A Conversation With Zeke Cohen
“There has never been a more important time for students in public policy,” said alum Zeke Cohen, MPP '12 (right) at a seminar moderated by Keshia Pollack, PhD, MPH (left).
Academics, Activism and Improving Baltimore
Baltimore City councilman Zeke Cohen, MPP ’12, has a message for students of public health: remember how much power you have.
Cohen, 31, who is serving his first term on the Council, reminded students at a Q&A last month at the Bloomberg School that they are the future workforce, taxpayers, homeowners, activists and parents of children who may one day attend city schools. Officials care about what you have to say, he emphasized.
“There has never been a more important time for students in public policy,” he told his audience at a public seminar sponsored by the School’s Institute for Health and Social Policy. “As policy scholars, you are on the front line of defending the ideals of the people most in need.”
Cohen has a strong sense of optimism that institutions like Hopkins can help lead the way in advancing equity in cities like Baltimore, where stark divisions exist between the haves and the have-nots.
“Baltimore remains the most segregated city in America through a series of policy decisions,” he said. “The crime and violence that people experience is a product of concentrated poverty.”
Cohen moved to Baltimore from Massachusetts over a decade ago as a college student and found not only a home but a cause and a career.
After graduating from Goucher College, he took a teaching job at George G. Kelson Elementary Middle School in Sandtown-Winchester through the Teach for America program. The West Baltimore neighborhood, where, Cohen says, some “schools lack heat and drinkable running water,” would become known as a site of turmoil and unrest in the days following the arrest and death of Freddie Gray just over two years ago.
Cohen earned a master’s in public policy from the School in 2012 and launched a nonprofit organization, The Intersection, which works with Baltimore City high school students to promote leadership skills and civic action. In working with these students and their families, Cohen further realized his path of civil service and in 2015 announced a bid for Baltimore City Council which has become his full-time endeavor.
Equity is at the heart of Cohen’s ethos both academically and professionally. His desire “to build community and empower people with the tools to self-govern and hold their government accountable” was central to his platform in his run for a council seat in Baltimore City’s first district, a diverse collection of neighborhoods along the southeast waterfront.
Cohen is one of eight new council members who took office in 2016. It’s the largest turnover on the governing body since 2003, which he considers both advantageous and a worthy challenge.
“[There’s a] renewed sense of activism throughout the city,” he said. “Elected officials must match that courage and do the hard work of rebuilding public trust.”
As Chairman of the Education Committee, Cohen holds hearings not at City Hall but in public schools and community rec centers to combat the notion that government is somehow disconnected from the people. In his view, the Council’s work needs to start “where the children and families already are.”
Cohen credits his degree in public policy as sound preparation for municipal service. "My master’s has enabled me to read research with clarity and precision. The tools I gained at Hopkins have been enormously helpful in my first few months at City Hall."