Dinzey, Zaire

Assistant Professor
My Story: 
In hindsight I can find indicators that would determine that I would do research on urban communities and the environment. When I was very young I thought I wanted to be an architect. I had a close connection to buildings because my father was a civil engineer. I always say I grew up with the smell of cement because my father would take my siblings and me to construction sites. I didn't grow up seeing examples of people who did research as a profession. 

Sociologists have been characterized as "professional peeping toms" and I've always been intensely interested in people and how they relate to each other and society. In the schoolyard I would sometimes sit by myself, not because I was shy, but just to observe and contemplate the things I saw around me. I have a young daughter and she's also interested in people. People are like candy to her. I don't think it's determined from birth but I wonder if she will end up similar to me. I see buildings as a product of peoples' relationships. So I didn't know for a long time that this is an aspect of sociology but I realize now that at a young age I started displaying a "sociological imagination." 

My parents were a tremendous influence on me because they have always been dedicated to promoting justice. They wanted their children to be honorable, and just, as well. My parents emigrated from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico. Race has always been a big part of my life. As a Black Latina and a daughter of Dominican immigrants in Puerto Rico, my father a descendant of West Indians, we're many generations of immigrants of African descent. So we've always had to persevere and push the beyond the boundaries that those before us broke. We stuck out among the elite of the city and we were always aware that we had to work extra hard to achieve and prove ourselves. My father felt strongly about civil rights in the United States. In high school I read books he had on the shelf by Eldridge Cleaver and Malcolm X. Through these books, my life and context, I was exposed to the issue of inequality, particularly racial inequality. So that factored in to my drive to understand people and society. 

My family also emphasized education. I went to an American school in Puerto Rico and it was always expected in this school that the students would go to college. I ended up going to Harvard but I had no idea what to expect. I didn't know how to do my college experience but I think that allowed me the opportunity to sample and explore different things. I was an undecided major for most of my college career, but when I took Sociology courses I saw that it would offer me flexibility so that I could explore my interests, while always working on issues pertaining to society. I didn't know at first what it meant to be a sociologist and neither did anyone in my family, even though we had at times discussed things from a sociological point of view. 

When I did an undergraduate thesis, I fell in love with research and discovery. I love asking questions and making hypotheses. Research gave me the opportunity to ask things like "Does that building look like that because somebody likes it? Who likes it? Who or what determines how and where this will be built? What are its effects on people and communities?"

After college I wanted to go into the real world even though I still didn't know what career I wanted to pursue. I did what came right at the moment. I knew I wanted to be in New York City so I took a job at the non-profit Urban Justice Center in NYC as a homelessness prevention advocate. For a year I helped homeless adults secure benefits they were entitled to. Then I decided to do a PhD in Sociology. I wanted to have a level of expertise to deal with problems that were happening on the ground. I thought a PhD would give me the credibility and tools to intervene. I went to Stanford, again not knowing anything about it besides the fact that it was in California. It turned out that it was not a good fit and I left after a year and a half. 

I came back to New York and worked at another non-profit, this time with immigrants who were involved in deportation proceedings. I helped make sure they had access to services they needed. After a year I went to the University of Michigan, this time knowing better what I needed from a PhD program. The diversity of Michigan was richer than I had found previously. It changed the tone of my experience, which I was grateful for, because issues of inequality have been front and center in my life, especially issues of race and understanding social outcomes. I pursued a joint PhD in Sociology and Public Policy and a Masters in Urban Planning. My degrees have married what I am most interested in: buildings and people. At Michigan I was able to move about and push boundaries. I explored the Latin American and Caribbean Center and was able to meet people from History and American Studies departments which helped me grow intellectually. My education and career have mostly been based on a process of figuring out what I want to do in the moment. I met people who have been great and given advice but it was still difficult for me to navigate, so I have experienced a lot through trial and error.

There have been many bumps in getting to where I am today. I was once told by a professor that this was not the career for me. She said that this was what she would tell her child if she saw their interests would not work out. At first, I thought what she was saying was coming from a place of caring so I took it as truth. Now I know she was wrong. Still, it took me some years to recover from that and believe the contrary. I wonder if she knows that I did exactly what she said I couldn't do.

Even now I get questioned because I don't look or sound like the traditional professor or scholar. Being a woman of color in the academy, I am confronted with questions about my qualifications repeatedly and that has physical and emotional effects. Having to prove myself can happen in small ways. Last year I parked in a faculty space and another female faculty member challenged me, asking "Are you supposed park here? You're not supposed to park here". She believed I was a student and kept questioning me. Those little challenges begin to take a toll when they become common. On the other hand, there is satisfaction in disproving these stereotypes. If my goal is to promote justice, I think scholarship has helped me uncover these inequalities. 

I was hired by Rutgers when I was finishing my dissertation. At the time, the Latino and Hispanic Caribbean Studies department was rebuilding in New Brunswick and I was encouraged by a professor from Newark to explore the possibilities in New Brunswick. I have a geographic limitation because of my partner who works in New York City, so Rutgers was also convenient. I took a Post-Doc for two years before going to Rutgers. At first it was hard teaching courses, getting to know people, and figuring it all out, especially with a young child. By my third year I am discovering the jewels that Rutgers has to offer. One thing that has made my experience here so great is the Junior Women of Color Faculty Group that Robyn Rodriguez and I started. We run workshops throughout the year which has formed an important, supportive community and helped all aspects of our jobs from teaching to the experiences of life on the tenure track. I also have great colleagues in Latino and Hispanic Caribbean Studies and in Sociology who are very supportive. I'm not at the point where I can say all the pieces are in place because I am still transitioning. There's less exploring in a job than there was school. I think I'm still in the "tween" years of my Rutgers experience and I'm hoping to make it smoothly to my teens.

Currently I'm working on a book, and once it is complete it is something that I will always be proud of. I come from a background where people work hard-- usually in manual labor-- and I'm privileged to have a life of the mind. I feel fortunate to have the time and resources to do the work I love and that I have made it this far.

Transcribed from an interview and edited by Lauren Miller