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Baltimore Bets on a New Type of First Responder: The Librarian

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This originally appeared at The Trace and is published here in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Exchange. Sign up for their newsletters.

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

They got instruction from Lawrence Brown, a professor at Morgan State University who trains organizations on racial equity, then broke out into smaller private sessions where they had tough, but open, conversations about healing their own and their city’s trauma. 

“There was conversation about understanding history and the impact on neighborhoods in current Baltimore,” said Heidi Daniel, CEO of the Enoch Pratt Free Library system. “We are focused on questioning how the library can play a role in healing inequities and examining our internal policies and practices to do better work.” 

That session was part of an experimental effort by Baltimore leaders, who hope to enlist city agencies, starting with the library, to answer a big question: How does a city that has suffered trauma for decades, including over 190 homicides just this year, begin to heal? Baltimore is teaching its city staff how to spot and assist people dealing with that trauma, and turning city facilities into places where they can learn to cope and, in turn, assist their neighbors in processing their own pain and suffering. 

During 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 up to aid in this kind of frontline work. In 2021 the city, recognizing the reach of the public library branch system, wondered how library staff might go a step further, helping to address the root causes of violence. 

“If all agencies have a deeper understanding of the impact of trauma and a 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 for the public health approach to violence reduction: Whether official policy and programming can directly soothe the pain and stress residents experience amid the frequent violence, despite the entrenched poverty and racism built into the city’s infrastructure.

City Councilperson Zeke Cohen, who sponsored the Elijah Cummings Healing City Act sparked this approach, hoped to “understand how we became a city where a child in Roland Park” — among the wealthiest and whitest areas of Baltimore — “is 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 obvious: Vacant homes, wooden boards covering their windows and doors, pockmark city blocks of row houses; an open-air opioid trade flourishes in plain view; unhoused people sleep below highway overpasses; and, throughout the city, people build memorials to the victims of an unprecedented six-year streak of violence. Those physical signifiers display Baltimore’s legacy as an innovator in systemic racism. Redlining, the practice of marking where families can and can’t live or receive services, often based on race, was born in Baltimore in 1910 after a Black Yale Law graduate bought a home in an all-white neighborhood. The city responded by adopting a racial segregation ordinance that outlined exactly which blocks in which Black people were allowed to live. Though redlining as an official practice was outlawed decades ago, the city remains deeply segregated by race; by extension, the distribution of resources and opportunity are unequally divided as well.

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

That session was the first training for city employees; elected officials, including the City Council and the mayor’s cabinet, trained earlier in the spring. Brown’s presentation relied heavily on his book, The Black Butterfly: The Harmful Politics of Race and Space in America, which details Baltimore’s deep segregation and how racism permeates policy. 

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

Brown flipped through slides of newspaper clips going back more than 100 years that documented the first efforts to segregate Baltimore. Despite federal court intervention, City Hall and local politicians bowed to the demands of the city’s then-majority-white electorate, and the racial divisions of Baltimore’s streets endured.

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

Cohen agrees, and says that’s why he saw Baltimore’s library branches as a logical starting point: Many of those with the highest needs — the city’s unhoused people, those experiencing addiction and behavioral health issues, and children — routinely use the library, which is a city facility. “The ultimate goal,” Cohen said, “is for people to feel safe in the institutions the city controls.”

Creating Safe City Spaces

An incident inside a city building set this plan in motion. In 2019, a man entered Frederick Douglass High School and shot and injured a teaching assistant. Even for Baltimore, where violence is routine, the shooting rocked the city. Political leaders considered whether to arm school resource officers and install metal detectors in schools. The students had a different strategy in mind, and called for the city to heal from its profound trauma through group sessions like the ones the libraries held in June, and training in mediation and conflict resolution that is still 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-Informed 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 funds justice, education, media, and public health initiatives around the globe, along with some money from the city to develop strategies for healing. 

“Trauma, as I have experienced since childhood, is embedded into our very livelihoods, in the food that we eat, to the shows that we watch, to the relationships we take part in,” said Destini Philpot, a youth leader on the city’s Trauma Informed Care Task Force. “We begin to change and heal our community by addressing trauma and creating trauma-informed spaces, especially for youth.”

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

The work is in its earliest stages. Library staff has been trained, and the plan is to roll out similar sessions to the public through libraries. Each branch will specialize in a different type of training, delivered by one of Baltimore’s social aid organizations. If a person wants to learn about dealing with grief, they can head to a library branch that is working with Roberta’s House, a family grief center. If someone wants to learn about restorative justice, there will be a branch focused on that skill. The city expects to make an announcement about a bigger 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 their results from the city’s trauma training to the state to help develop a similar program across Maryland.

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