A barber smiles as he prepares to cut a young man’s hair.
A barber smiles as he prepares to cut a young man’s hair.

2023 RWJF Culture of Health Prize Winner

Healing City Baltimore and Its Many Partners Show That Lived Experience Is Expertise

We can all agree that healing from trauma fosters empowerment and helps individuals and communities reclaim their health and wellbeing. In Baltimore, meaningful partnerships, as exemplified through Healing City Baltimore’s work across the community, are creating hope for community healing. Young people are taking the lead in transforming citywide systems to prioritize healing from trauma.  

These partnerships show up all over the city, from barber shops, to schools, to libraries—all informed by people who understand the strengths and challenges of their communities firsthand. For example, More Than a Shop is a network that now includes more than 30 barbershops and salons. Together, they have offered thousands of health screenings, implemented sexual health campaigns, and distributed naloxone to neighborhood residents.   

As Troy Staton, founder of More Than a Shop says, “We are leaders in our community. Barbers are healers. When someone goes in to get their hair cut, they are vulnerable, honest, and there is something fundamentally healing about touch. They could be a returning citizen [person who was formerly incarcerated] or returning from college, but the first thing they do is get a haircut.”  

More Than a Shop reaches people in their local neighborhoods. While getting a trim, people have conversations about how to get an ID or the job training they need. More Than a Shop makes connections to address overlooked and unmet needs, an approach that is central to Healing City Baltimore’s deep partnerships and community-led approach.   

Healing City Baltimore’s partnerships center compassion and healing from trauma in order to reach the community in authentic and relevant ways. This work demonstrates that collaboration is strongest when partners implement solutions proposed and designed by people with direct experience with the issue at hand.

A mural in honor and remembrance of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Healing City Baltimore’s partnerships center compassion and healing from trauma in order to reach their community in authentic and relevant ways.
Two women talking about information on a table in a library. Peer navigator Imani Keene (right) teaches library patron Imani Garrard how to use Narcan at the Cherry Hill branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. Baltimore’s library system operates the peer navigator program where people who have lived experience with addiction provide culturally competent and trauma-informed services.
A man stands while speaking to a room full of people gathered around a table. Councilman Zeke Cohen speaking at a task force meeting, which was created as part of the Elijah Cumming Healing City Act.

Amplifying Youth Voices  

Young people in Baltimore are encouraging the city council to address the root causes of the opioid epidemic, gun violence, police in schools, and other issues that are important to them. In 2019, when the city council held a hearing shortly after a shooting at Frederick Douglass High School, Bryonna Harris and her fellow classmates asked city leaders to focus on lasting solutions, not temporary fixes.   

After that hearing, a city councilmember and former public school teacher, Zeke Cohen, reached out to Harris and her fellow students to ask them to cocreate a solution with him. This youth-focused effort started what has become the heart of Healing City Baltimore, a trauma-informed strategy that focuses on community-led solutions.   

The approach ultimately led to the passage of trauma-informed legislation, known as the Elijah Cummings Healing City Act, which made Baltimore the first city in the country to pass such legislation. 

It designated a task force of 38 people to create a trauma-responsive city government, calling for a review of all policies and procedures to make sure they align with a healing framework. The task force includes government representatives, healthcare practitioners, returning citizens, young people, and people at grassroots organizations and local universities. The legislation also calls for training on trauma-informed care for all city agencies. The designers were intentional about including the brilliant cross-sector mental health and academic practitioners who know Baltimore and come from its communities. Government and agency leadership—including all cabinet members, the city council, and the mayor—have participated in the trainings and embraced the work.   

Jacia Smith, chief of staff of Baltimore City Recreation and Parks, has participated in the training. “The training has given staff the skills to pause and be intentional. We are only halfway through training, and it’s already had an impact. It has changed the way I show up. It requires the leadership to show up and change how we serve the young people,” she says.

We are leaders in our community. Barbers are healers. When someone goes in to get their hair cut, they are vulnerable, honest, and there is something fundamentally healing about touch. They could be a returning citizen [person who was formerly incarcerated] or returning from college, but the first thing they do is get a haircut.

—Troy Staton, barber and founder, More Than a Shop

Altering Library Practices 

The partnership is focusing its efforts where there is highest impact for residents, and working to change culture, policies, and systems in lasting ways. The Enoch Pratt Free Library was the first public agency to participate in the training. Today, all 450 librarians have been trained. In one stunning result, the library system eliminated its policy of zero-tolerance for drug use. Before the training, if someone entered the library and appeared to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs, staff would have them leave the premises. Now the library matches people who need support with the Peer Navigator Program, a workforce development program led by Tiffinee Scott of the Maryland Peer Advisory Council, where people who have lived experience with addiction provide culturally relevant and trauma-informed services—all within the library system. The peer navigators have engaged more than 2,400 community members in seven libraries across the city. They recently received a request from the governor’s office to expand the program statewide.  

Councilman Cohen shares why the partnership decided to begin with the library system. “Enoch Pratt was a great first partner because it is a trusted, safe place in the city, a place to get access to housing, treatment for addiction, and so much more. We started with the libraries because they are spaces of civic innovation, community, Internet access, job training, and more. Libraries are also places where we see trauma, substance use disorder, and homelessness, so we placed peer recovery coaches in the libraries.”   

The partnership has also influenced changes in the library’s systemwide response and overall mindset in how the staff interact with the community. Now when a harmful event occurs near a library, library staff organize a response to go to the schools with social workers and peer navigators. “We need to approach it with the lens of ‘why.’ We had to shift our mindset, saying, ‘How do we deal with this problem of people coming in to do drugs in our bathrooms?’ versus ‘How we do we support the folks in our communities?’” shares Heidi Daniel, president and CEO of the Enoch Pratt Library System. 

The task force has also achieved policy change at the city level. Its policy subcommittee made a case that not every problem requires a policing solution. The subcommittee advocated for and got the city council to pass $1.5 million for the Baltimore Crisis Response, which provides qualified first responders, not police, to address mental health crises. 

Our budget is a moral document. The Taskforce decided that we cannot stand by and allow the mental health crisis to fester without taking action. I am incredibly proud of our advocacy and the decision by the Mayor and City Council to include funds for mental health first responders in the budget.

Fareeha Wahid, co-chair, Trauma Informed Care

A young boy showing a beaded bracelet and necklace that he made. Transformation Nation provides supportive services for families in west Baltimore. Therapists Monica Boddie and Cyrus Nusum conceptualized and created sessions that act as a therapy hub for Baltimore children who have experienced trauma.
A high school building surrounded by green grass and trees. Bryonna Harris and other students from Frederick Douglass High School partnered with Councilman Cohen to create the Healing City Act.
A person speaks from a podium at a town hall meeting. Tiffinee Scott, community organizer, and Maryland Peer Advisory Council member, speaks at a town hall meeting at the Enoch Pratt Free Library about Baltimore’s approach to responding to the opioid crisis.

“Access to healthcare should be universal,” says Tiffinee Scott, president of Maryland Peer Recovery Council. “I, as a person, should be able to get the resources I need, no matter where I live or what bus line I am on, or what doctors or clinics are in my community. It’s about justice.” 

Today, the original partnership with Bryonna Harris, who first partnered with Councilman Cohen, has evolved in ways that exemplify Healing City Baltimore’s ethos that lived experience is expertise. After graduating high school, Harris is now a staff member at Healing City Baltimore, where she leads a number of youth-focused efforts. She started college in fall 2023, and Healing City has committed to make whatever adjustments needed to ensure she can pursue her education and continue to lead. As Director Kim Lagree and Assistant Director Rosheda Harrell Brockington put it, “That’s what equity looks like. We can’t fight for something that we’re not demonstrating. Within our team, that’s our commitment to one another, especially for our youth and young adults who have committed to this work and made a great investment. We’re all still healing, together.” 

Harris describes Healing City’s journey toward a Culture of Health as one of personal healing too. “You have to acknowledge the trauma first. Healing City has helped me heal. I know the [trauma] all too well. The school shooting was a breaking point. But my dad always believed in me and taught me that I have a voice, and I was bound to use it. I use trauma-informed care in my own life, and it has transformed me as a mom. I don’t look at trauma as my only me. I’m more than my trauma. The voice of the youth matters. We are at the forefront.” 

Two smiling women welcome children to a trauma center.

Celebrating Community

Culture of Health Prize winners Austin, Texas, and Baltimore, Md., are celebrating their communities, a key part of removing uneven barriers to wellbeing.
A smiling mother and daughter sit at a table in a room of people doing arts and crafts together.

RWJF Culture of Health Prize

The Prize celebrates communities where people and organizations are collaborating to build positive solutions to barriers that have created unequal opportunities for health and wellbeing.