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Morgan State dean researches how to help Black communities in Baltimore reduce health disparities

Dr. Kim Dobson Sydnor, dean of the School of Community Health and Policy at Morgan State University, will oversee the newly funded Center for Urban Health Equity.
Dr. Kim Dobson Sydnor, dean of the School of Community Health and Policy at Morgan State University, will oversee the newly funded Center for Urban Health Equity. (PAGREENE/courtesy of Morgan State University)

Maryland’s third Center for Urban Health Equity won’t open until 2024 at Morgan State University, but Kim Dobson Sydnor, dean of the School of Community Health and Policy, who will oversee the new center, is already planning how it will serve the community.

An influx of money will allow Morgan State to do research and strengthen relations with its neighbors to help it better support the Black community from a health standpoint, according to Sydnor.

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“We’ve started on a small scale,” Sydnor, 63, said in early February. “We’ll be having conversations at least for 45 days. That’s the seed of it. They will expand and grow over time and they will continue.”

Kim Dobson Sydnor, dean of the School of Community Health and Policy at Morgan State University, will oversee the newly funded Center for Urban Health Equity. Courtesy of Morgan State University
Kim Dobson Sydnor, dean of the School of Community Health and Policy at Morgan State University, will oversee the newly funded Center for Urban Health Equity. Courtesy of Morgan State University (PAGREENE/courtesy of Morgan State University)

Sydnor and her team are gathering information from the community about how they want the center to function. Those conversations will eventually help address the factors — such as sanitation, police violence, drugs and a lack of educational opportunities — that drive health disparities like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke, kidney disease and COVID-19, which disproportionately affect Black people.

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“All the virus did was unearth the weakness of the health care systems and expose holes in education,” Sydnor said. “All these things that have been exposed because of COVID will continue to exist in the next crisis. This will be a lesson learned and we will build on that.”

Sydnor’s department was allocated $500,000 from a $40 million gift to the university from venture philanthropist and author MacKenzie Scott. Sydnor said the largest single private donation in Morgan’s history is meant for the community as much as it is for Morgan State.

“We do see this as a gift to more than Morgan,” Sydnor said. “I think we as a university acknowledge that this is a public investment and that we have a public trust around this thing. We are going to do our best to reward that trust. In this [difficult] economic time, we never take these funds lightly.”

The state will contribute $3 million a year to help operate and manage the center, according to Morgan State. The money means that the university joins the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland, College Park as a home base for urban health centers in Maryland.

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Morgan State University President David Wilson said the university is taking immediate action by addressing some of the disparities and conditions identified by Scott such as long-term systemic inequities, financial services for under-resourced communities, and education for historically marginalized and underserved people.

“The center, which is essential to our University mission, allows us to leverage the expertise of our world-class faculty and researchers in collaboration with our government partners,” he said.

Sydnor expects the state to provide the first round of funding for the center by July 1.

“By the end of this calendar year, I really expect the center to be in motion to where folks can recognize its function,” Sydnor said,

“[The funding and research] will help elevate voices that are there and are not heard,” she said. “If we do things right, if we make connections, we can make a difference.”

The collaboration with the community will extend beyond conversations, according to Sydnor, who envisions community members working alongside staff and students on projects.

“There might be opportunity for employment or contractual services or entrepreneur business development. Those things could be on the table,” she said.

Sydnor, a Baltimore native, has been on the faculty at Morgan State University since 2004 and has held the dean position at the School of Community Health and Policy since 2012.

Wanda G. Best, executive director of the Upton Planning Committee, which works toward the preservation and improvement of the Upton neighborhood, said she has worked with Sydnor for the past 20 years. As a dietitian, who also worked as a program analyst for food safety and quality for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Best has seen the challenges that the African American community has faced from a federal to a community level.

“I know Dr. Sydnor understands the challenges,” she said, recalling grassroots work that Sydnor did addressing health disparities through a program at Union Baptist Church.

“The Upton Planning Committee has benefited from resources from Morgan over the years from health to research to marketing. They have helped move a lot of our work to next level,” she explained.

For instance, Best said, Morgan State students have created social media platforms for the committee, worked with the Empowerment Wellness Center to link residents with health care resources and created a virtual tour of historic Pennsylvania Avenue.

“It’s important that higher ed be able to articulate the needs of the Black community — particularly those that have been ignored for years,” Best said.

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