Making a study of Baltimore

Johns Hopkins prides itself on being an integral member of the Baltimore community, but is it?

Most of my undergraduate life, I never left the "Hopkins bubble." I was with mice and microscopes in labs. As an undergraduate neuroscience major, I was an organic chemistry laboratory teaching assistant and a research assistant in a brain tumor laboratory.

But, just before graduation, the city of Baltimore lit up. Some saw it as a riot; others saw it as an uprising. I saw it as a calling. Just a few months earlier, in January, I decided to pursue a masters of public health degree before applying to medical school with the intent to serve underprivileged populations. Now, with a crisis next door, I eagerly looked for ways to help.

I joined the Baltimore Uprising study, part of the Hopkins' 21st Century Cities Initiative. In just two weeks, I found myself canvassing neighborhoods in Baltimore and interviewing youths between the ages of 16 to 24 about their experiences with the criminal justice system and their narratives on the death of Freddie Gray and what followed.

Criminal justice wasn't the only topic we discussed. I heard stories from pregnant teenagers who feared for their unborn children's future. I met with teens who lamented about their prison-like school system, and I struggled with the decision to report a family to Child Protective Services (something I knew nothing about) because of a story a teen respondent shared with me. Nothing from my four years at Hopkins prepared me for the real world in Baltimore city.

Visiting the homes of strangers, learning about their lives, and walking away without solutions left me feeling hopeless. As a black woman, I understand racism. But that only half-prepared me for what I saw this summer. The ecosystem of poverty, how it is inherited, and the policies that exacerbate it was all unfamiliar. This summer has refreshed my motivation to serve these neighborhoods through medicine. It has also made me wish that studying Baltimore — neighborhoods, the criminal justice system, the transportation inequalities — had been part of my coursework in addition to a summer job.

Society is awakening to the issues that plague cities like Baltimore, such as homelessness, poverty, unemployment and violence. The Association of American Medical Colleges has overhauled the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) to have an increased focus on the social and behavioral sciences. Future pre-med students will take sociology and psychology courses. Curriculums now encourage community volunteering. And for the past couple of years, the Hopkins freshman reading assignments have centered almost exclusively on life in the inner cities. Fine. That is all for the good. But has this had any real, tangible impact on Baltimore?

It isn't enough to simply be well meaning in these approaches because actions speak louder than words. The only way we can begin to make sustainable change is through the Hopkins curriculum. The average Hopkins student will not spend hours and hours in the community volunteering, but will spend hours and hours in the classroom or labs. What if our civil engineer and sociology majors worked in tandem to tackle the problem of Baltimore's vacant houses? What if we had a practicum such as the Baltimore "Hearing their Voices" study I participated in, where students and professors design a research study, collect data and learn tools for evaluation over the course of a year? Such curriculum changes would institutionalize these efforts and make them a part of the Hopkins' culture. After all, Hopkins prides itself on being an integral member of the Baltimore community, but are we? Are the single days of service enough to justify this claim?

The University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law announced last week that it would offer a course this fall on "Freddie Gray's Baltimore: Past, Present, and Moving Forward." Also last week, Baltimore's Board of Estimates authorized $50,000 for Hopkins researchers to study the response to the city's civil unrest.

Both are noble efforts, but it will take more than one eight-week course and an "after-action" analysis to make the change that we desire. This summer I was prepared to hear narratives that would make me uncomfortable, but I was not prepared to realize that I was stranger to my own city. I never knew the names of the neighborhoods around Charles Village, I never knew of the Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) system (an electronic system that allows for the welfare department to issue benefits), I never even knew what Section 8 Housing was (a federal program, administered locally, that provides government assistance to private landlords to support low-income households). Being so close for the past four years, yet remaining a stranger, is what made this summer unbearable and this study frustrating. The only way we can make the change we all desperately want to see is to infuse it through our curriculum, therefore reaching students from all walks.

Now, more than ever, universities are encouraging students to combat urban problems. Is it Hopkins's responsibility to solve Baltimore's problems? No. But preparing students effectively to do so surely is.

Janice M. Bonsu is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University (2015) where she served as student government president; her email is

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad