Keandra Davis: A Guiding Force for Racial Equity in Housing
Wilder School Ph.D. student bridges the gap between academia and community, amplifying marginalized voices in the process
By Tiffany Murray-Robertson
Drawing on the fortitude instilled by her adoptive mother's ceaseless dedication, Keandra Davis, a doctoral student at the Wilder School's public policy and administration program, is leveraging her lived experience and academic insights to enact change in urban policy. Growing up in the heart of Miami's Liberty City, Davis witnessed pronounced housing inequities firsthand, kindling a deep-seated resolve that now propels her academic and professional journey. Her single mother's selflessness, evidenced by the sacrifices necessary to send Davis and her four siblings to parochial school amid significant financial hardship, has played a pivotal role in shaping this determination.
From the Magic City to Momentous Research
“Even as a child, I was acutely aware of the stark disparity between the affluence of neighborhoods like South Beach and the general tenor of depletion of neighborhoods like ours. I suppose that was the beginning of my why,” Davis reflects with a smile. Her mother's commitment to her family and her long-standing federal government career subtly underpins this 'why': “I am here to change the narrative for my family, friends, and everyone in similar circumstances.”
Guided by a B.A. in African American Studies from the University of Florida and a Master's in Public Administration from Florida State University, Davis approaches her research from a distinctly interdisciplinary perspective. "My degree in African American Studies shaped my academic orientation, allowing me to critically analyze the experiences of marginalized communities," she explains. Her educational background has equipped her with the tools to confront systemic barriers and racial disparities that persistently affect these communities.
Davis's doctoral research is unique in its focus on the implications of housing displacement, environmental hazards, and emergency management, particularly in Miami's public housing sector. She seeks to understand the relocation patterns of displaced individuals, often finding them in remote, flood-prone areas of Miami that are susceptible to natural disasters. This unique intersection of housing and environmental issues forms the crux of her work, a subject she argues is underrepresented in the existing literature.
“Even as a child, I was acutely aware of the stark disparity between the affluence of neighborhoods like South Beach and the general tenor of depletion of neighborhoods like ours. I suppose that was the beginning of my ‘why.’ I am here to change the narrative for my family, friends, and everyone in similar circumstances.”
"Much of the existing research on this topic is retrospective, concentrating on response and recovery post-disaster. I'm interested in shifting that focus towards preparedness," Davis said.
Davis is critical of Miami's current flood mitigation plan, which she says pays disproportionate attention to coastal areas, often inhabited by wealthier residents, while overlooking the needs of lower-income, displaced individuals living in flood-prone areas.
"We are aware that these regions, marked by floodplains, are inherently vulnerable. Add to that the vast population of displaced individuals now residing in these areas - it begs the question, how are we addressing their emergency preparedness?" Davis asks, highlighting the urgency of her work.
Combining vulnerability theory, critical race theory, and the social construction of target groups, Davis’ research explores how socioeconomic status and race factor into the current strategies of local governments in addressing these issues. This layered analytical approach sets her research apart, offering a fresh perspective on the intersection of housing equity and environmental preparedness.
Her plans involve engaging directly with the displaced residents in door-to-door interviews, as she is keen to hear the experiences and perceptions of residents on governmental responses to flooding and displacement.
“Ultimately, my goal is to shed light on this issue and provide a platform for those directly affected by it," she said. "It's important to hear firsthand from the residents within these communities. Understanding their experiences with frequent flooding and their perception of governmental response is paramount."
Ambition, Advocacy, and Aspiration
Outside her academic pursuits, Davis is actively involved in various roles that allow her to effect change on a broader scale. Her fellowship with Virginia Housing, a prestigious two-year appointment, involves working to improve the state’s housing voucher program, while her former role as a research associate with the Research Institute for Social Equity (RISE) enabled her to explore wealth building for the minority entrepreneurship community in Richmond. As an affiliate faculty member in VCU's African American Studies Department in the College of Humanities and Sciences, Davis encourages students to contribute to systemic change, further honing her ability to influence and advise.
Davis’ ultimate ambition is to become the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. It is a dream role that she says would allow her to leverage her research, community engagement, and network to shape national housing policies that combat systemic disparities.
Davis' work consistently bridges academia, community, and policy, embodying the transformative potential of targeted, equity-focused research. Her comprehensive study of housing, natural disasters, and environmental issues amplifies marginalized voices, emphasizing proactive preparedness over post-disaster response while acknowledging often overlooked social complexities. Her contributions at RISE and Virginia Housing, coupled with her affiliate faculty role, also mirror her staunch advocacy for civic engagement.
She says it is this emphasis on practical application that ensures that her research resonates beyond theoretical significance to generate tangible impact.
"In conducting my research, I'm not only looking to make an academic contribution,” Davis says, reiterating the driving force behind her work.
“I'm hoping to inform policies, foster dialogue, and most importantly, give a voice to those directly impacted by these issues. It's not just about identifying problems, but actively working towards solutions that consider the diverse needs of these communities."