What Baltimore Taught Us: On a Journey to Strengthen Families

Oct 31, 2014, 1:12 PM, Posted by

Young mother with her children.

Recently a team from the Foundation went to Baltimore to talk to families and community leaders, gaining their insights into an essential question for us: What can the Foundation do to strengthen the systems—health care, education, community—to create a web of support for families, one in which those at greatest risk can’t easily fall through?

What follows are my colleagues’ reflections on our time in Baltimore.

Martha Davis: I spoke with a Violence Interruptor, a Safe Streets employee who works to stop street violence. He is a 37-year-old man who has spent nearly half his life in jail, and has been shot 14 times. When I asked him how it is that he got to where he is today, he told me he came to the streets to learn how to “be a man,” but the birth of his children inspired him to want to be on the “side of peace." His was a life of violence and suffering, deep poverty, and racism; now he makes people feel safe and hopeful. He and the other Violence Interruptors are living proof that change is possible.

Tara Oakman: We talk a lot about needing to meet people where they are. Realistically, that means meeting people where they live because the most vulnerable families aren’t necessarily coming into the health care space or schools or child care centers. Their lives are too overwhelming and stressful to reliably engage with these systems, even though they are there to help. The stories we heard and people we met will help us with “gut checks” as we work on future programming; we will return to the question, “how would this work for the people we met in Baltimore?”

Jennifer Ng’andu: Making sure our strategies are focused on people—not systems or issues—feels like the most important thing to keep in mind as we work towards strengthening families. We heard from several people that interpersonal relationships were the foundation of strong programs, but it was also clear how hard it is to find time to make those relationships happen. When asked what resources would help, most people said they needed time, not money—the time to be strategic, the time to collaborate, and the time to take care of issues in a comprehensive way. It made me think our work needs to help communities recognize their agency, foster coalition building, and allow folks to come together to strategize and aggregate their power.

Paul Cheh: One of the most striking takeaways for me was the issue around isolation. Many people felt an overwhelming sense of isolation not only within their community, but with the rest of society. But we saw wonderful programs that addressed this problem. It was inspiring to see the deep sense of brotherhood and sisterhood that some programs, like Elev8 and Safe Streets provided. I left thinking about how the Foundation could address isolation, whether through continued advocacy for vulnerable populations, through community outreach and capacity building, or through the design and support of safe spaces for communities to meet, discuss, and inspire change.

Sadia Kalam: From the Center for Dispute Resolution at the University of Maryland School of Law, I learned how both parents and children bring trauma into the school system. Many parents have negative associations with school themselves; and teachers and administrators can carry feelings of distrust for parents. Helping students, parents, and administrators learn to talk through conflict, build trusting relationships, improve communication—all are steps towards alleviating the multiple layers of trauma embedded within existing systems.

Here at RWJF we will continue to engage with communities throughout the United States and explore new possibilities to mitigate violence and its toxic effects. We plan to work with families most vulnerable to trauma, while advancing research-driven ideas so that all families can benefit and live healthy lives.

I hope you’ll join us on this journey. Together, we can build a Culture of Health for all.