Joining Scholarship and Action on Behalf of Black Mothers and Daughters

A profile of Janice Johnson Dias, PhD, MA

    • December 26, 2010

The Problem. Your daughter has always struggled to manage her weight, and she needs to become physically active. Budget cuts have eliminated after-school physical activities—one of the first programs affected in low-income school districts. There's a public playground nearby, but you worry that unruly teenage boys, drug dealers and even gang members have claimed the space. Do you allow your daughter to play there?

This mother has reason for concern. Research shows that one-third of American children and adolescents—nearly 25 million young people—are overweight or obese. In the past 40 years, the obesity rate for children ages 6 to 11 jumped from 4 percent to 19 percent, and the rate for adolescents ages 12 to 19 jumped from 5 percent to 17 percent.

People living in low-income neighborhoods find it especially difficult to become active. Studies find that people are less willing to walk in their neighborhoods when they have to deal with traffic congestion, noise and the threat of violence. People living in low-income areas also have less access to sports facilities, parks, green spaces, bike paths and other places where they can be physically active. In addition, children from low-income and minority communities have less and lower-quality physical education at school.

RWJF Approach. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) is committed to reversing the childhood obesity epidemic by 2015 and has established several programs to achieve that goal. Active Living Research: Building the Evidence to Prevent Childhood Obesity and Support Active Communities contributes to the prevention of childhood obesity by supporting research to examine how environmental policies influence active living for children and their families. The program gives special attention to research affecting low-income and high-risk racial/ethnic communities. (See Program Results for additional details.)

An Unusual Path to a College Degree. At age 12, Janice Johnson Dias left her home in Jamaica, where she lived with her grandmother and aunt, to live in Boston with her mother, but she retained her interest in politics, especially the volatile political landscape of Jamaica. "I wanted to be the ruler of my own third-world country," she says. Her plan was to attend George Washington University in Washington. But when her mother fell ill, her dreams changed. She stayed in Boston to care for her mom.

Johnson Dias knew that serving in the armed forces would provide funds for her to obtain a college degree. So, she enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserves and attended basic training in Ft. Jackson, S.C. In 1990, during the First Gulf War, her unit was alerted but wasn't sent to fight. "The war didn't last long enough," she says.

Johnson Dias' military career ended two years later when a severe ear infection led to health complications and an early medical discharge. She was not eligible for education benefits, but her close-knit family found a way. She enrolled at Brandeis University, with the tuition paid by "familial sacrifice," she says. Johnson Dias graduated with a bachelor's degree in sociology in 1994.

A Pivotal Moment in Shaping a Career. Johnson Dias entered graduate school at Temple University in North Philadelphia. One day, in the midst of study, she looked out of her department window at the low-income housing project across the street. She recalls being struck that "scholarship is divorced from action," and decided to do something to unite these fields.

That insight marked the beginning of a lifelong journey to improve the lives of impoverished mothers and children. After a few years, Johnson Dias returned to Temple University to obtain a Ph.D. in sociology, with a specialization in urban and political sociology.

A Commitment to Poor Families. After finishing graduate school in 1998, Johnson Dias joined the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University. There she worked as a national site manager for CASAWORKS for Families, a national demonstration program aimed at helping mothers on welfare overcome addiction, find jobs and become independent of welfare. This experience helped her integrate her analytic skills with her commitment to helping people.

"I saw myself as a person who used her knowledge of social structures and research to help community organizations better serve mothers who were trying to improve their lives," she says. Working with agencies in low-income neighborhoods from the Bronx, N.Y., to Compton, Calif., and others in between, Johnson Dias became a staunch advocate of making sure that programs and agencies gave women and their families the best. "I was deeply involved in how these organizations structured their programs and addressed the needs of mothers and children," she says.

Making the Connection with RWJF. Johnson Dias applied for an Active Living Research grant after attending a symposium sponsored by RWJF's national program New Connections: Increasing Diversity of RWJF Programming. New Connections aims to expand the diversity of perspectives that informs RWJF programming and to introduce researchers and scholars to the Foundation and one another.

Through her prior education and work, Johnson Dias understood the value of blending Active Living Research's emphasis on low-income communities with New Connections interest in engaging researchers with diverse backgrounds and perspectives. She seized the opportunity to contribute and to learn from other researchers.

Johnson Dias has a personal stake in the issue of obesity as well. "My family is filled with big people, and many of them suffer from weight-related problems such as immobility in their legs," she says. "My mother was very much overweight."

The Project. In January 2009, Johnson Dias received an Active Living Research grant for her study "Gauging low-income urban African-American mothers' perceptions of neighborhood safety and its relationship to daughters' physical activity." She interviewed 40 low-income Black mothers with daughters ages 9 to 12. Most families lived in the Georgia King Village public housing project in the West Ward in Newark, N.J.

Through the findings of this study, Johnson wants to offer policy-makers and program managers a better understanding of the factors that lead to obesity and inactivity in low-income Black families. The interviewers ask mothers about their perceptions of their neighborhood's safety and how that perception influences their daughters' physical activity. Johnson also asks mothers for recommendations on how to make their neighborhoods safer for their daughters' outdoor play. She says, "I wanted to provide a richer, more nuanced story of Black children's physical inactivity."

Findings. Johnson Dias finished collecting data for her study in June 2010. She notes, "Physical activity and outdoor play for their daughters is of little importance to mothers who perceive their neighborhoods as unsafe." The mothers gave three general reasons why they do not want their daughters to play outside:

  • The neighborhood is just not safe.
  • The violence is unpredictable.
  • Neighbors are a part of the problem.

Johnson Dias also found that mothers who wanted their daughters to play outdoors often traveled away from the neighborhood to find safer play spaces. One mother explained, "I take her to a family's house or something like that, but I don't let her play in the playground at Georgia King Village." For many of these mothers, restricting outdoor play at Georgia King Village was a matter of their daughters' survival—and a higher priority than their physical activity needs.

Random violence, which included gang-related crime and drive-by shootings, was another factor mothers cited. "You don't know when you walk out your door who is in the hallway or what to expect when you are leaving out your door," one mother observed. According to Johnson Dias, the presence of poverty, racism and crime is a daily disaster in these neighborhoods. "Public safety here is a heath issue," she says. "You can't keep your child physically active if you are concerned your child might die."

Distrust of neighbors, even those with whom they have coexisted for long periods, further inhibited mothers from allowing their daughters to use the playground. "I think the 'new racism' looks dramatically different from the 'old racism,' where the perpetrators of racism were predominately Whites," says Johnson Dias. "Now I argue that…we Blacks, like many Whites, distrust each other, see each other as inferior, and think ill of each other. This outlook of our community members has consequences for our health."

Recommendations. Mothers offered ideas about how to address the problem of their daughters' safety and physical inactivity. While social scientists recognize the value of trust in promoting good health, for mothers of this community trust cannot occur until fear is eliminated. Mothers wanted more protection, more security and more supervised and indoor physical activities. Some noted their childhood memories of the "Old South," where they did not live in apartments and their houses had backyards. Most agreed, however, that an increased police presence was paramount "to get these drug dealers and these gang bangers off the street," as one mother said.

Johnson Dias has already started connecting her scholarship with action. Using findings from her study, she is working with a council member representing the West Ward managers and residents of Georgia King Village to implement community policing in the neighborhood. Johnson Dias plans to study the impact that community policing will have on physical activity in the neighborhood.

As she has since the moment she looked out from the sociology department window at Temple University to the low-income housing project, Johnson Dias continues to adhere to her commitment: "Newark is a community ripe for transformation," she says. "As new partners come to the table, we can indeed use scholarship to create change."

Next Steps—Expanding Her Horizons. Johnson Dias continues to explore factors influencing the health of Black women. In March 2010, she received a grant from RWJF (ID# 067477) to examine strategies to solve problems of obesity and mental and sexual health affecting young Black girls living on New York's Long Island. She also received a subsequent grant from the New Connections program to analyze factors influencing breast cancer among Black women under age 40.

Producing Publications to Connect Scholarship to Action. Johnson Dias gives high priority to publishing the results of her work. "Over the past decade I have worked with and recorded Black, low-income mothers' stories," she says. "And in my published work I have strived to make visible the complexities of their lives, as well as to rebuff myths that they are lazy, hedonistic, and bad mothers."

Johnson Dias has written articles published in the Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, Gender and Society and the American Journal of Community Psychology.

RWJF Perspective. RWJF's Board of Trustees authorized Active Living Research (ALR) in July 2000 and reauthorized it in October 2007. The program supports research to examine how physical and built environments and policies influence the amount of physical activity Americans get as part of everyday life. Findings are used to inform policies and influence decisions regarding the design of the built environment. ALR has increasingly focused on reversing the rise of childhood obesity, particularly in lower-income and racial/ethnic minority communities in which childhood obesity levels are highest.

Active Living Research teams are required to be transdisciplinary, involving investigators from multiple disciplines and backgrounds who work together across traditional disciplinary boundaries. ALR investigators represent more than 20 different disciplines (e.g., public health, urban planning, architecture, behavioral science, exercise science, transportation, sociology, political science).

"In addition to building an evidence base to guide physical activity policy and community design, Active Living Research is developing a vibrant, new transdisciplinary field and diverse network of researchers," says C. Tracy Orleans, Ph.D., RWJF distinguished fellow and senior scientist.

ALR has had a huge impact in terms of influence," says Celeste Torio, Ph.D., RWFJ program officer for Active Living Research. "The research is very innovative and something policy-makers can use. It's not something you just put on the shelf and forget about."