Get to Know Diana Hernández, PhD
Diana Hernández, PhD, assistant professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, is working to create healthier environments in traditionally low-income neighborhoods.
“Housing is an important area of study and intervention, as it carries vital health and social implications,” says Hernández. “For me, housing is the focus of my research, business, and passion.” Here’s how she arrived at this focus in her own words.
Growing up in the South Bronx
I grew up not far from Yankee Stadium. When there was a night game, I could see the bright lights of the stadium.
In the 80s, there were a lot of different things affecting the South Bronx at the same time: the crack epidemic, the emergence of HIV/AIDS, concentrated poverty, dilapidated housing, urban blight, and the beginnings of mass incarceration. But living this “synergism of plagues” as a kid didn't necessarily feel so heavy. I actually had a pretty happy childhood, all things considered.
Becoming interested in sociology
I went to public schools my whole life and then I did my undergraduate degree at Hunter College, part of the City University of New York. I remember it was my first semester, and I was taking an urban studies class. For the class, I had to compare my census tract to the Upper East Side’s. I was living the very epitome of social inequality in my daily commute to school, going from one of the poorest Congressional districts to one of the wealthiest along a single train line. There was something really striking about that.
There were other influences, but there was one book in particular, “Amazing Grace,” published in 1995, that was about the very housing complex my grandmother lived in for almost 40 years. But it was written by someone who came into the neighborhood, didn't really know the people, and then left. I was utterly frustrated by that. It encouraged me to write the story that felt familiar to me—to be the person capable of producing the knowledge.
Housing and health
I research a number of issues related to housing—physical quality, affordability—that impact health. For instance, I’ve looked at the effects of smoke-free housing, capital improvements in public housing, and transitioning to “clean” heat.
My most innovative research looks at household energy as a determinant of health. When people aren't able to adequately meet their household energy needs, I call that energy insecurity. For example, heatwaves can trigger both physical and mental health conditions, but not being able to afford air conditioning can also have negative health effects. Some of the impact comes from the stress of managing high bills relative to low incomes and more extreme weather due to climate change, requiring increased thermal regulation indoors.
When people are imagining new climate policy or energy policies, low-income communities, communities of color, and medically vulnerable communities are not top of mind. But they are often the ones most adversely affected by climate change or late to adopt the newest technologies, like solar panels, which are cleaner and cost-saving. These populations are also the ones most likely to be severely, and sometimes fatally, impacted by lapses in policy.
Becoming a “landlady”
I grew up in subsidized housing when I was a kid, and I remember sitting on the staircase of the sixth floor hallway of that building imagining how to redo the space. I’d imagine shifting the doors and the walls so that my whole family could have a wing of the building and dreamed about what that improved space would mean for our family.
When I moved back to New York City after finishing my PhD at Cornell, I wanted to live in the Bronx for social and political reasons. It was clear to me from my studies that people like me, who had gone to college and had opportunities for upward social mobility, did not move back to our neighborhoods, often chasing notions of success that distanced us from the hood.
I wanted to find a way to revitalize the Bronx from within, as someone who understands the nuances of my community and seeks to improve and preserve it simultaneously. And so, in 2012, I bought one small building. And then in 2013 I bought another small multifamily building, and in 2016 I bought the latest one. Most of the residents in my buildings work at nonprofit organizations, they’re upwardly mobile, and many of them are from the Bronx or other communities in New York City where displacement has occurred.
I’m putting my money where my heart is. I'm hoping things get better and that my investments in real property and the community serve as good examples for others, especially the next generation of youth, so that they can take pride in their neighborhood and see success that looks familiar.
For me, doing this work is an antidote to gentrification and a way to pay it forward.
Engaging the community
I am the director of community engagement for the Center for Environmental Health in Northern Manhattan and hold a similar role for the Columbia Children's Center for Environmental Health.
The objective is to take some of the public health knowledge that is created in a world-class institution like CUIMC and translate it into public policy while sharing the information with community members. Long-standing community residents—native New Yorkers like me—are oftentimes the subjects of the research but seldom the beneficiaries of the results. I’m honored to have a role that seeks to inform our community members about environmental health risks and share recommendations about what to do to lead healthier lives.