The Case for Community Engagement

By Jay A. Perman, MD
President, University of Maryland, Baltimore

permanTo commemorate the 30th anniversary of The Faculty Voice, I was asked to look back on the last three decades of our work at the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) and to look ahead to what’s next.

Certainly, UMB has grown significantly since 1986. Our campus, then comprising 37 acres on Baltimore’s Westside, now spans 68 buildings over 71 urban acres. Our research activity, then totaling $35 million, is now a $500 million enterprise. Our enrollment has grown by nearly 2,000 students and now numbers 6,500.

And yet much of what defines UMB is the relative stability of our mission. UMB trains Maryland’s front-line providers, those engaging in our communities to solve problems of human health, well-being, and social justice. The number of words in our mission statement has shrunk over the years, but the intent endures: to improve the human condition and serve the public good.

If our work has remained rather constant over these last 30 years, the communities where we do that work have not. Of course, our students and faculty serve communities across Maryland and around the globe, providing care and counsel to those in need. But we are rooted in Baltimore, and most of our clinical and service activities benefit the people who live close enough to access them.

And, yes, these nearby neighborhoods have changed dramatically. Maybe 30 years isn’t enough to show the deterioration. Maybe 50 would do it. But decades of abhorrent laws and policies promoting segregation—and then mandating or encouraging disinvestment in black neighborhoods—have taken a grave toll on West Baltimore, which in the middle of the last century, was vibrant, artistic, entrepreneurial, stable, and safe. No longer.

West Baltimore sits next to UMB’s campus, and yet for years the university and community were effectively separated from one another by Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, eight lanes snaking up the west side of Downtown and dividing the city in two: wealth on one side, want on the other; opportunity on one side, isolation on the other. Nearly two years ago, the national spotlight shone on West Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray. The cameras that descended on our city laid bare the pain of its people.

The violence that erupted in Baltimore occurred largely on either end of the city, where the neighborhoods are anchored by Johns Hopkins Medicine to the east and UMB to the west. And perhaps what was most surprising to many who watched the strife play out was that Baltimore’s citizens could endure such acute poverty and desolation in the shadows of these two powerful institutions.

The proximity of poor neighborhoods to prominent universities isn’t unusual in urban America. And it confounds many who wonder why the resources, influence, and expertise abundant in our universities can’t be more effectively leveraged to lift up the communities around them.

After all, many urban universities have decamped the ivory tower for the city streets, engaging with their neighbors to address their communities’ most urgent problems of poor health, economic instability, and structural injustice.

For a university like UMB—comprising six professional schools in health, law, and social work and an interdisciplinary graduate school—direct service to our community is how we operationalize our mission: how we train our students, how we conduct our research, how we deliver clinical care. Every day, our students and faculty are in neighborhoods, homes, hospitals, schools, clinics, and courtrooms, one-on-one with the people they serve.

But since the unrest in the spring of 2015, many of the city’s anchor institutions—those of us rooted in our communities by mission and invested capital—have had to look more broadly at how we use our assets to accelerate and expand efforts to close the chasm between what we now call “the two Baltimores.”

For instance, Johns Hopkins, Maryland’s largest private employer, recently rolled out an expansive plan to hire more workers from within the city’s most distressed communities, to increase purchasing from Baltimore-based businesses, and to work with suppliers that hire, procure, and invest locally. UMB has joined with the University of Maryland Medical Center to establish our own local hiring and purchasing goals; to link up our work with students in neighborhood schools; to develop integrated violence prevention programming so that we might stop the bleeding, so that we might shrink the devastating number of children and teenagers killed each year on the streets and playgrounds of West Baltimore.

This kind of institutional action is vitally important to stabilizing and strengthening vulnerable communities. But reaching ambitious education and economic inclusion goals isn’t easy. Seemingly straightforward policies like local buying and local hiring belie the huge amount of work it takes to implement them.

For instance, like most universities, UMB’s annual catering spend is significant. And yet, for years, just .01 percent of that catering budget went to local food vendors. So UMB began training small local restaurants, markets, and merchants, historically shut out of the procurement pipeline, to compete for our catering dollars—helping them secure the equipment and systems they need to be counted among eligible vendors and connecting them with university customers. This might mean helping small businesses establish an Internet presence, or equipping them with credit card readers, or hosting on-campus food fairs so they can promote their products.

Local hiring involves similarly intensive effort. Every week, our human resources department sets up shop in our Community Engagement Center in West Baltimore, helping neighbors with résumés, applications, and interviews; connecting neighbors with job training or GED prep or certification courses. We guarantee that any neighbor who works with our staff and qualifies for a UMB job will at least get an interview with us. But job readiness often begins long before job training. And so for every neighbor we’ve hired at UMB or placed in an educational or training program, we have at least two who come to us with such significant barriers to employment that we know a stable job is years away.

We have social workers in neighborhood schools, working with parents to dismantle these barriers derailing the job search—no reliable transportation or child care, chronic illness, a criminal record in need of expungement, substance abuse and addiction. UMB develops afterschool and mentoring programs that immerse students in high-opportunity fields like the health sciences so that we might ultimately pave the rocky and encumbered path from the local elementary school to one of Baltimore’s top-tier universities—so often within sight but a world away.

There has grown across this country an urgency to act swiftly in the face of inequity and injustice, to fix the systems that have all but guaranteed poverty and hopelessness in certain sections of our cities. Without question, the people of Baltimore—and every other community divided by unequal investment and opportunity—deserve our immediate and measurable action.

However, in our haste to help, we must remember that conscientious anchor institutions are able to make change in their communities precisely because they’ve been doing so deliberately, in full partnership with the neighbors they serve. They’re doing the hard work of relationship-building in communities that are—with good reason—slow to trust and slow to heal. This kind of work doesn’t typically yield quick results, but it can yield sustainable ones.

The real difficulty is in marrying the two. To effect both brisk and tenable change, anchor institutions can’t go it alone. Nor can governments, nonprofits, philanthropies, businesses, or the communities themselves. We must convene a broad coalition of organizations and agencies with an interest in improving Baltimore’s most blighted neighborhoods. We must draw up shared and specific goals, sign onto each other’s priorities, and support those priorities with people, money, and advocacy. The coalition must have outcomes each year that it’s accountable to meeting and be able to show each sector’s contributions toward them.

Meaningful change will happen in our cities only if we can agree on what that change should look like and move toward it together.

A 30-year Johns Hopkins study tracking several hundred Baltimore first-graders found that children who are born into poverty will very likely stay there as adults. Freddie Gray was born into poverty 27 years ago, into one of Baltimore’s most challenged neighborhoods; 21 months ago, that’s exactly where he died. And so it is on all of us in Baltimore to unite around one goal: that every child growing up today in Freddie Gray’s Baltimore has the advantages he did not, that they have ample opportunity to climb out of poverty and live the lives they deserve.

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