Miesha Rice (photo right), center, a 2013 graduate of the University of Maryland, Baltimore School of Social Work, marches with others in Baltimore on May 1, following the death of Freddie Gray. Photo by Megan Leschak, 2013 graduate of the University of Maryland, Baltimore School of Social Work.
On May 1, Miesha Rice marched proudly — and peacefully — with others through the streets of Baltimore, following the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man whose spinal cord was injured while in police custody on April 12. Gray died from his injuries on April 19.
“We marched for about four hours, all throughout the city, where Freddie Gray was transported around in the van, his neighborhood (Sandtown-Winchester), Penn-North. It was amazing,” said Rice, who grew up in Penn-North, which borders the Sandtown-Winchester and Upton/Druid Heights neighborhoods. “I got choked up because it brought back memories of me as a child, walking to Mondawmin, and even going to the beauty supply store at the corner of Penn-North with my late grandmother.”
Not all protests in Baltimore were peaceful, however, with violence, fires and looting erupting in and around some of the city’s poorest neighborhoods and a state of emergency declared in the city limits.
Rice, who graduated with an MSW in 2013 from the School of Social Work at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, said some people act surprised when she tells them where she grew up — and she isn’t sure how to take it.
“I came from a great home and community,” she said. “We all knew each other, became families, and loved each other as if we were blood-related. I believe drugs and alcohol, and unspoken mental health issues, have caused a demise in many African-American neighborhoods.”
Gray’s neighborhood and those around it have also been the most blighted and impoverished areas in the city for years, and the struggles the residents in these communities face can lead to anger and frustration.
Racism, lack of equal rights for everyone, few job opportunities, and abuse and harassment from law enforcement officers are other factors, Rice said, that can ultimately lead to violent uprisings.
What are the solutions?
Richard Barth, dean of the University of Maryland, Baltimore School of Social Work, says although there is no single solution, early intervention is key.
Over the past decade, money has been spent to improve conditions in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, he said, but housing was the only thing that saw any change.
“The quality of housing improved, but other aspects of quality of life didn’t improve,” Barth said. “Mental health, community schools, a whole range of programs weren’t put in place.”
The UMB School of Social Work leads a federal initiative called Promise Heights, a place-based effort to support children and families with programs from the cradle to college to career, he said. The initiative began in western Baltimore in 2009, and they have been working to install some of these needed programs.
Promise Heights, administered by the U.S. Department of Education, is based on the Harlem Children’s Zone model in New York, Barth said, with a pipeline of services — including family, social services, health programs and community-building programs.
The UMB School of Social Work is the only school in the country that has a Promise Heights neighborhood, and it works with community partners — like larger churches, school systems, university partners and health care organizations — to a have a collective impact.
Some examples of services provided include preventive dental care, criminal records expungement, registering people to vote and maternal depression intervention. And they have been working intensely in five schools in the Upton/Druid Heights areas, Barth said.
“We have seen some results,” he said. “We have definitely reduced infant mortality rates in Promise Heights, school climate has improved, but school readiness has not improved as much. There’s better attendance at school … but we’re still struggling to turn that into higher achievement.”
A lot of the violent protests after Gray’s death took place in Upton/Druid Heights, said Bronwyn Mayden, assistant dean at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. The area is one of the poorest in the city and worst in terms of life expectancy, she said — about 20 years less than that of wealthier people.
Mayden, who is also executive director of the Promise Heights initiative, said it was easier to reach out to residents in the community amid the violent protests because, through the initiative, they had developed relationships with residents.
She and her staff organized a community discussion just 10 days after Gray’s death with one of the Promise Heights faith-based partners.
“We pulled together with a staff of 15, primarily clinical social workers, with Family Connections and Social Work Community Outreach,” Mayden said. “We only had overnight to organize it, and did it with a local church.”
The main goal was to provide a safe place to listen to residents, she said, which was done in a roundtable style with clinical staff sitting at different tables.
“We had about 65 residents, and many were parents or grandparents of children that attend the four schools in that neighborhood,” Mayden said. “They were afraid. This was more trauma. They were worried how would the backlash be from the city.”
Mayden and her staff also developed and distributed a set of crisis tips for parents to talk with their children about Gray’s death and the violent protests that followed. The tips were posted on the Baltimore City Public Schools website during the state of emergency.
Social work students march on April 24 in Baltimore (photo right), following the death of Freddie Gray. Photo by Duane Haley, 2013 alumnus of the University of Maryland, Baltimore School of Social Work.
Mayden, who grew up in West Baltimore, is working on other grants, like one for youth violence prevention in Upton/Druid Heights and one that would train adults to work with young people to identify symptoms of mental illness and help them get counseling.
She says she would like to have more community discussions in the future, and that building relationships and trust within the community is as important as implementing programs.
Miesha Rice agrees.
“I believe intervention programs and services are important,” Rice said. “But what about the people who are providing the services? … You have to make sure that the people behind the scenes, answering the phones, are all on the same page — believing in equal rights for all.”
Rice, who works for a nonprofit substance abuse treatment center, says the answer to that is education — more education about race, and more discussion about mental health issues.
Even though the underlying reasons for the Baltimore riots are complex and there is no single solution to prevent a future Freddie Gray — or a Ferguson, Mo. — Rice said it felt good to be part of the peaceful protests and to be heard.
“People from all backgrounds, races, creed, religion — there were so many people who came together on that day, and I really wanted to be a part of it,” she said. “And I believe that Baltimore showed the world how to really protest. Even with the violence, I believe we showed them how to do it.”
Voice of America featured Baltimore’s Promise Heights initiative on June 11.
Read more about Promise Heights neighborhood programs.
NASW Maryland Chapter plans anti-racism training
In reaction to the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, and the protests that followed, NASW’s Maryland Chapter is planning an anti-racism training program.
The training, by Associated Black Charitities, will last several days, said Daphne McClellan, the Maryland Chapter’s executive director.
“We need to change the racism we have in our country,” McClellan said. “I think there are things we don’t necessarily think about, and so we need to have more awareness.”
For more firstname.lastname@example.org or www.nasw-md.org