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Unearthing the Roots of Unrest in Baltimore

Doctoral student Kristina “Gia” Naranjo-Rivera sensed this city’s tremors well before its streets quaked after Freddie Gray’s death. She was among a group of students enrolled in a two-term qualitative research course in International Health, 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.

Her research group conducted focus groups and interviews with police officers and local youth, revealing a relationship stymied by stereotypes and deep distrust on both sides, she adds. The students shared powerful excerpts from those conversations at a Town Hall Meeting for the Bloomberg School community on April 29, 2015.

A police officer interviewed by the group asked, “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.”

Dean Michael J. Klag's response to Baltimore's unrest following a night of looting and violence was swift and purposeful: "As part of the East Baltimore community, our School must find ways to help our neighborhoods heal. Public health has the tools and the focus to understand the underlying causes of violence -- including racism, economic disadvantage, social inequity and policing strategy -- and to develop transformative solutions."

The Town Hall held up a public health lens to the gaping health and economic disparities that shaped Freddie Gray’s short life and the lives of many who took to city streets out of anger and frustration, following days of peaceful protests. The Bloomberg School affirmed its longstanding commitment to Baltimore in tackling systemic inequities with innovative and sustainable public health solutions.

The School's May 8 follow-on event “Engage Baltimore: A Day of Reflection and Progress” was a stirring and emotional convening of faculty and students, Baltimore officials, community leaders, and city high school and college students.

“You are in one of the greatest schools in the world. But it ain’t just about smarts, about what you learn in these walls," Baltimore Congressman Elijah Cummings told the crowd. “I beg you to find ways to take what you learn and touch people where they live, once you get to know them.”

Students like Naranjo-Rivera, who who took part in peaceful protests alongside Baltimoreans and helped to organize Engage Baltimore, are up for the challenge. 

“You are in one of the greatest schools in the world. But it ain’t just about smarts, about what you learn in these walls.”
  Elijah Cummings, U.S. Congressman, Baltimore 

“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.

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