When it was blueberry-picking time, young Dilsey Davis would join the migrant workers on her family's farm in Pender County, in southeastern North Carolina. One day, when she was fourteen, a worker developed heat stroke.
"It took an ambulance two hours to get there, and he died," recalls Davis. "That's when I decided I wanted to be a doctor."
As a pre-med at Duke, she majored in biological anthropology and anatomy while still finding the time to pursue her favorite pastimes, singing and acting. She even briefly considered becoming an actor.
But acting as a profession "felt like a selfish choice," Davis recalls. Now, with Neustro Barrio (Our Neighborhood), the telenovela mini-series Davis created, directs, and produces, she has found a way to blend her passions for helping people and entertaining them.
The series, which debuted in 2006, was developed as educational outreach for the Durham-based nonprofit Community Reinvestment Association of North Carolina, where Davis is media director. It uses the soap-opera format popular among Latinos to spread the word about such issues as fair housing, home ownership, and payday lending and personal finance.
Recorded in Spanish with English subtitles, the show has been praised by viewers and by agencies that serve the immigrant population. In its second season, slated to air in mid-2007, the series will tackle domestic violence, construction safety, and consumer scams, largely for the benefit of the immigrant population.
Davis, pictured above with actor Riza Salazar, isn't fluent in Spanish but has been studying it since the show started. With several ethnicities in her background, she identifies herself as African American. She jokes that when she studied Spanish last summer in Honduras, "I looked like everyone else for the first time."
This spring, the show will reach an even wider audience when it will be distributed by VME, the new Spanish-language service created by Thirteen/WNET, the PBS affiliate in New York. (Stations airing the show are listed at www.nuestrobarrio.tv/.)
Before Davis could reach this point in her career, she had to give herself permission not to become a doctor.
"I really struggled with not going into medicine," says Davis, who received a master's in public health from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "My 'aha' moment was when I did my first video in grad school." Melding her two interests, she produced Conquering the Fear, a video designed for patients and health practitioners about fighting breast and cervical cancer.
"My thing is to take something that has been designed to be educational but also needs some entertainment," she said. "We're competing with TV and movies."
When not busy with Neustro Barrio, Davis has focused on film and television work, both acting and directing. She worked for several years in the film industry in Wilmington, North Carolina, and recently took classes and worked in California and New York.
She knows that any time away from Hollywood is time away from mentors, contacts, and potential work. But at a fairly young age, she's also been able to do things in Durham she wouldn't have gotten a crack at in Los Angeles.
"I've produced a series. A lot of people starting out don't get the opportunity to do that," she says. "My fantasy setup is producing and acting in something I created, something that causes people to think, to connect."
She's also pleased with what she's created with Nuestro Barrio.
"I really feel like we're impacting lives," Davis says. "Ultimately, I realized I can help people here in the same manner I could have one on one."
Dilsey Davis '94
Merging Drama and Public Service
January 31, 2007