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Learning to Listen

Students in a discussion.

Students from left to right: Rachel Turkel, Madeleine Beebe, Shristi Pandey, Gia Naranjo-Rivera and Yumeng Wu.

Bloomberg School students examine police-youth dynamics in Baltimore.


Doctoral student Kristina (“Gia”) Naranjo-Rivera sensed this city’s tremors well before its streets quaked after Freddie Gray’s death. In the context of a two-term qualitative research course in International Health, she and her classmates (pictured above) have been studying the tense police-youth relationship that plagues Baltimore.

“There are mutually reinforcing cycles of trauma that must be recognized and broken,” observes Naranjo-Rivera.

Focus groups and interviews conducted by students with police officers and local youth reveal a relationship stymied by stereotypes and deep distrust on both sides, she adds. Powerful excerpts from those conversations were shared at a Town Hall Meeting for the Bloomberg School community, which gathered April 29—and will continue to gather—to help address deep-rooted issues that led to recent unrest.

A police officer told the researchers, “How do I engage communities, let alone youth? How do I do that with compassion, if all I know how to do is survive, and go from call to call to call, and deal with trauma?” Young people, on the other hand, expressed feeling dehumanized and viewed by some police as "savages.”

Naranjo-Rivera, who grew up in a Minnesota neighborhood where there was widespread hatred and distrust of police, described the research course here as a powerful experience. “It’s broken down a lot of barriers in my thinking,” she says.

Rachel Turkel, a first-year MSPH student in the research group, concurs. “It’s time to stop choosing sides and making generalizations,” she says. “Stereotypes aren’t helping anyone.”

There is good news, the students report. A widespread desire exists for programs that foster positive interactions between law enforcement and young adults. Yet the success of police-youth programs depends largely on funding and political support.

“Researchers have a critical role to play here,” says Naranjo-Rivera. “There is knowledge out there, but we need someone to collect it, synthesize it, make it digestible and get it into the hands of people who have power to make change.”

The team voiced profound appreciation to those who opened doors for them to study the streets: principal investigator Peter Winch, MD, director of the Social and Behavioral Interventions Program, and research coordinators Elena Broaddus and Stephanie Caldas.

Naranjo-Rivera is among School students who have been peacefully protesting alongside Baltimoreans, and are involved in planning “Engage Baltimore: A Day of Reflection and Progress,” an event taking place at the School on Friday, May 8. The scheduled breakout discussions will include one that focuses on police-community relations.

“When you realize you can actually change the world with your work, it becomes a lot more important,” she says.

Learn More About the School’s Engage Baltimore Initiative.

—Salma Warshanna-Sparklin