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Political and social leaders gather to reflect on social justice and activism from 1968 to 2018

In 1968 the Nation was at war, the economy was in crisis, racial and political tensions were high, civil unrest had erupted, and people around the country were mourning the death of two monumental leaders in history.

A crowd stands to sign along to the Negro National Anthem

Fifty years later faculty, students, researchers, and community members from across Baltimore gathered in Turner Auditorium for the Johns Hopkins Urban Health Institute’s (UHI) Social Determinants of Health Symposium, “1968-2018, Voices of Social Change: Empowered Communities for Health and Social Justice”, to remember the events of 1968, reflect on where we are now, and recommit to improving our communities. “We see this conversation as a dialogue between generations.  It is not just about looking backward it is also about looking forward, it is about honoring the past and those who walked before, and it is about learning from the past […] so we are not condemned to repeat it.”, explained UHI director Robert Blum.


The Year Was 1968…

Local and national leaders reflected on what life was like for them during that tumultuous time. Many just beginning their careers, some fighting against the war in Vietnam, others coping with the loss of two American heroes.

(L to R) Lester Spence, Senator Barbara Mikulski, Kathleen Townsend Kennedy, Congressman Elijah Cummings, and Taylor Branch on the “Reflecting on 1968 within the Context of 2018” panel discussion.
(L to R) Lester Spence, Senator Barbara Mikulski, Kathleen Townsend Kennedy, Congressman Elijah Cummings, and Taylor Branch on the “Reflecting on 1968 within the Context of 2018” panel discussion.

“They killed my hero”, said Congressman Cummings in reference to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. “I believed in King but then my hero was gone, and he was gone through violence, so it was a very difficult time for me.”

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend discussed the career of her father, the late Robert F. Kennedy, and how his death touched the country. “We all thought that train would be three and a half hours and in fact it was about an eight-hour train because spontaneously with no organization and no planning two million people came to stand by the train and to salute my father and they were white people and black people and working men and women” […] “Somebody said on that train what did my father do to be able to attract people from all across this country to come and stand and mourn him?” […] “Part of it is he had enormous physical and moral courage.”

The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy left a lasting feeling of loss and devastation around the country but the work they left behind marked a symbolism of hope and equality for all, specifically economic equality.

(L to R) Marc Steiner and Robert Houston on the “Poor People’s Campaign and Resurrection City” panel discussion.
(L to R) Marc Steiner and Robert Houston on the “Poor People’s Campaign and Resurrection City” panel discussion.

Marc Steiner sat down with photographer Robert Houston to talk about the Poor People’s Campaign and Resurrection City. The two discussed what it was like coming together with a diverse group of people from all over, marching to Washington, and living in shanty tents for six weeks. “The Poor Peoples campaign was made up of African Americans from all across America, from six different directions across the country […] so rural folks from the south who were Black, Black folks from urban areas especially in the north, Mexican Americans from the west, Puerto Ricans from New York, Appalachian Whites and poor Whites from Chicago, Native Americans from all across the west.” Said Mr. Steiner. Spearheaded by Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and taken over by Ralph Abernathy after King’s death, the campaign advocated for poor people of all backgrounds in America and shed light on the economic struggles many were facing during that time. The historical moment lives on through pictures featured in publications and displayed along museum walls. These photos were captured by Mr. Houston.

“For me, this was a major experience of my life, a life-changing experience. I had never met so many different yet similar people in my life. I have never witnessed such unity, such caring.”, said Mr. Houston.

(L to R) Ralph Moore, Willa Bickham, and Brendan Walsh on the “Anti-War Movement and Role of the Church” panel discussion.
(L to R) Ralph Moore, Willa Bickham, and Brendan Walsh on the “Anti-War Movement and Role of the Church” panel discussion.

While the Nation was fighting an economic crisis, American troops were fighting in Vietnam. Ralph Moore, Willa Bickham, and Brendan Walsh discussed the anti-war movement and the role of the Catholic church. Providing context to the acts of Baltimore Four and the Catonsville Nine, sharing stories about peace activists and the Catholic worker, and explaining why war didn’t benefit anyone in 1968 and why it still isn’t benefitting us in 2018.

“War is not good for anybody’s health”, says Moore. “We are still feeling the effects of prior wars […] all of these have long-lasting impacts, not good impacts” with Mr. Walsh adding on “We have been at war for 222 years and the country has only been here for 242.”


Embracing the Diversity of Activism

Former Black Panther leaders, environmental crusaders, Catholic workers, political leaders, and artists shared how they advocate for their communities, demonstrating the diversity of activism throughout history.

Dew More Baltimore Youth Poetry Team
Dew More Baltimore Youth Poetry Team.

Dew More Baltimore Youth Poetry team introduced their concept of “artivism”, using spoken word to address and express issues they and their peers face in their communities.

“[with] Poetry, if you can grab someone’s attention then you can keep their attention and if you turn their pain into something pretty, you can have them actually get it, instead of yelling at someone until they actually change.”, said youth poet and activist Keyma Flight.

(L to R) Destiny Watford, Bishop Douglas Miles, Durre Smith, and Eddie Conway on the “Baltimore Political and Social Activism: 1968 and 2018” panel discussion.
(L to R) Destiny Watford, Bishop Douglas Miles, Durre Smith, and Eddie Conway on the “Baltimore Political and Social Activism: 1968 and 2018” panel discussion.

Activists of 1968 and activists of 2018 shared their perspectives on the political climate of Baltimore during the Baltimore Political and Social Activism: 1968 and 2018 Panel.  With the older generation citing the differences they see in 2018 than they did in 1968, including Bishop Douglas Miles, a Baltimore pastor and community advocate, who cited three major differences between 1968 and 2018. The quality and level of education in this country, the presence and role of the black church, and the lack of strong political leadership on the national, federal, and local levels.

Youth environmental activist Destiny Watford weighed in, “What 2015 showed me was just how deeply the webs of our injustices across the city, which are usually hidden by this invisible veil that hides the injustices we face all over, was lifted.” “I began to see (different) ways to organize and to think critically about how we can connect to the injustices that we are all facing together and doing it in a way that is really powerful.”

Ericka Huggins and Katrina-Bell McDonald on the “Women’s in Social and Political Activism” panel discussion.
Ericka Huggins and Katrina-Bell McDonald on the “Women’s in Social and Political Activism” panel discussion.

Katrina Bell-McDonald, associate professor of Sociology and co-director of the Center for Africana Studies, reunited with former Black Panther Leader and human rights advocate Ericka Huggins after thirty years to discuss the role of women in social and political activism since 1968.

“Women of the movements, all the way through, were the ones who held every single movement.”, said Huggins. “Right there on Martin’s arm was Coretta. […] She was the intellect of a lot. But do we know that? No, because we see her as a grieving widow, and so was I. […] It doesn’t take much to know women have been written out of the movements, so there is no role for us, we are the movement.”

Ms. Huggins also discussed the work of the Black Panther Party, the portrayal of the party in society, the contributions women made to the party, the importance of breaking down silos, and encouraged women to take care of themselves and bond with other women to help heal.

Congressman Cummings also shared a word of encouragement for the activists in the room to leave with. “I would encourage activists to make sure that every single child gets a good education and I really mean that. If you got an education, it makes a world a difference and we all have to fight for that.”


Where Are We Now?

While speakers remembered the historical events that happened between 1968 and 2018, such as the Baltimore riots in ‘68 and the aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray in 2015, many of them took the opportunity to reflect on the state of Baltimore and the country in 2018 and expressed concerns about how we are addressing issues such as poverty and racism.

Author and historian Taylor Branch on the “Reflecting on 1968 within the Context of 2018” panel discussion.
Author and historian Taylor Branch on the “Reflecting on 1968 within the Context of 2018” panel discussion.

“So, in my view we are still stuck 50 years later in a country that is blessed by the student activism and black-led movement that set all this in to motion but we are cursed by a politics that denies all of those blessings and that still shies away from all but the most superficial engagement with the race issue in the United States.” said historian and author Taylor Branch.

Hopes for the Future

In addition, many expressed ideas for how communities can move forward and shared action steps people should take to help change the political climate of today. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend commemorated the work of her father and encouraged others to follow his lead, “What we need I think out of our politics today is a love for one another, a respect for one another, and sense of dignity for each person rather than to condemn those with who we disagree.

Many credited young people as being the torch that will carry the flames of justice and advocacy and help shape the political decisions in years to come.

Baltimore School for the Arts Students singing songs of the civil rights movement
Baltimore School for the Arts Students singing songs of the civil rights movement.

“The new leadership that is coming up in our political world maybe will change that, that’s why I love this younger generation”, said Marc Steiner. “The younger generation is giving me more hope than I had in a long time, people in their teens and 20s and 30s.”

Former Baltimore Black Panther leader and founder of the Tubman House here in Baltimore, Eddie Conway echoed the same sentiments. “Nothing changes in societies throughout history without young people engaging. It’s always been young people, even when the black panther party started it was young people. […] Young people are the engines of change because they’re the ones that will inherit the future and if young people don’t engage they will end up in predicaments where they don’t have control.”

To view photos and video from the April 30th Social Determinants of Health Symposium please visit our Facebook page and YouTube channel.

Imani West, Johns Hopkins Urban Health Institute

Urban Health in Contemporary America

Last Thursday, March 29, the Johns Hopkins Urban Health Institute (UHI) rolled out a new course, Urban Health in Contemporary America. In this course students will examine structures that impact the determinants of health within the context of urban environments.

The goal of the course is to equip students with the knowledge and tools to:

  • Describe the historical forces that led to the rise of cities in the U.S. and the social and economic factors shaping contemporary urban crises

  • Develop and apply a framework for conceptualizing urban health, its components, and their interrelationships

  • Assess the relative importance of the characteristics of contemporary U.S. cities in shaping the health of their populations

  • Articulate the structural factors that lead to advantaged and disadvantaged populations in major urban centers in the U.S.

  • Explain and discuss controversies in urban health from multiple perspectives

Dr. Robert Blum, the director of the UHI, along with a number of guest speakers, will be leading students the next seven weeks through a series of sessions, students will explore urban health through the lens of Baltimore by exploring historical factors, taking a tour of the city, examining the determinants that effect health in urban populations, and discussing and debating topics that impact the Baltimore community and other urban cities across America, such as poverty, racism, policing, and housing.

Students will also have the opportunity to attend out of class events such as the Urban Health Institute’s upcoming Social Determinants of Health Symposium on April 30.

Learn more about the new course by visiting the website

“While serious violence plagues our city, mass incarceration has done little to make it safer. Rather, it has impoverished our citizens, impacted the children’s mental health and limited our economic growth.”--Dr. Robert Blum, Director of the Urban Health Institute.

Waking up on Monday, April 28, 2014, I knew that it was going to be a hectic but exciting day. I arrived at Turner Auditorium around 8:00 AM to set up for the Third Annual Social Determinants of Health Symposium, “Squandered Resources: Incarceration—Its Consequences, Costs and Alternatives”.

Within 30 minutes, the lobby was flooded with attendees eager to participate in the daylong event. Over 500 participants attending from across the city, state, nation and even world poured down the stairs to line up at the registration table, where I was working.

The event hit close to home for me, because I graduated from Towson University as a criminal justice major in May. I spent four years studying justice, crime and incarceration, and I’m still appalled when I hear statistics like “1 in 5 young men in Baltimore City have been in prison.” How can we address this problem? How can we find realistic solutions to improve health, reduce rates of recidivism and decrease incarceration in our city and state?

The Symposium featured 7 panel discussions and a powerful address from Congressman Elijah Cummings entitled A Charge for Change. Panelists ranged from ex-offenders to policy experts, to community organizers to nonprofit group leaders. According to their experiences, research and knowledge, the speakers brought unique perspectives to each panel. (click here to see the full agenda)  

I was kept busy during the day, directing people, greeting media and taking photos. One of my favorite aspects was the youth participation in the event. There were spoken word performances by Dew More Baltimore, artwork from Baltimore United Viewfinders and a string trio performance from Baltimore Youth Initiative High School’s group, Fusion.

I also love the fact that people in the audience could actually join in on the conversation during the panels using facebook, twitter (#SDH2014) and note cards.  There was also broad participation in roundtable discussions during lunch around specific areas of interest.

As a UHI intern one of my jobs was to monitor and respond to a portion of the hundreds of posts, questions and comments coming in via social media that day. With over 1,000 posts and a trending hashtag, I was kept very busy.  Each post contained amazing photographs, videos or quotes from the panels.

One tweet from Richard Bruno (@ridgebardo) posted a photo of Congressman Elijah Cummings during his speech A Charge for Change and said: “@RepCummings rousing us to rectify realities that exist in our communities by joining others & reaching upstream #SDH2014”. I was genuinely inspired by the level of engagement from the attendees. It showed me that incarceration is a top concern in this community.

Above all, my favorite part of the day was helping out with the recording of several brief speaker videos.  Each speaker was given an opportunity to record a 5 to 10 minute speech based on his or her research, experiences, and work within the community. To me, it is most exciting that these videos are now being posted to the UHI’s YouTube channel and being shared with all who attended the conference.  I saw the filming happening and now I’m seeing discussion continue as a result.

It is even possible that these videos will be distributed throughout high schools, colleges, and community organizations. It was inspiring to hear each speaker’s take on how we can come together to effect change, and it will be exciting to see the responses they evoke from others as they are released.

Being behind the scenes of the Symposium gave me an opportunity to watch incredible people come together to exchange knowledge and stories about one of the most pressing issues in our city. As a college student, it’s often easy to separate yourself from the city as a whole and get wrapped up in the pursuit of your degree. I’m thankful that I got the chance to contribute to such a powerful community-university collaboration because even though I’ve only been here for four years—Baltimore is my city.

Jessica Kane, Towson University ‘14

Eddie is one of numerous individuals who will be leading a roundtable discussion at the Urban Health Institute’s Third Annual Social Determinants of Health Symposium, Squandered Resources: Incarceration—Its Costs, Consequences and Alternatives, co-hosted with the Office of the Provost. The event is on April 28th and is open to public online registration.

After 43 years and 11 months behind bars, Marshall Edward Conway, or “Eddie,” became a free man on March 4, 2014. Eddie’s story has been widely publicized, covered by the media and political groups, as he is one of the numerous political prisoners across the country from the 1970’s Black Panther Party who is now being released. The wave of releases is a result of the May 2012 Unger v. State ruling in the Maryland Court of Appeals, which applied retroactively to several cases, including Eddie’s.

  I recently sat down with Eddie Conway to get a firsthand account of his experiences, perspectives, and plans for the future. One of my first questions for Eddie was about his reputation as an “exemplary prisoner.” While incarcerated, Eddie received three college degrees, started a prison library, and founded the Friend of a Friend program, a conflict resolution mentoring project that is currently operating in five Maryland prisons.

His influence was and continues to be life changing. He told me that the night before our interview he met with a support group of ex-offenders. Of the meeting he said, “In that group there were people and faces that I remember that started out from the literacy program. They ended up going to college and being organizers. I can see even now, thirty or forty years later, that it has changed people’s lives.”

During our conversation, Eddie frequently used that word—“organizer.” When I asked how to get more organizers to start similar literacy and education programs in prisons, he explained that “the real problem is not that people need organizers, but that you need the kind of organizers that people relate to.”

When Eddie uses the label “organizer” he’s referring to a person that other inmates or ex-offenders can see as a role model. “If they [prisoners] can see a guy that has been in prison and understand him, they will be less inclined to clam up. They learn respect because they see a role model. Especially when you deal with young people, respect and reputation is important.”

The Friend of a Friend program was established on the principle of respect. It was “developed by incarcerated men in order to try to change the culture within the prison system.” Often, mentees become mentors after receiving training through the curriculum guide, which includes debate workshops, theater role-play, and case studies from previous mentors.

The idea for Friend of a Friend sparked when Eddie was in his late fifties. “I was sitting around in the dining room and listening to very destructive behavior in terms of future planning. That caused me to start talking to the guys. When I finished talking to ten, I could maybe save four. That’s when I knew I couldn’t do it by myself, so I started Friend of a Friend with the American Friend Service.”

When I asked how he initially approached those conversations, he returned to the issue of respect. “At that point I was an elder. Close to sixty. I had been in prison forever, so even guys that didn’t know me knew of me.”

Eddie described that in these conversations he presented options and helped prisoners identify and use their unique interests and skill sets. “I said to them, ‘I hear what you’re saying, but what you want is a future. If you take the track of crime, the percentage is that eighteen months from now you’ll be back here or in a cemetery.’ So I asked them, ‘What’s your skill set? What can you do? What’s your resources base? Who do you know?’” These basic questions birthed the Friend of a Friend organization inside prison.

However, Eddie also recognized a need to expand the organization to develop deeper roots within the community, and identified reintegration into the community after incarceration as a major challenge.

I asked Eddie if the prisoners he spoke with were discouraged by the challenges they anticipated after release. He responded that the anticipation was part of the problem, but that inmates are primarily coping with the obstacle of the reality that they have experienced.

“[For many inmates] the reality on the ground has been that the deck is stacked, the justice system doesn’t work for them, they’re always under the gun, and there are very few ways out—you can rap, you can ball, you can bang [go into the army],” said Eddie. “If you’re walking down the street in a poor black community there’s a heavy police presence there. Even if you tell them about other options, it’s hard [for them] to believe because the reality that stares them in the face every day 24/7 is one of ‘you’re going to fail, your community is going to fail. If you don’t fail, we will make you fail.’”

“It’s in the lexicon,” he continued. “You pick up the papers, you look at the news, you never hear the stories about the good guy. If it bleeds it leads. And you get bombarded with those stimulations. Not only do you [sense] there is no way out, you’re convinced there is no way out because you see that half of your community disappeared into the prison system or the graveyard.”

In terms of addressing these problems, Eddie doesn’t assign the root of blame to the police system or the sensationalist media. “It’s institutional,” he says. “You can’t control an impoverished community without oppressive means. If there are no jobs, there is going to be perpetual violence in that community. If there is perpetual violence, there will be the presence of…forces to contain and control that.”

Eddie continued, “It goes all the way back to massive unemployment. There’s a social contract that is supposed to exist. And people that enjoy the good graces of [society] have an obligation to the rest of the population to…help them sustain a viable life. That contract has been broken. What we can do is change the dynamics in our community by helping however we can—at the grassroots level.”

We concluded our conversation by discussing his personal experience with integration over the past month. “Well, each day I’m gaining a little more control of my environment,” Eddie said. “I’m eating too much Chinese food. I’m enjoying being able to sit out somewhere and watch the skyline and traffic. All my days have been busy. Even now I have to be somewhere in twenty minutes!”

And Eddie has been busy. He has been expanding the Friend of a Friend organization, doing interviews, and promoting his book, Marshall Law: The Life & Times of a Baltimore Black Panther.

On Monday, April 28 Eddie will be leading a roundtable discussion at the Urban Health Institute’s Third Annual Social Determinants of Health Symposium, Squandered Resources: Incarceration—Its Costs, Consequences and Alternatives, co-hosted with the Office of the Provost . Eddie will join experts from academic institutions, local community leaders, and ex-offenders who will address problems in our criminal justice system and discuss ways to ensure healthier, safer lives for Baltimore’s youth.

Eddie ended with an anecdote that was both humorous and insightful: “Recently I had to unstop a backed up toilet. Someone said ‘that must be horrible.’ I said ‘I could be locked in a cell, so it’s not horrible. I would rather have this experience than not.’”

Joanna Guy, Urban Health Institute

On April 2, the Urban Health Institute held a seminar with four expert panelists on the role of fathers in the lives of their children.

The panel opened with commentary from Bill Mosher and Jo Jones, who co-researched and co-authored the 2013 Center for Disease Control and Prevention report, “Father’s Involvement With Their Children: United States, 2006-2010.”

The report is based on a “nationally representative sample of 10,403 men aged 15-44 years in the household population of the United States.” In general, the report found that “fathers living with their children participated in their children’s lives to a greater degree than fathers who live apart from their children,” but that most American fathers are involved in hands-on parenting.

Mosher stated that the report “debunks racial stereotypes about fathers,” and Jones supported the statement by explaining that data showed that, “black [co-residential] fathers have high levels of involvement [with their children].

The release of the report was the catalyst for several news articles, one which stated, “the detached dad, turning up his nose at diapering and too busy to bathe, dress and play with his kids, is mostly a myth.”

David Miller, the Chief Visionary Officer and Co-Founder of the Urban Leadership Institute brought a unique perspective, as most of his work has consisted of on the ground work with families and communities.

“Most of my work has been about healing communities based on my experience growing up as a young black male in Baltimore,” Miller said. He has done extensive work over the past 25 years with adolescent African American boys, helping them redefine what it means to be a male in America.

“Most programs are on moms and grandmothers. We have to increase research on fathers and fatherhood involvement,” Miller said. He also suggested that we take steps to get rid of distorted images of black fathers in the media, increase images of fathers in children’s literature, and increase the father’s role in and access to his child’s school activities.

Timothy Nelson, the co-author of Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City, echoed Miller’s commentary and added that “married fathers seem to be doing very well in terms of direct engagement with their children.”

Nelson also addressed the fact that the CDC report showed that non co-residential fathers spend statistically less time with their children. “We assign a lot of responsibility to non co-residential fathers, but have to realize that it is not always up to them whether or not they see or engage with their children,” said Nelson.

Journalist Hanna Rosin described Nelson’s book, co-authored with Kathryn Edin, as “the best book on fatherhood I’ve read in a long time.”

The panel concluded with a question and answer session. Suggestions for future research included:

  • Incorporating data collected from interviewing incarcerated fathers
  • Expanding the research definition of a father to include “social fathering” in addition to a  biological father, father by adoption, or man currently living with his partner’s children
  • Finding a means to assess the length and depth of a father’s interactions with his children in addition to the quantity of interactions
  • Targeting the mobile male population, whose responses might not be caught in a household-based survey

Joanna Guy, Urban Health Institute

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