Meet the Scholars: Alane Celeste-Villalvir
Alane Celeste-Villalvir is a DrPH student in community health at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston School of Public Health. She is a part of Health Policy Research Scholars Cohort 2018.
Before we begin, tell us a little bit about yourself and what your research interests are.
I was born in New York City, and was raised in both New York City and the Dominican Republic. As a first-generation college student, I got my BA in English (creative writing) with a minor in gender studies from Long Island University’s Brooklyn campus. I also received my Master of Public Administration (MPA) along with an Advanced Certificate in Nonprofit Management from LIU-Brooklyn. My work has been concentrated in public health in the nonprofit sector.
My research interests are homelessness and substance use. Broadly, I am interested in studying health inequities caused by poverty, racism, and other social determinants of health. When I am not doing or reading about this work, I am meditating, enjoying the arts (I love theater!), reading about politics/current events, traveling, or doing a puzzle of some kind.
What’s the story behind why you’re doing what you’re doing?
This work is very personal to me because I have been homeless, hungry, and have lived in impoverished, low-income communities for most of my life. I still vividly remember being in high school and having nowhere to go, no one waiting for me, and feeling like I was alone in the world. My personal experiences very naturally became my professional interests, and I organically landed in public health in the nonprofit sector in NYC. The combination of my personal and professional experiences have motivated me to pursue this work with a lens of cultural humility and a spirit of lifelong learning.
Tell us about a project you are currently working on that you are excited about.
In partnership with Living Hope Wheelchair Association, and thanks to The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship Houston-Galveston, I conducted an assessment of the needs of immigrants living with spinal cord injuries in Houston, Texas. I did not initially plan on publishing it, but I am now working with a faculty member from another local institution to write up a manuscript. I am super excited about this because I absolutely love my Living Hope family, and because there is a tremendous dearth of literature on the health of immigrants, particularly those living with disabilities and lacking access to health care.
For people unfamiliar with your research area, what is one piece of information you think is important for them to know?
Instead of looking at homelessness and substance use in isolation, I think it is imperative for people to know the history behind some of our most pressing socio-economic issues, including those directly affecting morbidity and mortality. That oftentimes not-so-distant history will point to systems and structures intended to uphold -isms at the institutional level (racism, sexism, classism, and more). Those -isms promote social and economic exclusion, limit or completely eliminate access to resources and opportunity, and keep people and entire communities in a perpetual cycle of poverty, fear, marginalization, and chronic stress. When we acknowledge that fundamental fact, and realize that some folks were not given boots (let alone straps!), we can move on to understand why poverty, homelessness, substance use, and other inequities persist. We can begin to understand the intergenerational trauma and chronic stress that characterize many of the communities researchers seek to understand.
Who is a researcher you admire and why?
I really like the work of Dr. Camara Phyllis Jones! First and foremost, it means the world to me to see a woman of color in science doing such incredible work because visibility and representation truly matters. I also appreciate the fact that, every chance she gets, Dr. Jones names racism (and other -isms) as a critical factor that affects individual, community, and population health. Her work applies an equity and social-determinants-of-health lens that really resonates with my lived experiences and the work I do. As a former English major and high school English teacher, I am also quite fond of Dr. Jones’ use of allegories and analogies to highlight the relationship between racism and health.
How has being an HPRS Scholar helped you during your time as a doctoral candidate?
Being an HPRS Scholar has been invaluable! The training has given my work a policy lens, it has helped sharpen my writing, and it has added a new level of depth to how I read scientific literature. I feel like learning how to talk to policymakers and how to frame research for a policymaker involves a completely different language that I am still in the process of learning.
I have also gained this large network of scholars all over the country doing incredible work, and we spend a lot of time sharing resources, collaborating, and uplifting each other every step of the way. HPRS staff and faculty are so incredibly approachable and helpful, even from a distance! I am so grateful for their kindness and their quickness to connect me to people doing similar work and to resources that can help me in this journey.
In the RWJF HPRS program, we have worked with you to help you think further about using your research to develop policy. If you could use your research to change any policy, what policy would it be?
This is a hard one because there are so many! I would probably do a complete overhaul and restructuring of our current healthcare system. I would replace it with a single-payer, government-run health care system that guarantees health care for all with no out-of-pocket costs and no need to go bankrupt, lose everything, and rely on crowdfunding to fund life-saving, oftentimes urgent medical care. In order to build a Culture of Health, it is essential that everyone has access to affordable and high-quality health care.
OK, here’s a fun question to wrap things up. If you had a talk show, who would your first three guests be?
In my work and my personal life, I appreciate authenticity, honesty, and humor. Therefore, I feel like I could kick it with Lizzo, Cardi B, and RuPaul for hours. I find all three of them to be intelligent and outspoken, and to represent who they are and where they come from unapologetically. My show would not only cover current events and politics, but it would likely also include some dancing, rapping, and a RuPaul-style lip sync or two. I mean, I’d watch this even if it wasn’t my show!
Thank you so much for your time!