Baltimore is betting on a new type of first responder: the librarian

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One day in June, employees of the Enoch Pratt Free Library came together online to learn something new: how to defuse conflict, mediate grief, and help people feel better about themselves.

They received instructions from Lawrence Brown, a professor at Morgan State University who trains organizations on racial equity, then broke out into small, private sessions where they had difficult, but open conversations about healing from their own trauma. and that of their city.

“There was a conversation about understanding history and the impact on neighborhoods in present-day Baltimore,” said Heidi Daniel, CEO of the Enoch Pratt Free Library system. “We are focused on the question of how the library can play a role in healing inequalities and on reviewing our internal policies and practices to do a better job.”

This session was part of an experimental effort by Baltimore leaders, who hope to tap into city agencies, beginning with the library, to answer a big question: how does a city that has endured decades of trauma, including more than 190 homicides this year, begins to heal? Baltimore is teaching its city staff how to spot and help people dealing with this trauma, and transforming city facilities into places where they can learn to cope and, in turn, help their neighbors deal with their own pain and suffering.

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In the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, social services like shelters had become strained in the city, as across the country; librarians and their colleagues had stepped in to help with this kind of front-line work. In 2021, the city, recognizing the reach of the public library branch system, asked how library staff could go further, helping to address the root causes of violence.

“If all agencies have a deeper understanding of the impact of trauma and focus on not retraumatizing people, that can be a game changer for Baltimore,” Daniel said.

The strategy is among the first of its kind nationally, and it poses a challenge to the public health approach to violence reduction: can official policy and programming directly alleviate pain and stress? what do residents experience amid frequent violence, despite entrenched poverty and racism? integrated into the city’s infrastructure.

Councilman Zeke Cohen, who sponsored the Elijah Cummings Healing City Act, sparked the approach, hoping to “understand how we became a city where a kid from Roland Park” — among the wealthiest and whitest neighborhoods in Baltimore – “expected to live 20 years longer than a child born in Sandtown-Winchester” – one of the poorest and majority black.

Learning history — to change the future

Drive through Baltimore and the physical signs of trauma are evident: vacant houses, wood planks covering their windows and doors, row houses; an open-air opioid business flourishes in plain sight; homeless people sleep under highway bridges; and, across the city, people are building memorials to the victims of an unprecedented six-year round of violence. These physical signifiers show Baltimore’s legacy as an innovator in systemic racism. Redlining, the practice of marking where families can and cannot live or receive services, often based on race, originated in Baltimore in 1910 after a Black Yale Law graduate bought a house in an all-white neighborhood. The city responded by passing a racial segregation ordinance that outlined exactly which blocks black people were allowed to live in. Although redlining as an official practice was banned decades ago, the city remains deeply segregated by race; by extension, the distribution of resources and opportunities is also unevenly distributed.

“Trauma can inflict people at the population level, whenever a dominant group oppresses a vulnerable group,” said Brown, who led the June session with librarians. “I argue that apartheid Baltimore is the root cause of group trauma and individual trauma in Baltimore.”

This session was the first training for city employees; the elected officials, including the city council and the mayor’s office, were formed earlier in the spring. Brown’s presentation relied heavily on his book, The Black Butterfly: The Nefarious Politics of Race and Space in Americawhich details Baltimore’s deep segregation and how racism permeates politics.

“Budgets [determine the city’s] policies, practices and systems and allow them to flourish,” Brown said during the training. Thus, the city that creates these budgets and its staff must see their role in maintaining inequalities.

Brown flipped through slides of newspaper clippings dating back more than 100 years that documented early efforts to separate Baltimore. Despite federal court intervention, City Hall and local politicians bowed to the demands of the city’s then-predominantly white electorate, and racial divisions on Baltimore’s streets continued.

“Librarians…you are the people who can bring and bring the information together to help increase city-wide knowledge, city-wide political will, to make sure we heal Baltimore in a comprehensive way. and genuine,” Brown said.

Cohen agrees and says that’s why he saw the Baltimore Library branches as a logical place to start: Many of those with the highest needs – the city’s homeless, those who suffer from addiction and behavioral health issues, and the children – regularly use the library, which is a city facility. “The ultimate goal,” Cohen said, “is for people to feel safe in city-controlled institutions.”

Creating safe urban spaces

An incident inside a city building triggered this plan. In 2019, a man walked into Frederick Douglass High School and shot and injured a teaching assistant. Even for Baltimore, where violence is commonplace, the shooting rocked the city. Political leaders have considered whether to arm school resource officers and install metal detectors in schools. The students had a different strategy in mind and called on the city to heal from its deep trauma through group sessions like the ones the libraries held in June and mediation and conflict resolution training that remains to be seen. to come.

City lawmakers took the students’ advice. In early 2020, the city passed the Elijah Cummings Healing City Act, named after the late congressman and sponsored by Cohen. The law created a Trauma Task Force to study its impact on individual residents and the city as a whole. The task force used funding from the Open Society Foundations, which fund justice, education, media and public health initiatives around the world, as well as city funds to develop healing strategies.

“Trauma, as I have experienced since childhood, is embedded in our livelihoods, in the food we eat, in the shows we watch, in the relationships we participate in,” said Destini Philpot, a young city leader. Trauma-Informed Care Working Group. “We are beginning to change and heal our community by addressing trauma and creating trauma-friendly spaces, especially for young people. »

The city also sought input from the community as a whole. Officials held listening sessions in barbershops, laundromats, beauty salons and, of course, libraries. Out of these sessions came the outline of the trauma-informed municipal programming that really kicked off this summer.

The work is in its infancy. Library staff have been trained and there are plans to offer similar sessions to the public in libraries. Each branch will specialize in a different type of training, delivered by one of Baltimore’s welfare organizations. If a person wants to learn more about dealing with grief, they can go to a branch of the library that works with Roberta’s House, a family bereavement center. If anyone wants to learn more about restorative justice, there will be a branch focused on that skill. The city plans to make an announcement on a larger rollout of this plan in the coming weeks.

The city’s program could serve as a model for other cities and for the state of Maryland. In May, the state passed the Healing Maryland’s Trauma Act, which is modeled after Baltimore’s Cummings Act. Baltimore officials will report the results of the city’s trauma training to the state to help develop a similar program throughout Maryland.

This originally appeared in The Trace and is published here in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Exchange.


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