Community Engagement Center

Expanding Outreach to West Baltimore

The UMB Community Engagement Center marshals the University’s people, resources, and scholarship to help improve the lives of its West Baltimore neighbors and partners with them in sustaining and accelerating progress toward community goals.

As one of Baltimore’s largest anchor institutions, UMB embraces its role in driving neighborhood and economic development in the communities close to campus. These communities are, in fact, some of the city’s neediest, ranking near the bottom on measures of social capital, education, neighborhood quality, and public health and safety.  

The mission of the UMB Community Engagement Center, established this fall in the West Baltimore neighborhood of Poppleton, is to rewrite this story — to join with neighbors in building a healthy, vibrant, and prosperous West Baltimore, where residents have ample opportunity to achieve their goals.

The University and its partners will use the center to provide direct services to West Baltimore residents — for instance, health screenings and referrals, job readiness counseling, community-organizing workshops — and to collaborate with them in scholarship and projects that meet community-identified needs.

Neither effort is new for the University, according to Ashley Valis, MSW, UMB’s executive director of community engagement and strategic initiatives. But, she says, the center will help the University coordinate many activities already undertaken by students, faculty, and staff; identify gaps and redundancies in services; and evaluate the impact of new and existing programs so that effective ones may be expanded and replicated.

Valis also emphasizes the importance of a “place-based” strategy. “The Community Engagement Center puts us within closer reach of West Baltimore’s residents and makes meaningful collaboration easier,” she says. “Proximity almost always improves partnership.”

The center’s work is guided by four goals: improve population health; enrich student and community learning; build community capacity; and strengthen West Baltimore’s neighborhoods. 

Faculty and staff are planning ways they’ll use the center to engage with neighbors and to provide their students hands-on experience in population health, social justice, and community advocacy.

For instance, the School of Nursing will invite guest lecturers to the center so that nursing students and neighbors alike might explore critical issues in community and public health. The Carey School of Law will offer low-cost legal advice at the center, and an on-site workshop will help low-income residents work through tax issues. The School of Social Work, which partners with several community schools across Baltimore, will use the center as a training site for community school coordinators and staff.

“While the Baltimore riots this spring might have awakened many to the conditions of acute poverty, to the UMB community, they merely reinforced the urgency of the work we’ve been doing for years,” says UMB President Jay A. Perman, MD. “The UMB Community Engagement Center strengthens our efforts to cultivate opportunity, prosperity, and justice in our poorest neighborhoods.”

The UMB Community Engagement Center is temporarily located in the University’s BioPark (1 N. Poppleton St.) while Valis and her team scout permanent locations nearby. The center needs more space than its current 3,500 square feet and more amenities — a kitchen, media and conferencing technologies, and rooms that can be modified to accommodate a range of community activities. Fundraising efforts are focused on securing this space and hiring a center director to coordinate programming.