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Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities
Nov. 18, 2015
BioPark, Discovery Auditorium
I thank our sponsoring organizations for coming together to support today’s activities, and to make civic engagement a key piece of the curriculum—kindergarten through college. Of course, I thank all of you for believing in civic engagement, and believing there’s a way to do it better.
On behalf of our entire University community, I’m delighted to host you today at UMB. I think it’s an appropriate setting for the work you’re beginning.
When I talk about UMB and Baltimore, I tell people that I have an office on the 14th floor of a building just across the street—just across Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. And in that office are large windows framing a view directly into West Baltimore—where we are right now—the most challenged part of our city.
So I see West Baltimore every day. And the worst thing I could do as the leader of this University is to stay up there on the 14th floor, to lock myself away, and implicitly give our students and our faculty permission to lock themselves away, too.
That’s not what we’re about. UMB is Maryland’s only public health, law, and human services university. Our mission statement is clear about our core purpose: to improve the human condition.
So our work is not up on the 14th floor, it’s not even principally in the buildings across the street that stand so imposingly against Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. Our work is in the community—with our neighbors and for our neighbors.
One of those neighbors was Freddie Gray, the young man from West Baltimore gravely injured in police custody last spring. He died a week later, in the Shock Trauma hospital on this very campus, just a couple of blocks away. You know what happened next: For many days, our neighbors marched in peaceful protests. But it was the violent unrest that made headlines.
And almost immediately, the citywide conversation expanded beyond getting justice for Freddie Gray and his family. In an open and, I think, brutally honest way, this city began talking about the longstanding issues that underpin injustice: concentrated poverty, disinvested neighborhoods, de facto segregation, widespread incarceration.
The problems in Baltimore, as in many other urban communities, are systemic and complex. And people rightly wanted to know what the city’s anchor institutions are doing—the universities, the hospitals, the organizations whose size and power can effect significant change in their communities.
I should say that there’s not one anchor institution in Baltimore that began serving this community in late April, as Freddie Gray lay dying in Shock Trauma. This has been our work for a very long time. Each year, the students, faculty, and staff of UMB spend millions of hours in service to the community. It really is part of our DNA.
But we’ve grappled with the same challenge that I think many of you will grapple with in the work that lies ahead.
We needed a coordinated approach to engagement, so that we could identify where we had gaps in services, and where we had redundancies; so that we could collaborate better; so that we could leverage the work that our colleagues had already put in to various neighborhoods and build on the deep relationships they’d already established.
So about a year before Baltimore was thrust into the national spotlight, we established a University-wide Office of Community Engagement, led by Ashley Valis, who’s here with us today. And we began the process of cataloguing exactly what we do, where we do it, the community partners involved, and the potential for connection to other efforts.
We began doing a better job of listening to our neighbors, letting them tell us what their goals are, what their priorities are. Poverty doesn’t nullify agency. Our neighbors know what they need—and that’s where we concentrate our efforts.
I understand that, later today, some of you will get to see our new Community Engagement Center just down the street. We knew it was important to put ourselves inside the community we’re serving, so that our neighbors can access our people, our resources, and our expertise.
If you’re in this community right here, it’s not easy to cross Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. For decades, the road has been an effective barrier—isolating West Baltimore from the rest of the city. But the more we cross this street, the more we establish a home in West Baltimore and invite people in, the more we serve in partnership with the community, the more successful we’ll be.
So you won’t see a full day of programming at the Center. Not yet. Because we’re asking the residents, the neighborhood associations, and the community and faith leaders what they want and what they need.
Is it getting our neighbors primary care doctors so that they’re less reliant on the emergency room? Is it helping them expunge arrest records, giving them free legal advice, preparing them to pass the GED?
Is it helping them get a good job? We already know that employment is a top priority, and we’re developing workforce programs to train residents for steady jobs and to build a strong workforce pipeline right into our own University.
And we’re saving space in the center for community-engaged scholarship as well. It’s where we’ll join with neighbors in exploring the policies and programs that sustain structural inequity, and, together, work to fix the systems that so often leave the poor behind. It’s where we’ll build the community’s capacity to advocate for those things that strengthen individuals and families and neighborhoods.
But it’s not the only place where we’ll be doing this work. Because the best way to cultivate a population of people interested and skilled in civic advocacy is to cultivate a population of children interested and skilled in civic advocacy.
Several months ago, just after the death of Freddie Gray, reporters began asking some of the city’s leaders how we can bridge the gap between the “two Baltimores”—how we can reconcile a city of wealth and a city of want, one of opportunity and one of isolation.
Without hesitation, I said the answer is our schools—that you can’t make an appreciable difference in employment or income or engagement without first making a difference in education.
On the streets of Baltimore last spring, we saw a generation of young people convinced they don’t have a voice and they don’t have a chance. We saw the anger and frustration of people whose every avenue to opportunity is blocked, and every effort a struggle.
Not every community has been rocked by violence like ours. Not every city or town will top 300 murders with still more than a month to go in the year.
But in all of our communities, there is need.
We can restore power to the disenfranchised and hope to communities that are suffering. We can cultivate a generation of students—kindergarten through college—who understand their influence and know how to use it. Right now, we can begin creating the change we so urgently need.
I thank all of you for the work you’re doing here today, and I’m so honored and grateful to welcome you to Baltimore.