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A Broken Heart. A Journey Pivoted.

“Public Health broke my heart.” I hopelessly expressed to my doctoral advisor of four years. My reflection on my computer screen during this week’s Zoom session exposed floodgates of tears streaming down my face. My West Indian community in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York was dying.

I stared back at my reflection wondering if my declaration conveyed the profound feelings of uselessness I felt as a Public Health Research Scientist who was unable to save the community that raised me as a daughter of immigrants from St. Martin and Guyana that still resided in the low-income neighborhood that her family immigrated to.

I wondered if my tears conveyed my disappointment in public health officials who on news channels presented data that confirmed that COVID-19 outreach efforts and interventions have indeed reached the underserved and low-income communities in New York City (NYC) while the streets told a different narrative. With daily anticipation, I’d hoped to see my fellow public advocates on the streets of 11225 but instead, I drove past COVID-19 resources being streamlined to Park Slope, one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Leaving myself and most of the working-class population with less than adequate resources.

*Ping!*… Yet another WhatsApp notification of a funeral announcement from one of my family members. Shoot, my father almost passed too. I put my phone on mute. I wondered if my advisor knew how it felt to consume daily emails from New York University (NYU) Langone about COVID-19 death statistics when WhatsApp provided an underground railroad of death statistics that wasn’t present in the media or in their data tabulations.

What is life? I thought as I closed my laptop computer screen. Nothing made sense.

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Tabitha Julien and I am a 4th-year Epidemiology doctoral student at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine (NYU GSOM) within the Department of Population Health. As a daughter of immigrants from the West Indies, my passion for epidemiology and the prevention of the spread of disease in low-income communities had sustained me enough to aim to complete a terminal degree with a dissertation proposal that assessed the effects of the federal Smoke-Free Policy on the reduction of respiratory-related hospitalizations among New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) residents – with a March 30th, 2020 proposal defense date. However, my passion for public health didn’t anticipate the grief that I would experience as a Black woman whose career motivation was to be of service to her community, but unable to do so at a time when it was needed the most. I needed to be on the front lines, not behind a computer screen crunching numbers.

A Broken Heart

Neighborhood-based research has been a keen interest of mine as I realized at an early age that place matters. Not only for health and well-being but the opportunity to dream big and the exposure to what life has to offer. In 3rd grade, my parents made the life-altering decision to move out of our 1-bedroom apartment in Crown Heights, where my aunt and family of 5 resided, to Long Island. It was because of that move that I was exposed to public schools that had a larger budget than those in Brooklyn that provided science enrichment programs. Learning about tadpoles that turn into frogs and cumulus clouds, was then that I fell in love with science, hard. In my mind, I was the young Black Ms. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus in the

making. It was that enrichment program that ultimately led me to begin my research career in the summer of 10th grade through The Harlem Children’s Society. By the time I graduated high school, I completed two summer internships at Columbia University and NYU. Science became my home.

Although I began my research experience within laboratory science, I developed a love for neighborhood-level based research and joined the State University of New York (SUNY) Albany School of Public Health as an Epidemiology major to complete my Masters in Public Health. I fell in love with presenting health data on a map and identifying the neighborhoods that experience health disparities and employing the resources to reduce them. Specifically, while working at the NYC Department

of Health and Mental Hygiene post-graduation, using ArcGIS (Geographic Information System), I was able to determine the neighborhood-level characteristics that were associated with increased pneumonia-associated hospitalizations. It was through this project that I began to fully understand how communities are developed through city planning and how disease spreads. I was becoming the Black Ms. Frizzle.

Up until this point in my career, my passion for my community and understanding what risk factors led to detrimental health conditions had led me to NYU GSOM to finish the process of becoming the Black Ms. Frizzle. 2020 proved to somewhat challenge that vision. Not only did I observe the lack of interventions in my neighborhood, but I was no longer able to pursue the dissertation proposal I developed within the past year.

A Journey Pivoted

“Eviction? Because I called 311 to request housing repairs for lead paint exposure, brown water, cracked ceilings, and lack of heat in my family-owned rent-stabilized apartment!? The landlord hasn’t done any repairs in 20 years!”

I fell on my couch defeatedly on November 18, 2021. Tears streamed down my eyes as I knew this Supreme Court eviction case would further delay the progress of my doctoral journey. It felt as if the heartbreak of losing my aunt, who resided in these poor housing conditions for 30+ years up until her death, came over me 10 times harder. If only I had completed my master's at least 5 years prior to her passing, maybe I would have been able to prevent her death by advocating for better living conditions. After all, my degrees were supposed to help people – especially my family. (Read E4: A Story of Caribbean Immigrants, Poor Housing Conditions, and Eviction)

“God, what am I to do now? I can barely afford rent as a student much less a lawyer to defend me.”

I didn’t receive an answer that day. And I wouldn’t receive an answer until about 4 months into court dates through a conversation with my sister in the spring of 2022.

“Tabitha, if your apartment had lead paint and brown water, then the apartments of the other rent-stabilized tenants have the same too. Her neighbors need help. Your neighbors need help.”

And she was right.

In the summer of 2022, I created a reels docu-series on Instagram detailing the poor living conditions of my family rent-stabilized apartment with the goal of gaining the attention of city officials to assist the larger Caribbean tenant population within my building. And it worked. By the fall of 2022, I created a Tenant’s Association (TA) within my building through the guidance of Equality for Flatbush (E4F), Senator Zellnor Myrie’s Office, and Council Member Crystal Hudson. As a community, the tenants met bi-weekly where I began to educate them on the health effects of lead paint exposure, not only for children but for adults as well. A needs assessment of 60+ units was conducted through door-knocking efforts and we were able to identify the

following disparities:

  1. Compared to non-minority tenants, Black and Caribbean tenants experienced worse housing conditions that included cracked walls, dim lighting, brown water, and delays/refusal from management to complete repairs.

  2. Most apartments that had cracked walls/ceilings also had evidence of mold.

  3. Lack of heat and hot water was the most common complaint regardless of race and length of tenancy.

Finally, I was able to use my public health knowledge for community impact. We soon realized that the elderly Caribbean tenants seemed to be the most vulnerable and unsupported as the landlord refused to conduct any repairs in their apartment while still demanding rent payments. And so as a TA, we got to work!

On November 1st, 2022 we conducted a “311 Lead Report Day” campaign where all of the tenants contacted 311 to request lead paint testing, and report brown water, cracked walls/ceilings, mold, and pests. To date, lead poison was found in at least 7 apartments including my own. As TA we will be taking our landlord to court in 2023 for the refusal to complete necessary repairs and lead abatement.

One night after drafting a demand letter to my landlord, I realized that all the tenants needed was community. A space to feel seen, supported, and understood. The small blessings of notifying each other that there was a package from Amazon in the lobby through our WhatsApp group fostered feelings of unity and care.

The Untold Stories

I sat and reflected on the personal statement I submitted to attend NYU GSOM. In that same personal statement, I wrote about a phrase my father has repeated to me my entire life, “A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor.” It was almost as if the personal statement foretold this life-changing pivot in my career. The journey pivoted wasn’t a pivot after all when I gave my career a panoramic view. I realized my local community has been my inspiration and has always ignited my passions. It was my local community that brought out the innate gift of advocacy in me.

Now, at the last phase in my academic career, the Black Ms. Frizzle won’t be behind a screen presenting data. This version belongs in the community and on the streets with a loud voice and the untold stories others shy away from sharing. She’s here to shake the table and bring change. To tell the stories that health statistics can’t and refuse to reveal. The stories that truly matter. She’s ready for impact.

In 2022 I finally became the Black Ms. Frizzle. And she’s so much better than the original. 😏


Tabitha Esther

The Queen from Crown Heights 👑

Note from Author: This piece was originally drafted on November 14, 2020, at the peak of the pandemic, and finalized in 2022.


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