Community engagement is a critical UMB mission

UMB pledges services, jobs for West Baltimore.

As the national media focused their gaze on Baltimore during riots provoked by the death of Freddie Gray, many of us who live and work in the city focused our attention on the oppressive poverty endemic in the communities beset by violence. Concentrated poverty has held generations of Baltimoreans hostage to crumbling neighborhoods, scarce services, poor health, high crime and widespread incarceration.

Anchor institutions like the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) have a critical role to play in lifting populations out of poverty. Engagement with the community has long been a critical mission at UMB, and we operate expansive outreach programs doing a great deal of good. But UMB has an opportunity now — an obligation — to examine exactly how we should apply our knowledge and assets to achieve the greatest impact on health and wealth in West Baltimore.

Achieving impact takes focus, so we're concentrating our efforts in the West Baltimore neighborhoods closest to campus, and we're establishing a physical presence dedicated to community engagement. This fall, UMB's urban extension center will begin providing direct services to community residents — health screenings and referrals, tutoring, GED preparation and legal advice. Our human resources department will have an outpost at the center to show residents jobs available at UMB, to prepare them for the work, and to help them apply. We've asked for funding to deploy our Wellmobile every week in West Baltimore to provide primary and preventive care to residents who struggle to access high-quality health services.

We'll study programs newly underway to determine whether they merit scaling: a mentoring program that prepares students for high-paying jobs in the health sciences, a program that connects — or reconnects — students' parents to the job market, a training program that helps local businesses compete for the millions of dollars UMB spends each year on products and services. And we'll engage our neighbors in shared problem-solving, doing the tough research on complicated issues that underpin inequity and helping residents advocate for the policies and programs that will end it for good.

This kind of work is important to helping residents take advantage of economic opportunity, but it cannot, on its own, stimulate the significant economic development that West Baltimore desperately needs.

In the 1990s, millions of dollars went into a multi-party effort to turn Freddie Gray's Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood around — to build and renovate houses, establish health care programs and improve local schools. And while this private-public venture did enjoy some successes, the leaders themselves acknowledge a major failing: There was no economic driver to keep redevelopment going beyond the initial investment, and services like job skills training did little good given that there were few jobs to get.

West Baltimore needs smart investment. West Baltimore needs good jobs. And UMB's BioPark is vital to attracting both.

The BioPark is a 12-acre development in the Poppleton neighborhood housing private biotechnology firms, clinical facilities and university research centers. It will eventually comprise a dozen buildings, generating 2,500 jobs and $1.2 billion in capital investment.

This is good for everyone, because successful technology parks are home to more than technology companies. They stimulate diverse development to serve the growing population — housing, restaurants, retail, services — and they entice entrepreneurial residents to start businesses that meet new local needs.

The BioPark's tenants have a vested interest in the health and vibrancy of the community in which they're rooted. They've begun education and workforce programs to train local students for BioPark jobs, and they pay into a community fund that supports neighborhood projects.

We're now planning construction of the BioPark's third commercial lab and office building, and we'll fill it with tenants committed to West Baltimore — committed to enriching neighborhoods without displacing neighbors. In fact, BioPark leaders are working with the city to secure public and private funding to support the community development priorities of the Southwest Partnership neighborhood coalition.

Baltimore's poverty problem has calcified over several decades and will not be undone quickly or easily. But the city has more than enough assets to spread wealth to disinvested communities. We have a thriving downtown, strong anchor institutions, engaged corporations and nonprofits, a highly educated population, and long-range policies (like the mayor's property tax cuts) to spur growth. The conditions of poverty that seem impossible to ameliorate through individual effort can be turned around under our collective strength.

And while I share the city's deep and justified pain, I also feel privileged to be part of a community willing to do the long, hard work of ending acute poverty in Baltimore and restoring opportunity to residents long deprived of it.

Dr. Jay A. Perman is president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore. His email is jperman@umaryland.edu.

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