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The World Right Across the Street From You

Let’s just say it: Johns Hopkins University has had a bit of friction with the communities around its campus and hospital for as long as it has been around. This is because of several reasons, I think. First, institutional racism and systemic inequity have made for a lot of have sand have-nots in Baltimore, and they live right up next to each other. Second, going to Johns Hopkins University is expensive, so it makes sense that a lot of the students there belong to the haves. Teaching there pays relatively well, so the faculty also belong to the haves. Working there pays better than other jobs, I’ve heard. In essence, everything that Hopkins stands for in the community centers around wealth, around having things that other people can’t have.

Second, in order to expand the footprint of the institution, the university inevitably intertwined its expansion with the phenomenon of gentrification. Neighborhoods were revitalized, but few of the people who originally lived there still do. Most were given some sort of compensation and asked to move away. Poverty and disadvantage was moved from the edges of where the campuses expanded and concentrate elsewhere. As a result, people at the new edge of where the campus meets the community look at actions by the institution with a healthy bit of skepticism.

Third, the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health has been the best school of public health in the world for quite some time now. Faculty, staff and students have spread from Baltimore to far places around the world to deal with some very serious public health problems. Research there is top notch, with millions of dollars in grants being given to researchers with some very bright ideas. The students I met there are incredibly bright and dedicated people who want to make the world a better place.

Fourth, and finally, Baltimore has some of the most dire public health problems. HIV/AIDS incidence and prevalence are high. Chronic diseases and lack of infrastructure to promote healthy living make several neighborhoods in the city have life expectancies that are comparable with those of developing nations. And where do I even begin with violence? Baltimore has been one of the most violent cities in the world for years, and there doesn’t seem to be any answers to what is going on no matter what anyone tries… And they’ve tried a lot of things.

Just a few days ago, an online course on gun violence a was announced by the School. The course would be led by some very bright faculty who have done a lot of interesting research on what causes gun violence, what works to prevent it, and what should be done to address it in the United States. It was met with positive responses by those who are interested in the subject, including myself.

However, someone made a comment about the course on the Schools Facebook page. It was a negative and sarcastic comment, but one that should make people pay attention. The commenter asked why anyone should take the course seriously given Baltimore’s current epidemic of violence in general and gun violence in particular. With hundreds of shootings and hundreds of gun-related homicides, why should someone listen to the Baltimore-based professors? Couldn’t (or shouldn’t) they have fixed things in Baltimore already, and then bring that knowledge to the rest of the world?

Of course, this is a very simplistic view of what is going in Baltimore. After all, gangbangers don’t take classes at a university. If the situation could be fixed with a lecture and some exams, we would live in a very peaceful and prosperous planet. Unfortunately for all of us, we are ruled by laws and policies written by humans, and those humans are the ones in the majority, the ones in power and the ones happy maintain the status quo.

You see, the typical homicide and shooting victim in Baltimore is not part of the elite or the wealthy. They are usually someone who is disadvantaged since birth and can only make ends meet by doing things that are deemed illegal by the authorities. Are there innocent victims? Sure, but they’re only a very tiny sliver of the total number of victims who are getting shot at and killed. Even then, those innocent victims also have a higher-than-normal risk of being victims because they live in the places long forgotten by policymakers. They live in poverty comparable to developing nations.

And who is doing the shooting and the killing? It’s usually someone involved in the drug trade and/or involved in gang activity. It’s someone who lives in such a dangerous neighborhood that they carry a weapon to protect themselves and their interests. Because they’ve lost their faith in the institutions, they don’t try and solve their differences through the courts or by seeking some sort of negotiation. Differences are settled with blood.

So, yeah, there is a lot of knowledge on the subject coming out of the university. There are dedicated people who have devoted their lives to trying to understand the problem and do something about it. And, yes, some of the worst violence is happening a few meters away from the campuses that the university occupies.

At the same time, that knowledge is not being refined into wisdom because, it seems, the policymakers have decided not to listen. I’ve seen a lot of meetings and press conferences where the city officials will work with and learn from the professors, but I’m yet to see something concrete come about.

In the meantime, Baltimore continues to have exceedingly high violence rates. The most recent Mayor quit under a cloud of suspicion of corruption, just like the Mayor two mayors ago. It seems that no one is at the rudder, or that too many people are and they broke it.

I want to see hope for Baltimore, and I do see it in the microcosms of children playing, people enjoying a walk or students in high schools putting out interesting projects and ideas. But I keep running up against despair in the macrocosm of hundreds of shootings and homicides, and thousands of violent crimes.

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René F. Najera, DrPH

I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
About History of Vaccines: I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Please read the About page on the site for more information.
About Epidemiological: I am the sole contributor to Epidemiological, my personal blog to discuss all sorts of issues. It also has an About page you should check out.

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