Meet the Scholars: Rebekah Israel Cross

Meet the Scholars: Rebekah Israel Cross
January 11, 2021 7:00 am


Rebekah Israel Cross is a PhD student in community health sciences at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. She is a part of Health Policy Research Scholars Cohort 2017.

Before we begin, tell us a little bit about yourself and what your research interests are.

I’m a Black woman, a mother, a wife, and a community health scientist.

My research involves measuring racism-related social determinants of health. Broadly, my work aims to unpack the relationships between racism, neighborhoods, and health. Specifically, I’m interested in:

1) how neighborhoods come to be;

2) how people come to live in certain neighborhoods;

3) how institutional policies and practices influence health opportunities and risks in neighborhoods;

4) how racism is implicated in all these processes.

My dissertation research examines the relationships between gentrification, residential mobility, and preterm birth in the context of racial resegregation in Northern California.

What’s the story behind why you’re doing what you’re doing?

This is a great question! There are many stories that have influenced my path to studying spatial inequality and health, and they all revolve around the places I’ve lived. I’m originally from Harlem, in New York City. I moved to Chapel Hill, N.C., for college; then to Washington, D.C., for graduate school; then to Los Angeles for work. In all these places, spatial inequality was so obvious. While driving from one part of the city to another, you could see which neighborhoods had trees, sidewalks, hospitals, grocery stores, public transportation, and other necessities for community well-being, and which did not.

In the cities where I’ve lived, those neighborhood resources almost always mapped onto racial categories. This led me to be interested in understanding segregation and health. But digging deeper and more historically, I came to understand that these neighborhoods didn’t always look the way they do and probably won’t look the same going into the future. So I started asking questions about how changing spatial arrangements were related to health.

Coming into grad school I was interested in chronic disease, such as hypertension, but after experiencing my own pregnancy complications (which you can read about here), I shifted gears and began focusing on the relationship between racialized spatial inequality and pregnancy outcomes.

Tell us about a project you are currently working on that you are excited about.

Other than my dissertation research, I’m currently working on an exciting systematic review of the literature documenting the relationship between redlining and health. There has been a surge in public health research seeking to understand how racist policies—both historical and contemporary—shape health and health inequalities. This review paper is exciting because scholars have used historical redlining maps and the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act database in diverse ways to help shine light on the health implications of institutional racism.

For people unfamiliar with your research area, what is one piece of information you think is important for them to know?

I was in a meeting a few weeks ago and one attendee, when asked about housing needs among Black pregnant women, said, “Black people, we make a way … .” That stuck with me because it’s a reminder that people are resilient. When we don’t take into consideration how folks have survived and even thrived against great odds, we do our communities a disservice. So, even in the context of structural inequality, it’s important to understand how people have worked to “make a way” within a fundamentally unequal system and to change the system itself.

Who is a researcher you admire and why?

This may sound a bit cliché, but my 18-month-old daughter is a fantastic researcher. Because everything is so new to her, she loves to explore. She will pick up a pencil, for example, and try to learn everything about what a pencil is and what it can do. For seasoned pencil users, we only see it as a writing utensil. But, for her, it’s a sword (her favorite phrase is “En garde!”), a drumstick, a screwdriver, a key, and anything else she can imagine. I admire her open-mindedness, her capacity to learn new information, and her ability to adapt when she forgets that a knee is, in fact, a knee and not an elbow.

How has being a Health Policy Research Scholar helped you during your time as a doctoral candidate?

The interdisciplinary nature of the HPRS program guided me toward applying theories and methods found in disciplines outside of public health. For example, it was because of HPRS that I began engaging with critical geography theory that linked gentrification to broader processes of regional inequality. Additionally, my collaboration with the sociologists across HPRS cohorts encouraged me to take an intensive qualitative methods course. This course on comparative historical methods fundamentally changed how I approached my dissertation research. I also cannot overstate the importance of time. Participating in HPRS has given me dedicated time to read, think, and write.

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?

Doing this work while living in California has really shown me that the housing industry needs a total revamp. This will take more than just one policy, but what I’d like to work toward are policy initiatives that comprehensively fund housing systems (community land trusts, social housing, co-ops, etc.) that are removed from market profits.

OK, here’s a fun question to wrap things up. If you could visit any place in the world, where would you choose to go and why?

This is an interesting question considering how restricted our travels have been since COVID-19! I have always wanted to go to Montserrat. It’s a small Caribbean island close to Antigua. Montserrat is most well-known for the Soufrière Hills volcano eruption in 1995 that left much of the southern part of the island uninhabitable. My paternal grandmother, who died before I was born, was from Montserrat. I would love to spend some extended time there getting to know more about our history.

Thank you so much for your time!

Thank you for having me!

Rebekah’s bio