In a recreation center in downtown Baltimore on Saturday, health researchers and a former University of Maryland basketball player began a task many consider herculean: improving relationships between Baltimore's young black men and their fathers.
"There's a breakdown of family structure in Baltimore. It's deeply ingrained in the culture of the city," said Jasel D. Martin, a postdoctoral researcher at the University Maryland, Baltimore.
Martin helped develop and launch the inaugural "Me & Pops" seminar, which drew a few dozen young black men and their fathers — or other mentors or role models — to the center.
The event was part of the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy's PATIENTS Program, which seeks to conduct long-term research on how to improve the health of poor communities.
"We want to be helpful, and not be viewed as an institution," said C. Daniel Mullins, a professor at the school who leads the program. "In the past, research has been done in a way that makes people feel like a guinea pig."
Disparities among the city's black and white residents are well-documented. For instance, Baltimore's black children are 4.5 times more likely to be hospitalized for asthma than white children, according to the city's 2015 Healthy Baltimore report. Black adults are 2.5 times more likely to be hospitalized for type 2 diabetes, and nine times more likely to be hospitalized for hypertension.
Mullins said that as university officials started asking how to connect with the community in West Baltimore, the Rev. Franklin Lance at Mount Lebanon Baptist Church reminded them of an overarching problem: frayed relationships between black fathers and sons.
"Pastor Lance told me this is something that we need to address," Mullins said. "A lot of our young men end up in a situation of violence, and part of that is because they haven't heard how to have a conversation about it."
Rodney Elliott Sr., a Baltimore native and basketball star at Dunbar High School and the University of Maryland who spent a decade as a professional player in Europe, helped create Saturday's event and served as its master of ceremonies.
"I come from y'all's situation," he told the boys.
Elliott said he hoped to tell young men about the guidance and structure he found in sports.
"Maybe they'll have an opportunity to figure out where they want to be in life, to have hope, to get the energy flowing again," he said.
Presenters discussed how fathers can connect with sons, and the program also discussed conflict resolution, integrity and setting goals — as well as health and healthy lifestyle choices.
Rod Stokes, co-founder of the community service organization The Regeneration Project, said the small-group setting allowed him and other presenters "to get intimate."
Stokes spoke about how to rise above adversity and the importance of honestly articulating what it means to struggle.
"Dialogue among men and younger men is so necessary, and it's often missing," he said. "Men, we don't have someone to talk to about our trauma. We put on a mask, a facade. We're not telling people about what's hurting us."
The university has already performed other types of patient-focused research, said Clyde Foster, a clinical research nurse who recruited 1,600 people from lower-income neighborhoods for a diabetes study.
Foster said that project concluded that teaching people about diabetes and hypertension — and how to prevent it — had a ripple effect that would keep others healthy too.
"Lack of education is a big problem," Foster said.
Researchers hope to form a lasting connection with West Baltimore communities — which they believe can guide future efforts to improve health, particularly among poor residents.
Damion Cooper, who runs a mentorship program for middle school-age boys, brought his 13-year-old son Nigel to the "Me & Pops" session with two other dads and 10 other kids. The session left him hopeful.
"Gatherings like this are important in the city, because it's something we don't ever talk about," Cooper said. "It shows us that a lot of fathers aren't leaving. … They may not be running mentorship programs, but they're helping improve their kids' lives every day."