UMBC is a Major Partner in NEH Grant to Transform Narratives on Race in Baltimore

From a UMBC News release:


Image courtesy of the National Endowment for the Humanities

A $225,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded to the College of Arts and Humanities at University of Maryland (UMD) and the Maryland Humanities Council will fund a series of public programs that are designed to explore the way citizens of Baltimore are thinking about the narratives that influence the life and identity of the city. Major partners will include the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s Dresher Center for the Humanities, the Enoch Pratt Free Library and the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance.

The initiative, Baltimore Stories: Narratives and the Life of an American City (Baltimore Stories), seeks to establish a model that utilizes humanities scholarship— literature, history, philosophy, communication, art and cultural studies—to produce print and digital materials that help frame and contextualize narratives of race in American cities. The project will also shine a spotlight on the ongoing, collaborative work being done in Baltimore neighborhoods by universities and non-profit organizations.

“During the uprising, Baltimore residents had lively conversations about the stories that shape our perceptions of each other,” said Sheri Parks, co-project director of the initiative and associate dean for research and interdisciplinary programming in the College of Arts and Humanities at the University of Maryland. “We are elated to use this grant as a platform to continue these conversations.”

The NEH announced yesterday $21.8 million in grants, including $3.6 million devoted to new “Humanities in the Public Square” grants that support community discussions on the relevance of the humanities to civic life.

“We are honored to answer the call that NEH Chairman Adams issued earlier this year to use the humanities to ‘take up the grand challenges of our time,’” said Phoebe Stein, co-project director of the initiative and executive director of the Maryland Humanities Council. “The equity that needs to be created here in Baltimore, and across much of the nation, can begin with the humanities as they give us contexts for understanding and addressing this inequity and the narratives that undergird it. The humanities facilitate the conversations that can ultimately contribute to solutions.”

UMBC will host three interactive public events in Baltimore and a day-long culminating session on campus. At two workshops, participants will create their own digital stories and engage in a community media project being produced by the Imaging Research Center at UMBC, intended to give voice to the stories of those living in some of Baltimore’s many communities. The events will offer community members from a variety of neighborhoods opportunities to explore how Baltimore narratives shape their lives and build on partnerships established at the Imagining America conference. A culminating event will highlight potential ways to advance our diverse communities.

“Narrative or the collectives of stories we tell ourselves and each other is also a major focus of the humanities, so we hope to help citizens investigate and contextualize the past, present and future to uncover truths and move communities toward reconciliation,” said Parks.

“This is a great opportunity to work together with UMD-College Park, the Maryland Humanities Council, and the Pratt Library, as well as our many community partners in Baltimore, on issues that affect us all,” shared Scott Casper, dean of the UMBC College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences.

“This project will showcase the many ways that humanities scholarship and teaching at UMBC connect to civic life in Baltimore,” said Jessica Berman, director of the Dresher Center for the Humanities. “We look forward to working with our partners, and especially those in the community, to help explore Baltimore’s diverse stories.”

Baltimore Revisited: Social History for the Twenty-First Century City

Nicole King is associate professor and chair of UMBC’s Department of American Studies.

Nicole King - SquareIn fall 2014, Kate Drabinski (Gender & Women’s Studies) and I co-taught UMBC’s first-year Humanities Scholars seminar, which focused on Baltimore’s social history. It was a great semester of introducing students to the rich history of our city and bringing them downtown to do research and interviews. At the end of the semester, students’ work aired on The Marc Steiner Show (WEAA 88.9) in the form of the public humanities radio show “Downtown Stories.”

Kate Drabinski and I have used The Baltimore Book: New Views on Local History in our classes for years and realized that nearing twenty-five years in print this invaluable text needed an update. That realization led to a panel at the 2015 Chesapeake American Studies Association (CHASA) conference at UMBC with past editors and contributors to The Baltimore Book along with local professors who use the text asking: What would a “new” Baltimore Book look like? Now we are working to make such a book for researchers and teachers interested in making the social history of Baltimore a reality.

Baltimore Revisited: Social History for the Twenty-First Century City will draw from a wide range of researchers inside and outside of the academy to tell the stories of how and why Baltimore looks and functions as it does today. We are specifically looking for heavily researched pieces written in an accessible voice that can offer new perspectives on the city’s social history grounded in the specific places, neighborhoods, and communities in Baltimore. Each chapter could stand alone, but together, they will offer a newer vision of local history from the ground up to complicate our view of the past, as well as the present.

It has been over twenty years since Linda Shopes, Elizabeth Fee, and Linda Zeidman published The Baltimore Book: New Views of Local History with Temple University Press. The book broke new ground, telling histories of Baltimore City not from the perspective of the Great Men of the city—the robber barons, war heroes, and politicians—but from the perspective of groups traditionally marginalized from mainstream history: workers, activists, organizers, and agitators. Growing out of a radical history bus tour, The Baltimore Book was also unique in embracing voices from inside and outside the academy, resulting in an accessible and beautifully illustrated book that still claims a broad readership today.

While The Baltimore Book is still a relevant text, it is time for a twenty-first century version of this project, one that continues the path started in 1991 while harvesting new histories from “The Greatest City in America.” The historical time frame for this book will cover a wide range of eras, from the 18th century when Baltimore’s industrial prominence was on the rise to the city’s current period of deindustrialization. The 2015 Baltimore Uprising further illustrated that the city of Baltimore is an important subject for analyses of the deeply embedded structural inequalities and the great tenacity and potential of the city in the twenty-first century. Baltimore Revisited will address the past in the guise of informing a better future for Baltimore and other urban centers in the US and beyond.

Submissions are invited from a diversity of disciplines—not just history—such as: American Studies, Gender and Women Studies, Public History, Historic Preservation, Local History, Human Geography or Architecture, Comparative Ethnic Studies, Urban Studies or other similar fields. Chapters should be between 2,000 – 6,000 words (small and longer articles are fine), excluding references. Please email 500-word abstracts and/or completed papers and a CV to and by September 1. Authors will be notified of acceptance of proposed chapters by October 1 with full draft of the chapters to editors by spring 2016.

We are excited to work on making a text that will do justice to the many complex and compelling stories of our city. We are revisiting the social history of Baltimore because we believe the city is the engine of the future, and our future is always connected to understanding our past.

Contact the author, Nicole King, at

Finding Community in Common Ground

Jill Wrigley, Adjunct and General Associate in UMBC’s Interdisciplinary Studies program, developed and teaches courses on the food system and food justice.

Jill Wrigley“Find your place on the planet. Dig in, and take responsibility from there.” –Gary Snyder

When asked how many raised plots in the UMBC Garden their family would like, Ba Zo and Na Lun, my course collaborators and refugees from Burma, turned their gaze to an unused swath of land nearby. Ba Zo smiled and said: “We’d like to have all that.  We could grow a lot of food.”  Along with my students, I followed his gesture and considered the space. Ba Zo remarked that the power and good energy of the earth was waiting there, waiting to be used to grow food.

His suggestion lit our imaginations. I saw an intricate, dense web of food-producing and pollinator-attracting plants and trees inhabited by birds, bugs, and humans above the ground, and fungi and microbes below, all busily generating a mutually beneficial community.

by Jill Wrigley for BreakingGroundThen I blinked, and I saw grass and grass and grass, next to a scrappy patch of woods.

My students had their own set of visions, and through my course, I’m seeking to help bring some of them to fruition.

Particularly because of my work with Great Kids Farm (a Baltimore City Schools experiential learning center), I was invited in spring 2012 to teach an Interdisciplinary Studies seminar on the intersecting challenges that our current food system presents for environmental sustainability, public health and social justice.  My own hunger to literally break ground here at UMBC, and to connect students with communities in Baltimore City, has led me to reshape my courses as engaged and applied learning experiences that are, increasingly, co-created by students and myself.  Two BreakingGround grants and an Entrepreneurship grant from the Alex. Brown Center, and many supportive colleagues at UMBC, have enabled me to do this.

This semester I invited students joining my INDS 430 Creating Food System Justice seminar either to propose their own project or to join a community partner’s project, as long as the project was working at some socially beneficial innovation within the local food system. In experimenting with course structure, I confess to being inspired by the Montessori pedagogical model in which the traditional “Teacher” who conducts a mostly unilateral transference of knowledge to “students” is reframed as “the Guide” who facilitates a process of discovery and cultivation of intrinsic motivation within a community of learners.   In my class this semester, I’ve aimed to anchor the course within students’ own motivations and capacities and then scaffold in academic, personal and professional development as we walk the semester’s path.

While I gathered preliminary course resources and books, I have also been adapting the syllabus and course schedule to tend to particular project imperatives and to deepen student knowledge as needs and interest arise.  I have also sought to incorporate into the semester cycles of study, action and reflection.  At the urging of my TA, INDS Senior Andres Camacho, we also decided to organize ourselves and present the development of our semester’s work through the creation of a WordPress site ( and a Google Drive folder for students to share work and assign readings.

I want my students to read and digest academic literature associated with topics we’re treating this semester, including: the evolution of the internationally recognized Human Right to Food and food justice; food waste; debates about agro-ecology vs. industrial agriculture; hazards to human health caused by the “Western” or “processed food” diet; hunger, food insecurity and disparate food access; civic agency and food system innovations; and various other issues.  Of equal importance to me is the fact that students are learning one another’s names and motivations, and the names and concerns of people in nearby communities. I value the opportunity they are getting to explore more deeply what they care about, and why, and what policymakers, advocates and community members – as well as academic researchers — have to say about these various issues.

As we near the semester’s end, our efforts are coming to fruition or laying the ground for future endeavors. Our five projects this semester include:

“True Greens” – My course is supporting the development of a student-enterprise growing nutrient and taste-dense microgreens on campus (with thanks to UMBC Biology Dept. and their Greenhouse) that can generate weekly greens for sale to UMBC’s Dining Services and area restaurants. Senior INDS major and Course TA Andres Camacho leads this project (for which he won the December 2014 Idea Competition). In partnership with Dining Services, these greens are now sold daily in the The Commons at Wild Greens.

“UMBC New Roots Community Garden” – This group has been conducting institutional advocacy and organizational planning for a campus-based community garden in partnership with the Baltimore office of the International Rescue Committee that will serve refugees in the area who desire to grow their own food. The students are advocating for a patch of land right next to the UMBC Community Garden to maximize the teaching, learning and community building values of having us all grow together.  INDS student and Sondheim Scholar Rosa Rada, who interned with the Baltimore International Rescue Committee’s New Roots program last summer, brought this initiative to UMBC and is the lead student on this project.

“The Village Farmers Market”– Students in this project are collaborating with Neighbors Without Borders  of West Baltimore to plan and establish a new farmers market in the parking lot of Edmondson-Westside High School in Edmondson Village, the site of destructive blockbusting and years of economic disinvestment (the story of which American Studies Professor Emeritus Ed Orser shared with our class earlier this semester).  The Market is set to open June 6, with one of our students as assistant market manager and volunteer coordinator; another has been generating social media content, and a third has been researching the accessibility of nutrition assistance programs and nutrition education programs at farmers markets.

Jill Wrigley--Student group planting food forest* “The UMBC Food Forest” – This group is being led by senior Geography and Environmental Systems student Dominic Costa, who is making use of his Permaculture Certificate and practicing teaching and project management skills.  This team of students is designing and implementing on campus an “edible ecosystem,” that is, “a consciously designed community of mutually beneficial plants and animals intended for human food production.” Jacke, D., & Toensmeier, E. (2005). Edible Forest Gardens (Vol. One, p. 1). White River Junction, Vt.: Chelsea Green Pub. Students in this team are also collaborating with the the Baltimore Orchard Project, a non-profit in Baltimore City that supports fruit and nut tree harvesting and cultivation to improve healthy food access for current and future generations. On April 28th, we installed the core features of this food forest at the foot of the hill below the UMBC Garden.

Hungry Harvest at UMBC – This student team is collaborating with a young for-profit social enterprise (founded by a recent UMD College Park graduate Evan Lutz) to explore and possibly bring a “recovered food CSA” to the UMBC Campus for staff, faculty and students. Hungry Harvest recovers regionally grown produce that is otherwise thrown away and packages it into weekly deliveries of “shares of food,” creatively innovating off of the farm share CSA model.  For $12 or $18 weekly, customers receive a bag of fresh produce, and one bag is donated to local hunger relief efforts for every bag purchased.  Students hope to lay the foundations for a summer pilot program that would target UMBC apartment dwellers and other staff or faculty on campus during summer sessions.

As for that vacant land that my class and our Burmese guest gardeners surveyed last fall: Some of it is the site of our emergent UMBC Food Forest.  Some of that good earth remains under grass, as the IRC and refugees on a list of aspiring gardeners wait to hear if the vision of a community garden for growing food will receive the UMBC Administration’s approval. We hope for permission in time to produce a bountiful fall harvest.  More to come!

I hope the experiences students are having this semester will support them in their years beyond UMBC.  And, I hope the spaces which they are growing and the connections they are making – within UMBC and with community partners – will take root and flourish.

Jill Wrigley--Food forest installation

Contact the author, Jill Wrigley, at

Weaving Our Stories into the History of the Baltimore Uprising

Denise D. Meringolo is an associate professor of history and director of public history at UMBC.

Denise MeringoloToo often in the past, the history of protest and civil unrest was shaped by official accounts. They may capture the perspectives of police officers, government leaders, and even high-ranking activists. However, they inevitably leave out the perspectives of the very people who were directly affected by incidents of injustice, violence, or civil disobedience. These histories are incomplete. And this matters.

Historical accounts shape what we think we know about our country, our city, and ourselves. Incomplete accounts create profound misunderstandings about the past that have consequences in the present. More complete stories can help us empathize with one another, recognize systems of inequality, and address pressing social problems.

The response in Baltimore to the death of Freddie Gray is complex. On the one hand, it is part of a national trend. Across the country, frustration about police brutality toward African Americans has been growing.

At the same time, the events in Baltimore are local and specific. A long series of political and economic choices, public policies, and social transformations created deep inequalities in our city.

We have a responsibility to ensure that a more complete history of these events can be written. Public History students, faculty, and organizations from UMBC and around the city are joining forces to create a digital archive of the Baltimore Uprising. As we gather images, stories, videos, documents, and other materials, we will be able to create digital exhibitions that tell a more complete story about what happened here.

Help us.

Share your stories. Upload photographs. Show us what you’ve seen. Show us the sign you carried. Tell us what you witnessed. When were you there? Where did you stand? Your contributions will build our digital archive. Together, we will make sure the history of the Baltimore Uprising of 2015 can include voices from the streets as well as voices from the halls of government.

Contact the author, Denise D. Meringolo, at

Putting Down New Roots

 Rosa Rada ’17, Interdisciplinary Studies, interned with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Baltimore as the New Roots Gardening Intern.

Rosa Professional PhotoThis past summer I had a full-time AmeriCorps position at the International Rescue Committee: a non-profit that resettles refugees and provides humanitarian relief. I worked at the Baltimore office for their New Roots program where I focused primarily on helping refugees learn about and gain access to healthy nutrition and gardening.

This was the summer where I reached clarity: I found something worth living for. I worked 45+ hours a week, endured a hellish commute to East Baltimore, and involved myself in several other projects that left me considering sleep as highly optional. But the exhaustion was more than worth it because my experience working at the International Rescue Committee was by far the most enriching experience of my life. The health and nutrition tragedies I witnessed in the homes and communities of refugees and the positive effect that gardening and advocacy had on them did new rootsnothing but fuel my passions.

I also have gotten this crazy idea that if I work hard enough and care deeply enough, I can make almost anything happen. I have come to realize that these moments of clarity and empowerment were primarily the results of two things.

First, I pushed myself into an experience where I was naïve, uncomfortable, and unprepared. This forced me to learn and grow quickly. I admit that, when I began, I knew next to nothing about the refugee situation or the cultures of those I was working for.

Second, I was fortunate enough to be in an environment that encouraged me to take ownership over my own projects. For example, I had recognized that there was a large population of refugees in the Arbutus area who were underserved, especially in terms of garden space. I wanted these refugees to experience the benefits of gardening: the improved nutrition, food security, and mental health. I realized that UMBC would be an especially rich place to have such a garden and spent 6 months working with Professor Jill Wrigley to gain approval of this project. This past fall, we piloted the idea by having a Burmese refugee family garden in some of the UMBC community garden plots and engage both formally and informally with Jill’s food systems course. I’m grateful to be leading the project in Jill’s course this semester as well. In this course, students not only study food system issues, but work on real projects with the community to ensure food justice.

gardenHere is my reflection on why I am passionate about my particular project. I can say with absolute excitement that legal counsel has recently approved this project and that, with the hard work and passion of talented students, I have faith that we can make this UMBC New Roots garden a reality.

My excitement about this summer pushed me to seek an exhilarating experience this past winter: I worked on an organic farm in Arizona through the World Wide Workers on Organic Farms program. Going on a solo trip to the other side of the country to live with people who were much different than me was certainly uncomfortable but, as with the IRC experience, I learned an enormous amount about my passions and about life in general.

I plan to continue to immerse myself in similar enriching experiences as well as continue to take exciting classes through the Interdisciplinary Studies major I’m designing. I hope that the knowledge and skills I gain will enable me to address the issues that plague the food system. In many senses, I am privileged to have had such empowering experiences and to be taking courses that I am truly excited about. But at the same time, I am convinced that everyone deserves and has the innate ability to find something that they love—that makes them passionately livid, inspired, and energized—and to take action on it.

Contact the author, Rosa Rada, at

Engaging People of All Abilities

Theophilus Aluko, ’16, Mechanical Engineering, is Prayer/Evangelism Coordinator for UMBC’s Bethel Campus Fellowship. Andrew Blow,’16, Mechanical Engineering, is President of UMBC’s student chapter of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) and Philanthropy (Abilities) Chair of Pi Kappa Phi fraternity at UMBC.

Earlier this semester we worked together to create a wheelchair basketball tournament at UMBC, as a first step toward a more inclusive campus culture and experiences for people with all levels of physical ability. This is our story.

Theophilus reflects

Theophilus AlukoEarly in my sophomore year, I joined the Social Change Interest Group launched by Virginia Byrne, UMBC’s Coordinator of Student Life for Leadership Development and Education. I was challenged to be an agent of civic and social change. During winter break, I became frustrated by the challenges people of varying levels of physical ability faced at UMBC if they wanted to play sports or get involved. On a more personal note, my inner drive for this initiative is my faith in Jesus. I knew that something had to be done, but that one person couldn’t bring about the necessary changes alone.

That was when I conceived the Adaptive Sports Initiative. My initial idea was to establish an adaptive wheelchair basketball group that would allow for athletes of all physical abilities to participate in the sport, with the hopes that it would have a resonating impact on other areas of the campus. Virginia was able to direct me to potential resources on campus, including people from Student Support Services, the Shriver Center, Residential Life and Athletics. I was meeting with Cassie Thompson from Student Support Services when UMBC undergraduate Steve Bobadilla coincidentally dropped by and Cassie introduced us.

Steve had been playing wheelchair basketball for a while, and we started brainstorming about how we could collaborate. Steve and I worked through his connections with Gerry Herman from the Kennedy Krieger Institute’s Physically Challenged Sports and Recreation Program and Jim Glatch (former wheelchair basketball coach for Team USA), and reached out to the Maryland Ravens (the official wheelchair basketball team for Maryland), who were able to supply wheelchairs. At Virginia’s recommendation I also connected with leaders from Pi Kappa Phi Fraternity, which had done philanthropic work around adaptive sports. That was how I met Andrew.. At Virginia’s recommendation I also connected with leaders from Pi Kappa Phi fraternity, which had done philanthropic work around adaptive sports. That was how I met Andrew.

Wheelchair Basketball 1Together we worked with Gary Wohlstetter and Tim Hall from UMBC’s Athletics Department to secure the Retriever Activities Center for a demonstration event, and made connections with potential partners all over campus: faculty members, administrative leaders, student organizations and individual students. We also reached out to potential off-campus partners like the U.S. Veterans Affairs Volunteer Services office. The support we received for this effort was astonishing and inspiring. At long last, after a massive publicity effort, the event took place on October 17th.

And what an event it was! 200 students, athletes, faculty members, admins, staff, parents and others attended, supporting their departments, family, coaches, and friends as they happily wheeled their way through the basketball game against the renowned Maryland Ravens.  Aside from me and Steve, UMBCs lineup included students from the SUCCESS Program, graduate students, members of multiple Greek Life organizations, and both of UMBC’s head basketball coaches!

Harnessing the energy from the October 17th event, some of the students and staff involved in the planning have formed an Adaptive Sports Committee. (Interested in joining? Let me know). We’re in the process of establishing the wheelchair basketball group as an intramural sports organization, securing more sports chairs, and considering new sports to address (tennis? sailing?).

The speed at which this initiative was launched exemplifies UMBC’s culture of promoting innovation and leadership among its students. I’m most excited to see the recognition of the need to accommodate and include people of all abilities spread beyond sports to other aspects of campus life.

Andrew reflects

Andrew_Brow_HeadshotPi Kappa Phi President Rubin Waranch came to me near the end of the summer with a proposition to host a wheelchair basketball demo game. I am the philanthropy chair for Pi Kappa Phi and have had 4 years of coaching experience with a Special Olympics Swim team, so ability sports are a big deal to me. I have seen first hand the impact they can have, not only on the athletes but on the community that surrounds them as well. I wanted to be able to bring that experience to UMBC and give my friends and peers the opportunity to work with and participate in ability sports. The Ability Experience and Special Olympics focus on supporting and helping people see the capacities of people with mental disabilities. Those organizations’ ideals have become my own in the time I have been involved with them, and gave me the drive to make this event a success.

Wheelchair Basketball 2I had attempted to host a wheelchair basketball event in spring 2014 as a part of Pi Kappa Phi’s Ability Experience Week, but had not been able to pull it off myself. The initiative Theophilus and Steve developed provided me with a team to work with to get everything done and execute the event in a way that I never would have expected. The team I worked with consisted mostly of Theophilus, Rubin, and myself. I had a busy semester with my classes and other student organizations but Theophilus and Rubin were great about keeping me in the loop.

My contacts within Pi Kappa Phi and The Commons, my experience hosting Ability Experience events, and leadership experience with other student organizations served as a strong background when it came to ironing out the details and considering how to build awareness of the need to engage people with different abilities at the event. It was easy finding volunteers from Greek Life organizations, and their presence at the actual game was tremendous! I couldn’t have asked for a more successful inaugural event. We had over 200 students, parents, faculty, staff, and alumni attend the game after either working with them during the planning process or advertising to them through social media. I’m grateful to my Pi Kappa Phi brothers for passing out fliers, setting up for the event, collecting donations, providing some of the loudest cheers, staying afterward to clean up.

The success of the event itself showed that if there are motivated students who truly want to see something happen, there are people out there that will help us get it done. I want to be able to work with this initiative and help it grow into a full fledged program with multiple sports to assist people with physical and mental disabilities.

Contact the authors: Theophilus Aluko at, and Andrew Brow at

Wheelchair Basketball 3

UMBC Will Host Imagining America’s 2015 National Conference

David Hoffman is UMBC’s Assistant Director of Student Life for Civic Agency.

David HoffmanImagining America is a national consortium helping to reshape higher education’s contributions to democracy by enabling scholars and artists to “thrive and contribute to community action and revitalization.” At UMBC, ideas developed with and by Imagining America’s leaders have become BreakingGround cornerstones. In addition, UMBC faculty members, administrators and students have participated directly in Imagining America’s work and meetings for the past two years.

Every October, Imagining America’s members and affiliates across the United States gather to share ideas, compare notes, deepen and extend their networks, make plans, and focus their energies. The 2013 national meeting took place in Syracuse, hosted by Syracuse University (where Imagining America is based); the 2014 meeting in Atlanta, hosted by Emory University. In October 2015, with support from Provost Philip Rous, Dean of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences Scott Casper, and a growing UMBC team, we will welcome Imagining America to Baltimore and to UMBC.

The selection of UMBC as host for the 2015 national meeting is a testament to the powerful civic work long underway here, and to campus leaders’ commitment to fostering civic agency, engaged scholarship, and a culture of innovation and inclusive excellence. But more than that, our selection represents a timely challenge. We have ten months to prepare. We have a distinctive collective story to share, one that could help advance the national conversation about how the arts and humanities can help repair and renew our democracy. How will we communicate our values, ideas and experiences? How can we draw together more of the people, on campus and across the Baltimore region, engaged in research and projects that can inform this important effort? The inspiring work of answering these questions starts now.

IA Save the Date 2015 Conference

Contact the author, David Hoffman, at


Action Research Against Health Disparities

Jessica McNeely, Ph.D. ’14, and Allyssa Allen, Ph.D. ’14, graduates of UMBC’s doctoral program in Human Services Psychology, are founders of Project Insight. Along with Project Insight colleagues, they were honored earlier this year by the Baltimore City Council for their work toward “the betterment of the Druid Heights community.”

jessica-mcneelyIn the years leading up to our decision to start Project Insight, we worked on a number of research projects investigating the influence of neighborhood factors on health and well-being. We were exposed to countless statistics on the relationship between where you live and your health.

As budding researchers, we were both intrigued and shocked by the numbers. One particularly striking statistic was that residents Allyssa Allen 2of the richest neighborhood in Baltimore City (Roland Park) had an average life expectancy 30 years longer than residents of the poorest neighborhood (Druid Heights). In modern science, we have faith that rigorous, objective scientific methods can tell the whole story. Yet after years of number crunching we still could not explain why people in some neighborhoods are dying decades before their time.

We were troubled by the blatant social injustice of health disparities, and the slow progress toward correcting this injustice. If the data were disheartening, driving through the neighborhoods was downright heartbreaking. The geographic lines of social injustice in Baltimore City are profound and impossible to ignore. When funeral homes appear to be the most prosperous businesses in black neighborhoods across Baltimore, it is easy to infer that a history of institutional racism has shaped our opportunities for health.

The more we learned, the more we began to proselytize from our academic soapboxes: “Something needs to be done!” But who is really responsible for doing what’s necessary? Who is going to stand up and make a commitment to work toward health justice? We concluded that the who could be anyone, including us, but the something was much more elusive. We needed deeper insight into both the problem and possible solutions. We needed to step out of the ivory tower and into the streets.

That was how Project Insight was born. We began by using our community research skills to design a participatory action research project that would allow us to gain insight into neighborhood health challenges and injustices affecting central west Baltimore, while providing a direct benefit to the communities that are the hardest hit by those challenges and injustices.

As we developed the project, we were delighted to learn that other graduate and undergraduate students shared our passion for using research as a vehicle for social justice. We invited these talented students to join Project Insight, and began to form a team of health justice researchers who were dedicated to making a difference in people’s lives.

We recognized that we needed guidance from community leaders who could empower us to use our talents and skills to support community efforts. We reached out to Michael Scott and Dr. Adrienne Starks of Equity Matters because one of the organization’s reports on health disparities had helped spur us to action. They agreed to provide us guidance on our project, but informed us that we would be held to the highest standard.

Michael Scott introduced us to Kelly Little, the Executive Director of the Druid Heights Community Development Corporation (DHCDC). We knew going into the meeting that the DHCDC was the epitome of community development and empowerment. Their comprehensive model of human services exemplified the values and concepts we had learned in all of our coursework.

Mr. Little spoke candidly about the community’s efforts to keep their residents fed. The majority of their residents struggle to get food on the table. Residents had very few food options beyond fast food outlets and convenience stores.

Throughout the fall and winter of 2013, we completed interviews and focus groups to better understand the history, culture and personal experience with food in the community. We also compiled data and maps from Baltimore City and other organizations to better understand the larger context of the problem. In the spring, we met with our community partners and the study participants again to co-create the vision for how to share what we learned with the community.

On June 30th, we held a dissemination event that showcased local community activists working towards food justice and shared the preliminary findings from Project Insight. What we had learned was that the “food deserts” we observe today are the result of a history of restricted economic investment (e.g., redlining) in communities of color. Many participants had spoken frankly about how grocery stores and restaurants have been repeatedly taken away from the community and never replaced. Nevertheless, we also had heard a lot hope and belief that things can change for the better if the community is unified.

Since July, we have been working with our community partners to create a report of our findings. We plan to publish the report this month and distribute it to the community and beyond.  As one participant put it “bottom line…information is power,” and we want to help by using the power of the community’s voices to advocate for the positive changes the community wants to see.

Before we started Project Insight we questioned whether we had the capacity to bring about a sustainable community benefit through student-led participatory action research. Now one year later, we realize that the only way to grow our capacity is to continue doing the work.

We have joined forces with Fusion Partnerships and developed a non-profit program called Grow Baltimore. The mission of Grow Baltimore is to demonstrate innovative strategies that integrate people and places to address the city’s most pressing public health problems. Although the challenges we face seems insurmountable, we believe together we can work towards an enlightened city where everyone acts to co-create a healthier self and community.

Contact the authors: Jessica McNeely at, and Allyssa Allen

Contemplating Child Literacy in Cherry Hill

Elaine MacDougall is a lecturer in English at UMBC.

Elaine MacDougallOn Friday, September 19th, three UMBC students and I experienced our first day of tutoring through a partnership with Reading Partners and Friendship Academy at Cherry Hill. As we journeyed around the loop surrounding the UMBC campus toward the exit ramp to 95, the students were quietly contemplating some questions related to their expectations of this experience. I was slowly taking them out of their comfort zone of the self-contained campus and into the unknown of a new neighborhood, new people, and new responsibilities. I was struck with how thoughtful the atmosphere in the car became and remained until we got closer to our destination.

Thoughtfulness and contemplation are hard to find in our fast-paced world of task-upon-task. All three of these students actually had their first chemistry test of the semester immediately upon our return from Cherry Hill that day. Yet, I noticed their concentration on this current task I had given them with admiration and respect for their willingness to explore and serve others on this beautiful Friday afternoon.

This partnership is possible thanks to a grant through BreakingGround and a strong collaboration with enthusiastic volunteer and site coordinators from Reading Partners. Several students from my English 100 classes and students recruited from UMBC’s day of service in August are participating in this project to study literacy rates in Baltimore City elementary schools. In the first few weeks of the project, UMBC students are tutoring elementary-aged students, who are currently reading below grade level, using the in-depth curriculum designed by Reading Partners. Later in the semester, we will meet with parents at Friendship Academy for a ‘meet and greet’ dinner and orientation session. Near the end of the semester, students will meet with parents in the community to research habits and routines at home that impact child literacy. One of the research questions we hope to address is: What home factors influence the ability for a student to read each night for 15 minutes and what can be done to improve the frequency of such reading?

It is always interesting to reflect on a goal at the beginning of a project. We know the distance between UMBC and Cherry Hill. Hopefully our communities will slowly build a sense of trust that brings us closer to recognizing just how similar we are.

Contact the author, Elaine MacDougall, at

UMBC’s New Kiva U. Chapter: Microlending for Social Impact

Greg Simmons is UMBC’s Vice President for Institutional Advancement.

Greg SimmonsThanks to a grant from OneMain Financial, UMBC will join Loyola University in launching the first two formally designated Kiva University chapters in Maryland. Kiva U seeks to engage students and educators in a global effort to expand financial inclusion, foster community, and have a tangible positive impact on issues that matter to them.

Students involved with UMBC’s Kiva U. chapter will work with faculty and staff to develop a management team that will create marketing strategies and engage campus partners to support local, national and international communities. The management team will oversee a pool of funds from which it will make loans to support enterprises that mitigate poverty. Planning began this summer, with the goal of awarding the first round of up to 10 loans in spring 2015.

Beyond resonating with me personally, Kiva’s goals and entrepreneurial approach are a great fit with UMBC’s culture of innovation and BreakingGround’s themes of individual and collective empowerment. I’m thrilled to see this effort taking shape, and look forward to seeing what our students will do with the opportunity.

Contact the author, Greg Simmons, at