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Over the past four years, I’ve spoken to Jewish and black students about dismantling racism and anti-Semitism as part of the Elijah Cummings Youth Program, which seeks to heal a cultural divide that has festered for generations. The conversations were often raw and painful, but by the end, many of the teenagers had developed powerful friendships.

I was scheduled to speak to such a group on a cold March day this year and assumed Congressman Cummings would not be there. He was chair of the Oversight Committee investigating the president of the United States, for one, but I also knew that his medical condition had worsened and he wasn’t making many public appearances. But when I arrived, there was Elijah — stooped and in pain, but still standing.

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He spoke about the battle for the soul of our Democracy. He begged the students to fix what had been broken by previous generations. Teenagers who are perpetually distracted by iPhones, beeps and tweets, were utterly mesmerized by his words. His voice soared as he spoke about the need to see each other as fully human. The room burst into cheers, tears and shouts — a standing ovation. And then he looked up and said quietly, “Wait. I’m not finished. Please. I’m not finished yet.” And he kept speaking. For another 20 minutes he spoke about the childhood trauma that he saw ravaging Baltimore and the United States. He called on us to confront injustice.

United States Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-MD07), Chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform speaks, during a forum on “Preventing, Treating, and Healing Childhood Trauma in Baltimore City,” Tue., August 20, 2019.
United States Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-MD07), Chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform speaks, during a forum on “Preventing, Treating, and Healing Childhood Trauma in Baltimore City,” Tue., August 20, 2019. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Elijah Cummings was one of the most powerful men alive. He could have been anywhere in the world. And yet this was where he felt he needed to be: in an auditorium in Baltimore speaking to teenagers.

Cumming’s death at age 68 last month left a moral void in our nation and in our city. He grew up in a hyper-segregated Baltimore. He saw the toll that poverty and violence took on children and understood trauma because he lived in a community that suffered immensely from it. And toward the end of his life, he made its eradication his mission.

On July 11 of this year, Congressman Cummings held the first ever congressional hearing in his oversight committee on childhood trauma. He invited experts from across the country to present research on the horrific toll that toxic stress takes on urban, suburban and rural communities.

“As a nation, we have a significant financial incentive and, more importantly, profound moral imperative to ensure that our children have the opportunity to thrive and succeed,” he said.

A few months later, the congressman convened a panel of leaders to discuss the impact of trauma in Baltimore. Experts shared how Baltimore’s abnormal rate of “adverse childhood experiences” cause an increased likelihood of violence, addiction, suicide and poor health outcomes. He called on us to work across sectors and silos for solutions to this urgent public health crisis.

I introduced the Baltimore Trauma Responsive Care Act after a playground in O’Donnell Heights became the site of a mass shooting. At a subsequent hearing, students that had witnessed violence in their school called on us to get serious about addressing the toxic stress that has infected so much of our city. The bill authorizes a taskforce, mandates training for city employees to be able to identify and effectively respond to trauma and calls on every agency to rewrite their policies and procedures with a lens toward reducing re-traumatization. We have an opportunity to heal our city from top to bottom.

This legislation has received an outpouring of support across communities. Baltimore is ready to invest in prevention and treatment instead of solely relying on punishment to solve our problems. Educators, physicians, clinicians, nonprofits, business leaders, peace builders and even barbers have come together to reimagine Baltimore as a “Healing City.” A Healing City would force us to confront and rectify policies that have perpetuated injustice. It would push us to break down barriers and dismantle silos to end the bloodshed and embrace our children. It would allow people who have suffered to play a leading role in developing solutions.

Elijah Cummings called on us to heal from our trauma. This legislation is part of his legacy. Today, I will introduce an amendment to rename the Trauma Responsive Care Act to the Elijah Cummings Healing City Act. Let’s pass this bill and begin to heal Baltimore.

Zeke Cohen (zeke@zekecohen.com) represents Baltimore’s First District on the City Council.

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