Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Area universities try to erase boundaries between them and ‘Freddie Gray’s Baltimore’

Elizabeth Nix, associate professor of legal, ethical and historical studies at the University of Baltimore, is part of the team that taught the “Divided Baltimore” class offered last fall and made open to the public. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Elizabeth Nix, associate professor of legal, ethical and historical studies at the University of Baltimore, is part of the team that taught the “Divided Baltimore” class offered last fall and made open to the public. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

The T-shirts, sporting the logo of a local bail bond business on the back, were initially printed last April to celebrate Opening Day at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. After Freddie Gray’s death and the ensuing unrest, however, “I Bleed Baltimore” gear became ubiquitous around West Baltimore and an unexpected symbol of the emotions his death unleashed.

Home team loyalty and civic pride in the front, unpleasant reality lingering in the back.

“This is truly a city of two solitudes,” Johns Hopkins University President Ronald Daniels said last week at a showcase for emerging nonprofits and socially-conscious business ventures.

One Baltimore is a city of material comfort, startup companies and “a resurgent and vibrant arts and culture scene,” he said.  The other is a city of despair and despondency, marked by food deserts, a lack of green space, broken school systems and “tragic lost capacity and opportunity,” Daniels said.

To live in Baltimore is to confront that paradox, he said.

In the year that has followed the death of Freddie Gray after he was critically injured in police custody, Baltimore’s higher education institutions have used the unrest as a starting point for academic exploration of racism, economic disparity and other systemic challenges facing the city.

They’ve also been using their positions as major employers and economic drivers in the region to help create new jobs, community resources and programs to help city youth.

Some of these efforts are new initiatives; some have been in the works since before the unrest. By trying to be more inclusive, universities are becoming more entrenched in their communities and erasing the boundaries that may have set them apart from “Freddie Gray’s Baltimore” in the past.

Connecting the dots

In the past few months, Elizabeth Nix has found herself in high demand.

The associate professor of legal, ethical and historical studies at the University of Baltimore is part of the team that taught the “Divided Baltimore” class offered last fall and made open to the public.

Her lecture begins at the founding of Baltimore and traces how discriminatory housing policies, white flight and the disappearance of manufacturing jobs contributed to the residential segregation of the city’s black and white populations.

Last year’s uprising grew from many of the same root causes as the riots of 1968 – anger at police practices, unemployment, and inadequate housing, Nix said.

The response to her talk was enthusiastic; one woman claimed it explained her entire life, Nix said.

“People said it allowed them to connect a lot of dots,” she said. “It means a lot to people that there’s an explanation.”

Since the fall, Nix has given versions of the lecture at conferences, to several nonprofit groups in the city, and even to a class of cadets from the Baltimore Police Department – many of whom hailed from outside the city, she said.

Yet even cadets from Baltimore had something to learn, since they may be assigned to police neighborhoods that are very different from where they grew up, said Lt. Jarron Jackson, a city police spokesman. Officers must learn to relate to cultures they’ve never experience, he said.

The lecture became part of a series of talks on the history of Baltimore that are now mandated for police cadets, but also open to veteran officers, said Jackson, adding Nix’s lecture taught him a few new things about the history residential segregation even though he grew up in Southwest and West Baltimore.

Faculty at University of Maryland, Baltimore also have explored the complex forces that let to last year’s unrest.

While the university’s schools of medicine, social work and law have a history of engaging with and providing services to the surrounding community, after last April, university leadership asked the faculty to do more.

So the law school created a course – titled “Freddie Gray’s Baltimore” — that also sought illuminate the factors that contributed to last year’s unrest.

“It’s hard to solve problems when you don’t understand completely what the problems are,” said Michael Greenberger, who administered and helped teach the course.

The outrage that led to the riots was about more than just policing; it was a response to inadequate public schools, public health and employment, Greenberger said.

Some areas of the city have high numbers of residents who have had criminal records since they were very young, which has historically made it difficult for them to find work of any kind and disqualified them completely from joining the police force, he said.

“You can’t have most of your inner-city community disqualified from serving in the police department,” Greenberger said.

The course initially was intended to be offered once, last fall. But not only was it brought back in the spring, an undergraduate version was offered at the University of Maryland, College Park, where it’s expected to be offered regularly in the future.

The UMB version won’t continue in its current form, however; its team of professors was essentially working pro bono, on top of their other coursework. Instead, the law school will tweak its current curriculum to cover more of what the Freddie Gray class addressed. This includes changes to courses dealing with medical and health issues and housing law, as well as a new course on urban policing, Greenberger said.

Johns Hopkins University sprang into action following the riots last year, deploying student and faculty researchers from its 21st Century Cities Initiative across West Baltimore to interview community members about Gray’s death, the unrest, and life in their neighborhoods.

This month, the initiative has hosted “Redlining Baltimore,” a series of talks with artists, academics and activists examining the history – and current examples of – discrimination in the city and discussing possible solutions.

Deeper ties

Outside of the classrooms, universities have wielded their considerable spending power and influence in the city to bring new jobs while also increasing their community service initiatives and forging deeper ties with the neighborhoods that surround them.

The Johns Hopkins institutions have led a new push to hire more Baltimore residents and spend more money with small, minority- and woman-owned businesses from the city.

Last fall, the university and health system announced their HopkinsLocal initiative, which set goals for increasing hiring in the city’s distressed communities and increased procurement spending with local vendors. Last month, a group of 25 local companies used that program as the basis for a broader local hiring and spending effort dubbed BLocal. Organizers of the two efforts expect to direct a total of $69 million to local businesses and workers over three years.

Johns Hopkins Hospital also led a group of area health systems this fall as they petitioned state regulators for an increase in hospital rates to support hiring new, entry-level workers from disadvantaged areas of the state, including some Baltimore ZIP codes.

Employment issues are only part of Hopkin’s response.

The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, already a hub for research into gun violence, announced in February a new partnership with the city police department to study of ways to reduce violence in the city.

“We need to remember that we have some of the world’s leading experts right here in our backyard,” Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said at a February news conference. “Turning to some our nation’s leading researchers in violence reduction, based right here at Hopkins, seeming like a natural fit.”

Priorities of the Johns Hopkins-Baltimore Collaborative for Violence Reduction include deterring illegal gun possession, improving the rewards offered for crime tips and assessing whether police efforts to get violent criminals off the streets are working.

“[It’s] helping us get analytical data on how we can do better as a police department,” said Jackson, the police spokesman.

‘What are the barriers?’

Over at UMB, a program launched last fall is also looking to address underemployment in West Baltimore. But rather than focusing on job creation, it’s trying to guide young people from middle school to college and, eventually, careers as health care providers and biomedical researchers.

An extension a National Cancer Institute initiative launched in 1999, the UMB CURE Scholars program works with students from three Baltimore middle schools – so far – and provides them with after-school programs, laboratory workshops, mentoring and tutoring.

The program, which was in the works before last April’s unrest, is intended to be a pipeline, supporting each cohort of 25 sixth-graders until they finish high school.

Executive Director Robin Saunders said the program is a marriage, not a one-time offer of help.

“It’s about exposure,” Saunders said. “It’s building hope and broadening their knowledge base of what the possibilities are.”

The participating middle schools were selected from targeted ZIP codes where a high percentage of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and students are provided not only with the science training, but with wraparound services and home visits to help them stay in the program, Saunders said.

“We are always asking, ‘What are the barriers for the student to be successful?’” she said.

One student needed to miss classes to watch a younger sibling because their mother was suffering from painful abscesses in her teeth; the program was able to connect the mother to the university’s School of Dentistry for care. Another student worried he’d miss the six-week summer enrichment portion of the program because he didn’t have any shorts to wear in the hot weather, Saunders said.

The CURE program works hand-in-hand with another UMB initiative, the Community Engagement Center, which opened in October in the Poppleton neighborhood.

From its temporary home in the site of an old Goodwill store where it opened in October – a permanent location is being sought nearby – the center connects community members with resources such as financial counseling and free clinics sponsored by the university’s professional schools or job training programs throughout the city, said Ashley Valis, the university’s executive director of strategic initiatives and community engagement.

Every couple of weeks, law students are available to offer advice on issues such as expungement or child custody. There’s also an exercise class for seniors and a weekly play group for children, and the center will soon offer a job training program of its own for medical office assistants, Valis said.

In the past, West Baltimore neighborhoods such as Poppleton and Hollins Roundhouse lived in the shadow of the university, but could be effectively stuck outside of it, Valis said.

“There was no front door for the community to the university,” Valis said, explaining that prior outreach efforts had been scattered across dozens of city neighborhoods and could be difficult for residents to locate. “We wanted a one-stop shop,” she said.

While the center was in the works before Freddie Gray’s death, the events of last year have validated the need for a deeper connection with the surrounding neighborhoods.

“That was always the plan,” Valis said.  “To get the university more entrenched in the community.”