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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University June 12, 2006 | Vol. 35 No. 37
Discussing Baltimore's Future

JHU experts gather to examine urban health-related issues

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Experts in urban health and other related issues from across Johns Hopkins divisions convened for a half-day retreat on May 30 to help refocus work of the Johns Hopkins Urban Health Institute and set a future course for the now 6-year-old organization.

The retreat, held at the Hopkins-owned Mt. Washington Conference Center, was the first of a series called Baltimore Conversations that will convene university affiliates and community partners in order to initiate long-term sustainable efforts to improve the health and outcomes for the city's population. Among the expertises brought to the table were public policy, education, public health and medicine.

Established in 2000, the Urban Health Institute aims to better focus the efforts of urban health experts from throughout The Johns Hopkins University and the Johns Hopkins Health System on the serious community health problems in East Baltimore and other sections of the city. It also seeks to promote evidence-based interventions to solve urban health problems nationwide. The UHI's four principal goals are to provide economic stimulus to the community through training and employment assistance, strengthen and enhance community-based research partnerships, enhance the infrastructure of the community and provide residents with 100 percent access to health care with no disparities.

The May 30 retreat featured 52 Johns Hopkins faculty, staff and administrators, including Michael Klag, dean of the Bloomberg School of Public Health; James McPartland, director of the Center for Social Organization of Schools; Sheldon Greenberg, director of SPSBE's divison of Public Safety Leadership; and Sandra Newman, director of the Institute for Policy Studies.

The proceedings were led by Robert Blum, the William H. Gates Sr. Chair of the Department of Population and Family Health Sciences in the School of Public Health, who since May 1 has served as interim director of the Urban Health Institute. Claude Earl Fox, the first permanent director of the institute, left his post in February to assume a new position at the University of Miami.

Blum said the departure of Fox and the "interim" period provided both a need and an opportunity to rethink and refocus where the UHI should be going.

"We wanted to ask ourselves, Are there things Hopkins should be doing as an institution to better engage the communities in which we live and work? And are there things that we can be doing more of, or differently, that would make a difference?" Blum said. "Secondly, can we learn from what other institutions are doing that have developed model community-university collaborations? Also, can we better serve as a portal for people in the community? Getting [access to] Hopkins is very difficult. Who is the right person to be calling, or who at Hopkins has expertise in a particular area that could help in a community-based project? This sort of activity, I feel, the Urban Health Institute should be doing more of."

Blum said the goals of this first conversation were to provide an opportunity where Johns Hopkins affiliates could meet other university personnel who were working on Baltimore-related issues, and to start thinking about collective points of intervention.

"Many of these folks have never sat at the same table before. They didn't personally know each other," Blum said.

The day consisted of two major sessions. Specifically, participants with similar areas of expertise first broke off into thematic groups--ones on education, aging, drug abuse, etc.--and were asked to come up with three to five ideas that, if taken to scale, would improve the health and well-being of Baltimore citizens. For the second session, the participants were jumbled up and asked to take these ideas and narrow down those that would have the highest payoff and greatest impact.

Marion Pines, a senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and an expert on education and after-school issues, said that the retreat was useful if for no other reason than to meet colleagues with similar interests and to begin to bring the university divisions together for a united cause.

Pines said that while many of the ideas presented were "exciting and promising," the true test is to begin to tease out some common goals and foster collaboration across divisions.

Blum said that, moving forward, the Urban Health Institute and the various players in Baltimore Conversations will begin to focus on consensus building and trying to determine what Johns Hopkins' role should be, whether it's to facilitate initiatives, provide a leadership or participatory role or conduct direct interventions in consort with community groups.

The next Baltimore Conversation is scheduled for July 18 at the Mt. Washington Conference Center and will involve a new group of 52 university participants. Following that meeting, Blum said, the Urban Health Institute will host conversations strictly with community leaders and members.

On Sept. 8, the UHI plans to host a large-scale conversation that includes both university and community members to help bridge the two groups and to begin to identify specific target areas and initiatives. Blum envisions a group of 100 to 120 people, evenly divided between Hopkins and community members, who will participate in the meeting.

Blum said that by the end of the year he would like to have a new "blueprint plan" for the Urban Health Institute, "one that would state what it is that JHU can be doing more of and differently, together with our community partners, that would improve the outcomes of folks here," he said. "For the Urban Health Institute to be what it should be, we need to have these ongoing conversations with community folks and within Hopkins. What I hope will happen is that over time the conversations continue but the focus gets more crisp."

For more information on the Urban Health Institute, go to


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