Alexis Dennis: Using Data for Change

Alexis Dennis Headshot

Alexis Dennis (UNC ’11) is committed to eliminating health disparities in communities. Her research on how geography has mattered in understanding COVID-19 mortality is the garnering attention from The Measure of Everyday Life, a podcast devoted to featuring researchers, practitioners, and professionals working to “improve the human condition.”

Alexis shared why this work is so important, “I am committed to this work because it makes me angry that the color of someone’s skin, the socioeconomic resources they have or don’t have, and the zip code that they are born into drastically shapes how long they will live and the quality of their life. It’s not right that the structures and institutions in our society make some people more likely to get sick than others.  These issues of fairness, justice, and health and wellbeing are what keeps me motivated to work in this space, and I’ve remained motivated as I’ve watched racial, socioeconomic, and gender health inequalities play out in my own family and among the networks of people whom I care about.”

As a Robertson Scholar, Alexis spent her Community Summer working in the Mississippi Delta with the Sunflower County Freedom Project, and observed first hand the stark health inequalities disproportionately impacting the low resourced African American youth. “That summer experience was the catalyst for the rest of my career. As a UNC undergraduate I started an annual Alternative Spring Break trip to teach sex ed to my former students in the Delta. From there I worked on equitable Affordable Care Act implementation in California, and pursued research training in Behavioral Health and Social Science. Altogether, I’ve been thinking about and studying, racial, socioeconomic, and gender disparities in health in domestic and global settings for the last decade.”

Now she’s a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, using her skills in research and creative problem solving to transform complex systems. “To me, being a transformational leader means having a clear set of values, making sure that your actions align with those values, and using your voice and power to improve the circumstances of others – even when it is hard to do so. Having integrity, lifting others up, being thoughtful and strategic, and building coalitions to work towards a common goal are key.”

It’s a style of leadership that doesn’t require a formal title, “I also think it’s important to remember that you don’t have to be the official CEO, President, ‘big wig in charge,’ or have a fancy title to influence change for good. There are always ways to lead within your sphere of influence, however ‘small’ by remembering that your voice matters. Sometimes just asking the right questions, like, ‘Why are we doing things in this way?  Is there a way we can do this more equitably?’ can open up the doors to change things for the better.”