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Amazing Grace: Antronette Yancey

By Kristine Breese

Published Jul 1, 2006 12:00 AM


Copyright © Vern Evans


The 6-foot-2-inch Antronette (Toni) Yancey, 48, an associate professor in the UCLA School of Public Health, is a basketball player, a former European model, a poet and spoken word artist, an alumna (M.P.H. '91) and, not at all coincidentally, an expert on chronic disease prevention intervention.

Q. Is there anything you wouldn't do?

A. I will never bungee jump, hang glide or sky dive. The stupidest thing I ever did was to jump out of a second story window on a dare when I was 15. I broke my ankle in three places. I'd like to think I learned something from that … about gravity if nothing else.

Q. What's left that you haven't done?

A. I want to play one game in the WNBA ... and I want to be able to dunk a basketball. I can dunk a volleyball, but I've never dunked a basketball because I have small hands. I'd also like to be bilingual in Spanish and write a novel that's reviewed by The New York Times.

Q. What's the worst thing anyone's said about you?

A. That I got where I am because of affirmative action. It definitely opens doors, but then it's up to you to work twice as hard for the same reward.

Q. What's the nicest thing?

A. That I could "talk a hungry dog off a meat wagon."

Q. Your heroes are the ancient Egyptian physician, architect and poet Imhotep and Dr. Lester Breslow, your 91-year-old mentor and office mate at the School of Public Health. Why do they inspire you?

A. Imhotep excelled in so many disciplines. I named my publishing company after him because he was a jack-of-all-trades in all the trades I love. So often people think that they can only do one thing. This is especially true in medicine and science, where people think that if you work in those fields, you can't possibly be creative or artistic. But heck, Imhotep disproved that back in 2600 B.C., and I am proud to carry on that tradition. As for Dr. Breslow, he's often called the father of public health. He recognized that a day was going to come when we'd be living longer and that would bring its own health challenges, including learning how to prevent disease and live better. That's what excites me.

Q. But just because we know how to live better, it doesn't mean we're doing it, right?

A. Exactly. Did you realize that 41 percent of adults in L.A. County are completely sedentary, which means they get less than 10 minutes of exercise each week? Everyone has this image of people in L.A. as out jogging and Rollerblading on the beach, but the fact is that's a small slice of the population.

Q. To address that, you've started something called the Center to Eliminate Health Disparities.

A. Yes, I am one of the founding co-directors. You'll notice we didn't call it the Center to Study Health Disparities; we chose the word "eliminate" on purpose. The work we're doing is called "intervention research" because we're not just interested in what's happening and why — we intend to change it. With health disparities, we already know what many of the issues are. For poor and minority populations, there aren't always safe places to exercise in their neighborhoods. And when it comes to nutrition, there are often few healthy choices, little produce on the shelves, and more fast food restaurants than supermarkets.

Q. So, how do you get people to do the right thing?

A. We've got to get people moving, even if it is a little bit, because we all know that the hardest part of any new endeavor is starting. Have you ever been to a party that is mostly black or Latino? There's always music and always dancing. We have to harness that love of movement and put it to work for these people who need it most. I've created a 10-minute workout that can be done anywhere by anyone. And it's most fun with a big group. I think all our leaders should be wearing a pedometer, so they can really "walk the walk" as they say, and not just pontificate about it.

Q. You also suggest walking meetings. How does that work?

A. Why is it that we think a meeting has to be a bunch of people sitting around a table? Dr. Breslow started this here in our department (in the School of Public Health) and, if anything, I'd say we have more productive meetings when we walk, not less. And think about the food we serve at meetings: soda, doughnuts, pastries. We need to start offering water, fruit, salads. All these little things will add up.

Q. You've been a model, a doctor, a professor, a basketball player, a poet, musician and author. If you had to choose one, which would it be?

Heart and Mind

Sample cuts of Toni Yancey's poetry at toniyancey.com. Discover this Renaissance woman’s art on her CD, available at hoopdiva.com. And log on to the Center to Eliminate Health Disparities at www.ph.ucla.edu/cehd for information on how to get and stay healthy, including training opportunities for those interested in leading exercise breaks in meetings or classes, and to order the CD Fuel Up/Lift Off!.

A. Oh, don't make me choose. That was one of the great things about my parents. Not only did my parents not make me choose, they supported my wide and varied interests. In addition to sports and studies, I played the violin and was on the chess team, and that was just the early years before basketball, medicine and poetry. The same was true for my big brother. He's a businessman, minister, actor and singer in Fort Worth. The message we got from my folks growing up was 'you can do anything,' and when we took them up on the offer, they were there supporting us the whole way.

Q. OK, but I'm not your parents and I'm going to make you choose.

A. Well, alright. If I could do only one thing for the rest of my life, it would be to be a professor at UCLA. And I'm not just saying that so you and your readers will feel good. I say that because it lets me cheat just a little bit. Being a professor at UCLA allows me to do most everything I love.

Q. But no singing or poetry.

A. You'd be surprised.