City-Wired from an Early Age
From a young age, Denese was intrigued by the intricacies of cities, from transit networks to housing and everything in between.
But the first city that she really called home was New Orleans.
“There’s the place you call home that your parents choose, and the place you call home that you choose. That’s New Orleans for me,” Denese explains.
Denese moved to New Orleans in 1990 to finish the bachelor’s degree that she started at a community college in Dayton, Ohio. She started her career as an undergraduate working at a halfway house for homeless veterans and people with substance abuse disorders, and completed an internship with a research-funded program that helped develop an integrated housing and service model for homeless women with children. She later received her master’s and doctoral degrees in urban studies from the University of New Orleans – all while continuing her career working with housing, health, and human service organizations. She attests that she is who she is today due to her experiences and opportunities in the city.
When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, she was living in Chicago but knew what she had to do. “When Hurricane Katrina strikes and you have a PhD in urban studies from New Orleans University,” Denese recalls, “that’s something you go home for. You show up and help.”
New Connections Opening Closed Doors
Her 2008 New Connections grant was crucial for Denese in developing a new methodology for her work that tied together health, urban planning, and community development. After a series of events including a life-altering illness, Denese had to take a step back from working with health. However, her research helped teams that continue to work on issues affecting vulnerable populations in these sectors.
“Fourteen years ago, I was flat-out told by city planners, ‘Why would we care about health?’ And told by medical professionals, ‘Why would we care about community?’ For a long time, I was knocking on doors that simply did not open. Now, even though problems in cities still abound, at least people are having these conversations, and I no longer feel like I’m speaking into a vacuum. Many doors are open that were closed when I first started. RWJF has made a huge difference.”
The New Connections program also helped Denese gain insights and support from other colleagues in the network, whom she considers “valuable sounding boards as I navigate the space between scholar and practitioner.”
Fostering Collaboration for Brighter Futures
Denese, now a resident of Washington, D.C., is optimistic about the conversations about neighborhoods, health, and housing that are taking place today, and is grateful to have been part of early conversations about these topics during her New Connections grant.
The main focus of her current work can be summed up in one of the “action areas” from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Culture of Health: Fostering cross-sector collaboration to improve well-being.
And Denese sees the potential for this collaboration where others might not. Whether it’s writing a book about the popularity of craft beer in Chicago to educate readers about urban development and social history, or helping a neighborhood win public park space as part of a large-scale development, Denese is dedicated to influencing cities and making an impact on the lives of residents. By this, she hopes to break down silos and see improved outcomes for those living in urban areas.