the ability for their physical environment to meet the task of keeping them thermally comfortable, and, like just having the basics – like the lights on and you know, appliances that function, and things like that. But also like the economic means by which to keep up.

So energy insecurity is defined as the inability to adequately meet household energy needs. And as my work in this space has evolved, I've also kind of started to think that it's not just about the dynamics that are happening at the household level, but it's also the kind of issues around the energy infrastructure and systems that exist. And also like these more macro level factors, of course, the kind of economy and things like that, but climate change, right? climate change is adding pressures to the energy system, it's also adding pressures to households, so that more people are actually can be considered energy insecure, that are not poor. I think about people like the folks that are impacted by the wildfires in California. And, you know, you have extremely wealthy people that are kind of being shut off preemptively, because the utilities play a large kind of role in creating and then exacerbating these wildfires. So there's this kind of interplay between energy systems and climate change.

Now, what we observed in the Bronx, and the fire that basically cost the lives of 17 people, nine of them children, in a building, not unlike the one that I grew up in – it was built in the 70s, it was part of this resurgence of like building the Bronx back up after the kind of fires that were set, sometimes intentionally, sometimes just by lack of maintenance and things like that – harkens to this idea that they are people that are coping with inadequate thermal conditions in their buildings, and relying on alternative heating methods, like the space heaters, or ovens, or stove tops to keep warm. And in this case, the space heater was on incessantly, there were also issues around the fire alarms, they would go off so much so that people learn to ignore them, because they were false alarms. And this is really situated in a broader problem of like many, many people living in the Bronx, in particular, like calling in for no heat complaints on an annual basis. So since they've been collecting this data, the Bronx has always come up, especially if you do a per capita kind of analysis, as most impacted by the lack of heat. Conversely, in winter, in the summertime, many more people that live in the Bronx, don't own an air conditioner. And so, this idea that... the way that I imagine living in dignity is, you know, like being able to be comfortable without having to be exaggerated in like what you're wearing at home, for instance, too little or too much, because you're trying to manage the thermal conditions. And the Bronx is like kind of the least able to live in that kind of a dignified manner. That's what I call energy insecurity. And my research is basically shown in a lot of different ways, using a lot of different kinds of data points, that this affects people of color, low income people, and people living certain housing forms the most. And, you know, it's kind of an opportunity for us to intervene, because now it's packaged in a way that we understand it. So then we can kind of plan policy and programmatic interventions accordingly.

Brian Bienkowski

So another leg of this table of research that you that you look at is housing, and I think most of us have a relatively limited view when we think of housing. But in your research, you've pointed out that healthy housing spans you mentioned these four pillars, conditions, cost, consistency and context. Can you talk about these pillars and how they interact and influence health and health disparities?

Diana Hernández

Yeah, so the four C's of housing conditions – [conditions], cost, consistency and context– are really all about understanding the economic aspects of housing, right? It's also about understanding environmental quality, so those conditions. It's also being able to process like displacement and those factors that might displace people that are happening at a larger scale, like gentrification, or some kind of a climate impact, and then the idea of like, kind of getting people back into those neighborhoods is a problem; or evictions, right, that's within that consistency pillar. And then neighborhood effects: So the idea that people could actually live in a safe neighborhood, in a neighborhood that has good schools, that has grocery stores with healthy and affordable food that, you know, just has like kind of the amount of green space, like amenities that make it livable, and also healthy. And at any one point, some of those issues are being this tension, right. So sometimes affordable housing is in a neighborhood environment that isn't really set up with a lot of opportunity in different forms, or that the affordable housing is probably sometimes – often – having kind of conditions issues, so it isn't the healthiest environment. And the other tension is really about like if you're challenged around affordability, your opportunity to stay voluntarily in that place, without being displaced or forced out, is more challenged. Those, again, that packaging of housing and understanding it in that way, also helps us to understand not just the usual suspects around health outcomes, such as asthma, for instance, or chronic stress, right? I mean, people that are burdened by like affordability challenges, or the cumulative burden of all of those things combined, are just carrying a lot. And so of course, they're feeling more stressed. I mean, in the context of a neighborhood environment that doesn't feel welcoming or safe, I mean, that literally means that your home environment is that much more important. There's a lot more reliance on that – there's lead exposure, there's all of these things, there's like all these pressure points.

And so my work really, at least conceptually, started to paint a picture around the links between these pillars and a number of different outcomes that can come of it in the physical form of health, including, like, you know, general health status, hospitalizations, emergency room visits, these kinds of things, as well as mental health. And because we can't disconnect mental health from physical health, you know, I come at public health as a sociologist, so I think a little bit more upstream, if you can even see that as a pattern, so I'm not committed to a health outcome. I mean, a lot of the ways in which NIH, for instance, is organized is around a disease state. I just don't think about the links between housing and health based on one particular disease state because I can see all of the ways in which you know, the pillars of housing or the context of housing ultimately can impact child health, prenatal health, the health of the elderly, like, so many pieces come together, and you can look at, you know, like age appropriate outcomes as well if you're kind of more agnostic to a particular outcome, but moreso looking at the upstream determinants, which I would say housing is sitting more upstream for sure.

Brian Bienkowski

So you mentioned children. So let's take a second and connect us to kind of federal housing policy. So you've examined national housing policies, including public housing and rental assistance, and how it influences early childhood development. So what did you find and what are some areas our federal housing safety net could improve to better serve children?

Diana Hernández

So you're referring to a study that we did in Fresno, California. It was the first site where the rental assistance demonstration, or RAD, program was implemented. And it's since it has become so standardized, but at that point, it was really novel to look at what this repackaging of housing actually looked like. It was basically going from Section nine housing, which is public housing, to Section Eight housing, in this case, project-based is the vouchers – that I think people are more familiar with – But you can also live like how I lived in the section eight building, so the subsidies attached to the actual building. And what was interesting about that transition wasn't so much the administrative shift from Section nine to Section Eight – it actually meant nothing, it wasn't any different for a household that was impacted by that change, they still pay the same kind of a third of their household income to rent – but what did come of it was an unlocking of capital improvement funding. So one of the biggest challenges of public housing is the conditions in which they exist, in part because of when they were built (in large part, at the middle of the last century, so the 50s 60s 70s, that's when a lot of the public housing was constructed) And it needs maintenance. And not only maintenance: at different points, you actually need major capital improvements. But because this is all subject to congressional approval, there were always lots and lots of lots of issues in getting the dollars for the necessary capital improvements. And so that shift is, in some ways, what has been referred to (it's not always constructed this way) as the privatization of public housing, where there are private partners that come in and kind of have ownership stake in public housing, in order to activate the kind of capital improvement pieces and to leverage the properties themselves as assets, like, capital assets, like stuff that you own and appreciate and value, as opposed to just kind of managing it as a government like property essentially.

And what we found when, when that, well, in that transition in Fresno... the Fresno Housing Authority actually was really good about like... they were the developers, so they didn't really engage in like a public-private partnership. So that's why the structuring of those deals isn't always as simple as saying that it's the privatization of public housing. Any way you cut it, what was really interesting in that came from that transition is that they were able to upgrade the unit's substantially. They put in new cabinets, and new kitchen cabinets actually, sometimes increase the square footage of the actual units, put in washers and dryers, dishwashers, upgraded the heating and cooling. Just like basically, it was like, you know, those shows do HGTV or whatever for like for public housing, which was pretty cool. And it was interesting to see unfold. But I think ultimately, what that did for the families that we were tracking that had children – we were looking at educational outcomes – So the kids that were living in RAD sites were less likely to be absent from school, and more likely to have kind of better GPAs. And so there were kind of positive educational outcomes. But when we also asked parents about, like, what this transition meant for them, they were more proud about where they lived. They felt that they had more amenities not just in their built in, like in their actual unit, but because they will also upgrades and partnerships for other amenities on site that was also kind of more helpful. And they felt like combined, all of those things meant that the kind of renewed environment was better for their children.

And I believe that that is, I mean, we actually saw that in New York City too. We looked at RAD in the Bronx, and we were looking at smoking indoors as an outcome and also residential satisfaction. And a year before and a year after doing surveys we did find positive results on both of those indicators showing on the one hand that when the place is invested in by others, people are more likely to take care of it, which is the indoor smoking maybe even having kind of less stress to contend with, So less need to actually be smoking indoors. But also just generally reporting greater satisfaction in their residential environments. And I think all of those things are really, really hopeful.

Brian Bienkowski

So let's stay on the optimistic front here. Because talking about environmental injustice and energy insecurity can often be a little overwhelming. What are some places other places that you see optimism and hope and solutions that are happening both in kind of the fair housing and housing available to people and energy security?

Diana Hernández

I have to say that I'm most hopeful on the energy side, I think the housing side is very complicated. I think housing, the housing stock that exist is getting better when available, like resources exist. But I still think that they many, many people are locked out of housing and affordable housing, and I don't think that we have a good handle on the question of homelessness, even in a right-to-housing city like New York City, there are many more people that are homeless than should be, because we also haven't figured out the long term strategy. So I'm concerned about housing in general. I don't know that kind of goes away.

But I can say that energy is actually a platform for making housing better. A lot of the the issues that people have in their homes have a lot to do with energy efficiency, and with the kind of energy performance. So how do you make a home habitable, especially these days, that you're able to kind of turn on the lights and have the heating and cooling that you need? That's one, it's not the only, but I think it's a really important and big aspect. And I think that there are new investments that are happening within the energy space, to improve the infrastructure of buildings and homes. And I think right now, what I'm excited about is that the conversation is happening with equity as a starting place. Ten years ago, I mean, I published my first paper in 2010 on this whole issue of housing and energy, and I've been kind of thinking about it for a little bit longer than that, so, I mean, let's talk about it as a decade and a half endeavor. It's kind of interesting that we talk about energy justice, and we talk about the question of just transitions, I think now in such a present and upfront way; whereas when I first started this work, like the decarbonisation and climate people, were talking about this as like, environmental, you know, like issues and whatever, and it was all about, like the environment, but not really like the people that are implicated in this. And I think now, the conversation around energy has really shifted, and there's a recognition that we have to kind of be thinking about equity, and an equitable and just transition, not just the transition, because, you know, we can shift energy resources and sources. But if some people are completely left behind, and also the ones that have, from their own kind of behaviors, the lightest carbon footprint, it's just unfair. And I think that there were a few things that kind of inspired a little bit of an emphasis on this, of course, like the the research and like, kind of, it just takes a little bit of time for all of that stuff to pick up.

But obviously, there was like all the pressures around George Floyd, I mean, I think that that kind of opened up the need to be thinking about racial inequities, and all of the ways in which people of color, black people, indigenous people, Latinx, like just the whole gamut of people of color are just having challenges in like, just being. And police brutality is one example of that, but there are so many other examples. And I think that, you know, was kind of this opportunity for people to start looking within and to start making commitments about justice. I'm not going to necessarily say that all of those commitments will be fruitful. But I'm happy that at least it's you know, like, a top of mine and tip of tongue. Because that's really, I think progress compared to where we were not too long ago.

Brian Bienkowski

Yeah, and I think I mean, the summer of 2020. It also got a lot of people that were working on justice and race issues together. Maybe they were operating in silos, maybe it was economic justice over here and environmental justice here, police brutality and criminal justice reform. And it seemed like at least from my point of view that a lot of them started coming together. Those groups, those activist, those researchers and saying "no, this is all connected, this is all part of the same problem." And that seems like it's gotten the snowball growing and moving a lot faster to me.

Diana Hernández

Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, we need that kind of those exponentiating forces to come and just say, like, you know, "people aren't just suffering in this particular way. They're suffering in a lot of different ways. And there's a lot of room for improvement." And there's more so if we actually kind of come together on these issues. And so yeah, I agree with your assessment that, you know, there there is this kind of force multiplier that happened in 2020. And I think also other people like, I mean, I think really what happened in 2020, was that people started to connect the dots. Let's say, like, the social justice community and stuff like that. I think also people outside of that community started to kind of look within and say, like, "what are we doing that contributes to this?" And that's important, because power flows not just from the powerless trying to get attention, but also from people that possess power, to be willing to interrogate the ways in which their possession of this resource is contingent upon other people not having it. And also, where they might need to give up a little bit of those privileges in order for there to be just a bit more equity and a bit more justice. Because the plight for social justice can't just be about people that want more without also the engagement and people that have more.

Brian Bienkowski

Right. And so on this optimistic tip, we've mentioned this earlier, you mentioned some of your real estate work. So full disclosure, Diana came and talked to the Agents of Change fellows and talked about this. And it was the first thing as a journalist that went off in my head –that's interesting. This is interesting stuff. So in addition to all of your research work, you've gotten involved in social impact real estate in the Bronx, at least, it was described on your professor researcher page there, which I really liked the way that's put, so tell us what is social impact real estate, and what have you done there in your native Bronx with it.

Diana Hernández

Um, so I can say that they're different iterations of social impact real estate, I think the big developers like, you know, the people that do like low income housing, tax credit deals, and all that stuff, like they think about what they're doing and social impact real estate, because they are providing housing, like affordable housing – one could like, you know, debate how affordable it really is – but like, that's, you know, I think the big umbrella and more than likely how people, you know, might be kind of thinking about social impact real estate. I think of myself as like, a proof of concept person. And by that, I mean, like, what if more of us that have options about where we live, basically chose to live in neighborhoods that require a little bit more attention, but also more intentionality.

So I was thinking about this recently. This year, I have an 82-year-family-legacy in the South Bronx. So my grandmother came in 1940 as a Puerto Rican migrant. And she was really kind of part of the first wave of Puerto Ricans leaving the island for kind of better opportunities in the Bronx. She was 16, she came to like, help her sister as a caretaker for her nieces and nephews. And she was a black Puerto Rican and had all kinds of in the US understood in that way. And so there's a story, and I can't verify as my grandmother has since passed away, but that during her honeymoon, she and her husband went to Chicago, but he was processed as a white person, and she was processed as a black person. And it was very much in the Jim Crow era. And they had to like separate in the restaurant and like how heartbreaking, right? to be on your honeymoon and to have that kind of experience.

In any case, with these kind of big, or strong roots in the Bronx, when I went to grad school, it was really my first time leaving the city and having to like reconstitute my relationship with the Bronx. And at first it was a lot of shame. Shame because like I was like, inundated in this other environment in upstate New York, where there was like a college town, everything was clean and just ran really efficiently and nicely, anD I was like at this like fancy school for the first time in my life and, all of the buildings –I mean talk about the built environment– giving signals about how important you are, and like this kind of historical embeddedness, and all of this stuff. I just was like having all kinds of like feelings about, you know, what was going on.

And I think a very legitimate feeling was a feeling of coming back and like kind of processing the Bronx with a certain criticism about how chaotic it was and how dirty it could be, and like how problematic like on a social level it was. And then I started reading sociology books, and like starting to think like, Well, hey, that's interesting, because I mean, one of the things that happens with upward mobility is the exit strategy. And the idea that you start to kind of align yourself with this more kind of mainstream vision for where to live, and how to like go about your life. And I felt like, you know, all like that people like me, we were kind of invested in this idea of the social markers of progress. Because we then choose the right zip codes, and we like, kind of engaged in all of this stuff. But what if we turned that on its head? And what if we were the ones that actually like, bought up properties, and lived in the communities?

I always felt this charge to be a role model, like ever since I was young. I always I felt, I don't know why. But I felt like I needed to be like, the person that kids looked up to. And then I was like, well, I could afford on my little professor salary to buy properties in the Bronx, and to rehab them. And I've done that. And it's was, I mean, I remember, like, people kind of looking at me, like, "what are you doing?", you know, and now they think I'm brilliant. But it was this kind of a social experiment. I mean, I have to say that my husband is from Brooklyn, and like, those borough like identities, like are a real thing. And so, he has moved to the Bronx very reluctantly. But I think he also has come around to understanding and appreciating, and he said this the other day, so I'm going to quote him, he said, you know, "the Bronx gives a lot of love, it just doesn't get a lot of love back." And I think it's been that kind of reputational hazard that is more of an issue than the real dynamics that are happening in the community.

When I say that I do social impact real estate, it's because my goal is to allow people that are living in the neighborhood to continue to live in the neighborhood. But to do so with an elevated kind of standard of living, like, you know, actually inside of the units, because the units are really beautiful. And I really have prided myself in investing my own hard-earned capital, like, if I didn't have my professor job, I couldn't be a real estate person, maybe people think of it is like the opposite. But it's true, like, at least, you know, initially. And so that's, yeah, that's the social impact. The social impact is me living in an environment where somebody like me doesn't have to live. But, you know, kind of intentionally chooses to live and me making it possible for other people that are in the community to live well, and, and to enjoy the pillars of housing that I think are important even as we work on the kind of context piece. But that's my little slice of the solutions.

Brian Bienkowski

I think it's very cool. It reminds me when I when I graduated from college, I'm from Detroit, and there was this kind of people in my in my social circle, a lot of people went to Chicago and these kind of upscale neighborhoods basically after college, everybody, all these big 10 kids go to these these places in Chicago. But this was before Detroit has had a lot of its energy and economic development it's had in the last decade (and we could certainly talk about if that economic development is reaching all areas of the city) but it certainly, it's become a more vibrant place. And I always thought like a lot of people are attracted to places that are already there, so to speak, or places that have that are maybe not there yet. But if you are willing to put a little bit of your time and effort, there's so much opportunity in those places. And I always thought Detroit was such a place of opportunity, not just because housing was cheaper than in Chicago, or wherever, but there was just such a kind of a beautiful, gritty resilience to the place. And that kind of spiderwebbed into urban gardens and the music scene and all kinds of aspects of it. So I always thought of these two distinct kinds of people, those that want to invest in the place that they're at, or kind of want to go where it's already fixed up and ready.

Diana Hernández

And I think the interesting thing is that... there's I guess another piece to that for the people that are investing in the places that are not quite there is also like, how much you're invested in just an improvement of what is like a revitalization versus like literally, reconstituting the whole neighborhood. So, I mean, what's really, to me, like so striking these days is that there's like, literally luxury housing in the South Bronx, and I say that, because I'm just like, that's just interesting, but it just doesn't feel like it's for the people that are here, right? Like, it literally like, feels like, there's this idea that they're just going to somehow attract like, all these other folks that like, have no ties to the community and are not invested in what is, and in the people that are there, they just want to totally just redo the cultural and people landscape of these neighborhoods. I mean, it's gentrification, right? and that, I think, is the difference between people that are investing for the purposes of improving what's there versus the people that just want something that's totally different and they're doing it with the investment being as the kind of driving force, as opposed to the preservation. I don't know. I mean, I haven't necessarily like articulated this, and maybe that might be my next book, but, you know, it's just like, there is something to this, right? there's something to the idea that some people want things to be a better version of what you know, of what it is, versus like wanting to do a total, like kind of reholding of the neighborhoods.

Brian Bienkowski

Yeah, you touched on the nuance that I didn't mention that I that I meant to and I'm glad you did, is the fact that you don't want to turn it into the Upper East Side, you want it to remain the Bronx, but just have people have a higher standard of living, better housing, better amenities and stuff. And I think that's the difference. And it's very cool, I love the idea that you're doing that, and connecting your research to some of the stuff you're doing outside of it, especially in a place that you love. So I have a few more questions here. And these are kind of more about your experience as a woman of color in this field. So first, you're the only tenured women of color at your institution. And I was wondering, what changes do you want to help create to address this problem, which is, of course, not just at your institution, but all across the country?

Diana Hernández

I mean, I want to Well, first of all, normalize the idea that we can be badasses. And like existing in institutions that, you know, for so long kind of fell out of reach. And so, you know, I think part of it, again, is that idea of like being just a role model, like, you know, that there's growth in this leadership actually, and just being and totally owning a story that is familiar without it being compromised by these other ambitions around aculturating and kind of acclimating to this mainstream. So I feel like I have an anti-mainstream story and, I like it and I think and I hold that to a high regard.

But I'm also, especially now like so committed and so intentional about the composition of my team, invested in bringing others forward. I just had a lab meeting yesterday and since I've been away and like the pandemic and the whatever, but like, I just have like badass women of color on my team. I'm like, Yes, and they all are having ambitions of you know, like, going and getting their own PhDs. And I see other folks that, like Daniel Carrión is also an AOC-EJ fellow and like, you know, some of the other mentees that I've had over the years that like, they're just powerful and amazing in their own way, but they really add to the diversity of the academy. They're asking more nuanced and interesting questions, in part because they're bringing their own diverse lived experiences. And to me, that's what I, that's what I'm about. I feel like I have made this turn over to like... I think I've established my research and the importance of the work that I do enough that I can now leverage my scholarship and my reputation in the field to help others come up. I just think that that's kind of amazing. And I'm so grateful to the many people that did that for me, and that didn't always look like me either. And so like, I don't always necessarily think that your mentors have to be people that have the exact same profile as you, but they have to be kind. And they should be generous, and they should be able to allow you license to be all of the amazing things that you are. And that to me is like the guiding principles that I'm living with in terms of who I'm supporting, and how I'm supporting this kind of next generation. And the fact that like that is my focus now is a testament to the fact that I can't say that I've made it like that I have like achieved all of the amazing things that I'd like to achieve in life, but then I'm in a place that really requires me to bring others also along and allow them to kind of flourish in all of the amazing ways that they should.

Brian Bienkowski

I'm glad you mentioned that second part because I happen to work with a whole bunch of badass women of color at Agents of Change, I think there's seven or eight of them. Andas an editor now, I've been in this for 10 years, and I'm of course, I'm a white guy, and obviously was afforded a lot of privilege to get where I'm at, but when you make it, regardless of who you are, you can use that position to try to get diverse voices out there. So I really appreciate that thought because we're trying to do that as well, and you don't have to be a member of a group to try to elevate voices.

Diana Hernández

Oh, absolutely, absolutely. I mean, my own mentor is, she's like my Jewish mom. And actually, I have a few of those, like just good people that were like, you know, we see you, we believe in you, and you have something to say and to offer and like go. And you know, that's really what a mentor is about. A mentor isn't about like, well, I guess there are different kinds of mentors and I think that there there are different ways in which it can be influential in your own development; but that is, I think, an important piece of this. And I've learned to hire this way. Before I used to kind of focus so much on credentials, and on what people said that they could do when like what how their resumes, like, you know, shook out. Now I'm like, Who are you? What's your, you know, like, what's your story? What's your motivation? And what's your willingness to like, just learn and be versatile, that I value more than, you know, somebody that comes in with the most polished resumes. I'm more concerned with their work ethic, I'm much more concerned with, like, their kind of personal characteristics. And not so much like, all of the ways in which you know, especially people that have, I guess, been tracked in a certain way like they would present in that fashion. But in my experience materialized into the most helpful team members. And so I used to not trust myself because I think I used to focus too heavily on what's on paper. Now I focus a lot more on those intangibles that ultimately like kind of open up the possibilities for people to just, you know, be flexible in how they approach things and like, be ingenious about like their contributions and I value that a lot more now.

Brian Bienkowski

So you mentioned your Jewish mother and speaking of motherhood, you are a new mom. So first of all, congratulations on that big life step. So how has motherhood changed your approach to your work?

Diana Hernández

It's funny because as you see that I'm just thinking about my baby and her two little teeth and how she has another one coming in and like, you know, it's just like paying attention to the details of another life and it's amazing. On the one hand is new responsibilities. Like yesterday I get I had this like team meeting, I had to, like, drop my baby off at daycare beforehand, like I never, I just like, you know, roll up to campus and go right ahead on my work day now it's just, it's different. It's you know, I'm balancing caretaking. And I'm just like loving this like little person who just is so funny in her own little ways and has like this amazing personality and I try to share her and integrate this important piece of my life into my work that I mean, maybe because she's only 10 months, and so like, I don't know how much that will always be the case. But right now, like we just are very connected, and it's a really beautiful thing.

And my life I think is a little bit more complex now than it ever was because I there was... I got to the point of being a tenured professor, I think I'm gonna say this, and it's a little controversial, and I just wish that it wasn't the case, but [it was] because I didn't have a child. I was just so dedicated to work. And I, you know, like pushed ahead. And I think our workplaces are unkind to mothers in particular and to parents, in general. But I can't do that anymore. So now I'm like, I have to depend on other people in a lot of different ways. I depend on the care side, sometimes like strangers, you know, like, I'm putting my child in the care of strangers. But that allows me to, you know, be a full person because I do, you know, I see myself as being a mom, but also more than a mom. And, and I still want to be able to contribute professionally. But it's just amazing to like go home to my husband and my child and like, you know, play and it's just sweet. It's it's a very, very sweet thing. And I know it's not for everybody. But for those that like kind of choose this route, I would say that there's I think a way to do it. I'm still trying to figure it out. But I think that there's also like, I hope some flexibility in how that works. I don't know that I have all the answers there. I think it's a work in progress. But the enjoyment factor, and you know, just the fulfillment –for me like I always wanted to be a parent – and so I love being a professional, but it never, it still felt a little empty for me. It wasn't enough for me to feel fulfilled. But now I feel like I'm just like living the dream.

Brian Bienkowski

Excellent. Excellent. Well, that is so nice to hear. And I have been starting this three rapid fire questions where you can just answer with one word or phrase just three of them and then we can move on and I can get you out of here. You've been so gracious with your time. So my first one is my favorite coffee shop in the Bronx is

Diana Hernández

My Nespresso machine at home.

Brian Bienkowski

Yankees Mets or I couldn't care less.

Diana Hernández

I'm a New York fan. Obviously Bronx, you know, as a working class family Mets, but I'm a Bronx girl. So I wrapped the Yankees too, but I guess I'm like not really a sports person anyway. So New York all the way.

Brian Bienkowski

My favorite comfort food is

Diana Hernández

Oh god, potato chips.

Brian Bienkowski

Diana, my last question that I've been asking everybody and I have to compile these one of these days because there are some good ones out there. What is the last book that you read for fun?

Diana Hernández

I feel like I have trouble remembering what that is. But as far as probably Daring Greatly by Britney Brown. I love me a little self help book here and there. So that's the last one and the Gifts of Imperfection, also by her.

Brian Bienkowski

Excellent. Well, Diana, thank you so much for your time today.

Diana Hernández

Thank you so much.

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