UMBC: Hope as a Commitment, Not a Sentiment

Published: Jun 15, 2015

Hope as a Commitment,
Not a Sentiment

UMBC community reflects on Baltimore protests and commits to action to address city’s challenges.

“This is about all of us… What we see in our city is what we see in our country. When we think about inequality, when we think about questions of justice, these are issues that we face in our nation. And the role of the university is to teach people to think critically about the challenges that human beings face.”

UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski opened a university teach-in with these remarks on May 1, 2015. The standing-room only event followed weeks of major protests across Baltimore in response to the death of Freddie Gray on April 19, 2015, after his arrest by Baltimore police, who now face criminal charges.

Hrabowski spoke directly to hundreds of students in the audience when he shared, “35 years ago, the father of Freddie Gray was a student at Coppin when I was an administrator there. And so this is all…very personal for me. Because 35 years ago, I thought that we were educating in a way that the world would be so different by the time you were born. And while in some ways it is, it is in many ways still with the [same] challenges.”

Students, faculty, and staff came together for the teach-in to grapple with all that had happened in previous three weeks, and to understand those events in the broader context of Baltimore’s social, economic, and political history. For many, this was a continuation of ongoing thoughtful reflection, dialogue, service, and action, while for others it was an opportunity to begin to understand the significance of the Baltimore Uprising and how to contribute to a path forward.

The event, organized by Dean Scott Casper of the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, featured speakers from Africana studies, American studies, history, geography and environmental systems, and political science, as well as UMBC Police and The Shriver Center.

Focusing on the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation (HOLC) created in 1930s, Dawn Biehler, associate professor of geography and environmental systems, discussed the severe negative impact of redlining in Baltimore, where homeowners in minority neighborhoods were systematically denied equal access to loans. She also explored the violence poor communities have experienced and continue to experience through environmental inequalities, such as exposure to toxins.

Several speakers deeply engaged with data to explore inequalities, including Tyson King-Meadows, associate professor of political science and chair of Africana studies, whose charts illuminated the “cumulative disadvantage” faced particularly by black Baltimore residents. Referencing data from the Baltimore City Survey to provide context for unemployment, spatial displacement, and quality of police protection in Baltimore City, King-Meadows noted that it’s important to ask, “How will the lived experiences and opportunities in Baltimore connect to race, gender, geography, and wealth amongst a whole set of things that intersect?” He reflected, “We need to start looking at a constellation of forces instead of individual stars.”

Kimberly Moffitt, associate professor of American studies, discussed the need for mental health support and greater educational opportunities for schoolchildren in Baltimore. “The systemic denigration of our children and the underacknowledgement of psychological trauma upon their black bodies does not require additional force, but a renewed foundation,” she said. “As a community, we should come together to strategize and cultivate healthy relationships with children and our students.”

George Derek Musgrove ’97, associate professor of history, also shared very personal reflections on unequal access to opportunity. Musgrove discussed his upbringing in Baltimore and how many of his peers turned to the drug trade in response to joblessness and poverty. He described how UMBC students can get involved by studying what is happening, so they understand the broader context and history, and by joining (or creating) organizations that will respond to issues they feel passionate about addressing.

Joby Taylor, director of the Shriver Peaceworker Program, reflected on his experience living in Baltimore for the last 20 years and the layers of history and struggle that have contributed to recent events. He described service and community engagement as a long arc, and encouraged those in the audience to think about “social hope as a commitment, not a sentiment.”

Using examples of work completed with her students, Nicole King, associate professor of American studies, highlighted the importance of listening and showing up. Referencing an essay by the No Boundaries Coalition of Central West Baltimore, she emphasized the importance of “doing with and not for” Baltimore communities—working together, from the ground up, by using public humanities and oral histories to amplify the voices of Baltimore residents.

Providing a law enforcement perspective, Paul Dillon, deputy chief of UMBC police, discussed the need for police officers to be more engaged, on a daily basis, with the communities they serve, to form relationships built on trust and respect. He also discussed the effect of emerging technologies on policing, such as reduced use of force following the implementation of body cameras.

In a message to the campus community on April 28, 2015, President Hrabowski and Provost Philip Rous wrote, “Our words and our actions speak volumes about our values. Courage to address critical social challenges—while respecting others—is a hallmark of the UMBC community. As a university, we have a civic responsibility to lead these conversations.” Indeed, the conversations have continued.

Several faculty members have published passionate, thought-provoking op-eds in local and national publications. In a Baltimore Sun op-ed, Suzanne Lea, adjunct professor of sociology, reflects on her students’ research on trends in police deadly force incidents in the Baltimore-D.C. area over the last 25 years, and deficiencies in available data on such incidents. Rita Turner, lecturer in American studies and media and communication studies, wrote about the environmental injustices many Baltimoreans face in an article in The Conversation, republished in The Ecologist.

The student group UMBC for Ferguson, with support from the College Democrats, gathered a panel of community activists and organizers on May 7, 2015, to share tangible ways for UMBC students to get involved with their communities. In promoting the event, organizer Jazmin Simmons, ’17, interdisciplinary studies, told fellow students, “By showing up and sharing your thoughts, you become someone to honor and respect. You may not realize it now, but you are a strong leader in your own way.”

Simmons’ invitation to continue the conversation mirrors a commitment voiced by President Hrabowski when he recently wrote, “What gives me hope is the honest look we are all taking at our city’s most pressing problems—from academic achievement gaps to health disparities—and our willingness to embrace these struggles.” Simmons shared, “As you may know, this past week was not a one-time deal. Forever, these events will be ingrained within us. And I only hope you will continue to find your passion and do good for your community.”

Additional faculty writing on the Baltimore protests:
Baltimore riots: the fire this time and the fire last time and the time between (The Conversation)
Why Baltimore burns for Freddie Gray (Baltimore Sun)
Baltimore’s truth in Freddie Gray’s life and death (Reuters)
Baltimore cyclist catches riots in action (Bicycling Magazine)
Keeping ‘Us’ Safe in Baltimore (Huffington Post)
Freddie Gray: death by legal intervention (Baltimore Sun)
The slow poisoning of Freddie Gray and the hidden violence against black communities (The Conversation)
Baltimore could become key election issue (The Philadelphia Tribune)
Black and young in Baltimore: a roundtable discussion (KPCC Radio)


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