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.”
In 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 of 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.