In the 1940s, LeConté Dill’s grandparents joined the droves of African Americans heading west for better opportunity. Leaving homes in Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana, her relatives settled in South Los Angeles, putting down roots in vibrant but low-income neighborhoods anchored by strong social networks and black-owned businesses.
Fast-forward to the present: Many inner-city communities like the one where Dill’s family lives are undergoing an exodus.
Black families in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Berkeley, and elsewhere are picking up and leaving once more. In 2009, for instance, a San Francisco mayor’s task force found that the city’s African American population fell to 46,779 in 2005 from 78,989 in 1990, and pointed to the loss of many middle-income and upper middle-income households.
Known as out-migration, this local and national phenomenon fascinates Dill, a DrPH student. Her doctoral research uses a public health and city/regional planning lens to understand what happens to the people left behind. Specifically, Dill is investigating how young people of color cope with their changing urban neighborhoods and looks at their strategies of resilience.
“My question is, ‘Where do they go if their church closed and the local store doesn’t sell healthy food?’” she asks. “How can people be making it? And people are. I’m delving into ‘What are the safe places, and who are the supportive people?’”
This semester, Dill hopes to answer some of those questions when she conducts in-depth interviews with youth in East Oakland. Her methodology will include a narrative analysis in which young people share their stories and ultimately create poems about their circumstances. She herself has written poetry and fiction since elementary school.
“I don’t know if they get to share their experience of neighborhood change,” she says. “I’m sure it has an impact on them.”
Dill’s adviser, Associate Professor Emily Ozer, describes her student as “a fearless learner. She’s just expanding herself intellectually constantly.” Given the complex nature of studying communities in transition, Dill’s strategy of “getting to know stories and lives inside-out is a really promising approach,” Ozer adds.
Out-migration and its consequences first caught Dill’s attention when, as a staffer at the City of Berkeley’s Public Health Division, she learned that some 2,000 black families in South Berkeley had left between 1990 and 2000 for various reasons. “I felt the story behind that story was huge,” says Dill, who stepped down from her city job to begin her doctoral studies at the School of Public Health in the fall of 2008.
Dill has traced a 70-year span of migration into and out of the Bay Area from World War II to today. In studying that black exodus, she says, “I delved into national history and my history.”
Dill would like her research to shape future policy making and ultimately improve the quality of life for residents of urban landscapes undergoing upheaval. She believes the fields of urban planning, public health, and youth development should collaborate to tackle such common issues. After she graduates this spring, she intends to continue studying urban adolescents as a postdoc. “I’m really committed to doing community-engaged work,” she says.
Growing up in South Los Angeles, Dill got an early education about communities in transition. Her once-thriving neighborhood was plagued by gangs and drugs. “As an elementary student, I knew I couldn’t wear blue or red in certain neighborhoods,” she says. “But I was also fortunate to be raised around my grandparents and other elders in the community and be exposed to South L.A.’s thriving arts and culture scene.”
She earned a scholarship to attend private school when she was in the seventh grade, and selected Chadwick, a prep school in wealthy Palos Verdes Peninsula. “Every day, I had to leave my neighborhood and go to a neighborhood that was totally different,” she recalls. In high school, a winning essay, “How I Plan to Make an Impact on Black History,” led to a college scholarship. She headed to Spelman College, a historically black, all-women’s institution in Atlanta.
“It was my dream school, steeped in history and dedicated to developing women in leadership,” Dill says. Spelman didn’t disappoint. Dill forged lifelong friendships and reveled in course offerings,extracurriculars, and opportunities for leadership training. Originally intending to become a doctor, she discovered public health through Spelman’s Health Careers Club. “I learned about this whole other way of looking at disease and health.” She studied sociology and took public health classes at neighboring Morehouse College. Her senior thesis examined the value of support groups in managing chronic diseases like childhood asthma and pediatric diabetes.
Graduating in 2000, Dill headed back to Los Angeles for UCLA’s MPH program, where she studied community health sciences and specialized in child and family health. Dismayed by the lack of ethnic diversity in her ranks, she cofounded a now-flourishing networking and support group, Students of Color for Public Health. Two years later, as a freshly minted MPH, she left for the Bay Area. She initially worked for local nonprofits involved in child health advocacy and community mobilization. In 2006, she joined Berkeley’s Public Health Division, where she was a health educator, public information officer, and program manager for chronic disease prevention programs.
Though gratified by the direct impact of her work, Dill felt the tug of more schooling. Once she decided to get her doctorate, choosing where to go was easy. The DrPH program at Berkeley “just seemed like a perfect fit,” Dill says. “They really value leadership development and community-based experience.”
Besides her involvement as a self-described “urban health scholactivist,” Dill is active with Spelman’s local alumnae association and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., and serves on the board of the California Black Women’s Health Project. She continues to write poetry and fiction.
For Dill, public health is always on the front burner. “It just touches everything we do, from the food we eat to the air we breathe to the neighborhoods in which we live,” she says.