Community-based classes gain popularity in Baltimore-area colleges

A horde of white and Asian 20-year-old students in pristine chef coats huddled around and inside a food truck outside of Lexington Market. Someone outside the truck loudly, heatedly, asks them to leave. One student periodically extends her arms out of the truck, placing trays into the hands of market patrons. She meets their gazes with a blank expression and gives them cryptic instructions, just as artist Miriam Simun has painstakingly taught her over the last several weeks.

She is one of 18 students in a class entitled GhostFood: Curatorial Practicum With The Contemporary, a community-based learning (CBL) course at Johns Hopkins University that I took last fall. Throughout the semester, my classmates and I brought a makeshift food truck/artwork into neighborhoods throughout Baltimore. In this context, we saw ourselves primarily as students and performers, and many people we encountered saw us this way, too. But to some we were representatives of an institution that has exploited and displaced Baltimore residents. And many of my classmates, including myself, did not wholly disagree with them.

Community-based learning courses, which seem to be gaining traction in local universities, attempt to make practical use of academic studies in a university's surrounding communities. These courses are designed to be mutually beneficial, helping a community while making concepts real and accessible to students. But this approach can falter, especially in Baltimore, where Johns Hopkins' rocky relationship with the city is well documented. From the university's exploitation of Henrietta Lacks to its expansion in East Baltimore, where it (along with the city, via the nonprofit East Baltimore Development Inc.) used eminent domain to seize approximately 750 homes in Middle East, the university's relationship with locals involves some serious mistrust.

It makes sense that local universities are working to increase their goodwill points by providing some sort of community service to Baltimore residents.

Successful CBL programming requires a great deal of support from university administrations because it requires significant resources, and some universities are more organically suited than others to support alternative learning methods.

MICA, for example, has programs of study specifically for community arts, which naturally lend themselves to community-based learning experiences. Johns Hopkins, on the other hand, is primarily a research university, so professors have to be self-motivated to develop CBL courses.

Like many historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), Morgan State University sees giving back to its local communities as a social responsibility—and indeed it is part of its vision statement and strategic plan. Lorece Edwards, Associate Professor in the Department of Behavioral Health Sciences at Morgan State's School of Community Health and Policy, is somewhat of a CBL connoisseur, having co-written a guide on the subject that is used by over 90 institutions in the United States.

Edwards noted that HBCUs in particular have incorporated CBL as a major component in their curricula. "Community-based and service learning has its roots back to 1830, particularly from people of color," Edwards said. "Back in those days folks didn't know how to read; they didn't know how to vote."

Because Morgan State has longstanding positive relationships with local communities and organizations, it is able to bypass many of the challenges with community relations that other institutions face, Edwards says. This, in part, is why the university has been able to completely institutionalize CBL, requiring service-learning experiences for each student at every level. (See page 19 for an article on Morgan's Community Mile Initiative.)

For universities that have not established enduring trust with Baltimore communities, CBL has the capacity to improve those relations, especially when its efforts are reinforced by other programming. Loyola's York Road Initiative includes staff members who work full-time as liaisons between Loyola and the neighborhoods along York Road—attending meetings, building relationships with local organizations, and relaying needs identified by communities.

MICA has developed an AmeriCorps program called the Community Arts Collaborative (CAC) that pairs artists with community organizations so that they can have full-time, highly qualified staff members for little or no cost to the organization. This program allows MICA to establish relationships and provide access to the arts across Baltimore, not just in the area immediately surrounding the college.

CAC program manager Sarah Edelsburg says that MICA is committed to serving communities that face a wide range of issues. "MICA is interested also in training artists to be socially engaged and to consider social justice issues that are facing Baltimore, and the AmeriCorps program is definitely at the front lines of that," she said. The AmeriCorps members "are receiving special training as to how to use their skills as artists to facilitate projects and programs that can give those communities a voice."

Though the service work associated with CBL has a positive impact on university-community relations in theory, local university representatives acknowledge that these projects have the potential to be damaging.

Loyola University's Assistant Director of Service-Learning, Kate Figiel-Miller, noted the thin line between helping and hurting. "When anyone from our institution is interacting with the community it's important to recognize that we can do harm if we are approaching service thoughtlessly, so we really make a point of thoughtfully working with community partners—listening to them and what their needs are and how we can best support them," she said.

Edwards emphasized that you can't have students helicopter into historically underserved areas. "Communities have had various experiences around trauma, so trust is important, and that takes time," she said. "Because you can't just run in in one semester and establish trust."

Establishing trust has been difficult for Johns Hopkins. History and geography affect Hopkins' relationship with surrounding communities, according to Gia Grier McGinnis, Associate Director of the university's Center for Social Concern.

Grier McGinnis cites Johns Hopkins' ongoing expansion project in East Baltimore as an example of Hopkins-Baltimore tensions that could have been avoided. "People got relocated in the first wave and there were some promises not kept," she said. "I think it's all about talking with the community stakeholders early—engaging them, listening to them. I think the [development project] on this side of town has done a better job of that, maybe because we learned from them."

Despite Hopkins' complications with Baltimore communities, Grier McGinnis says students are interested in local issues, and their enthusiasm has been a driving force in the development of CBL infrastructure.

She is hopeful about the future of community engagement at Hopkins. "The good news is that—I think because of the uprising, and this might be a common thing among institutions in the city—the demand for courses that get [students] out, the demand for anything that gets them out, is super high now, higher than it's been before."

Our curatorial practicum class spent one class period sharing our experiences at Lexington Market and fervently discussing gentrification, privilege, building trust with communities, and the role of public art, among other things. The conversation got heated at times, and we didn't all settle on the same conclusion. But we engaged with the complex, nuanced dialogue that surrounds each of Hopkins' actions within the city, many of us for the first time. CBL requires students to have difficult conversations like this, encouraging them to examine their experiences relative to the experiences of others, and, as a result, pushes students to question long held beliefs about what makes a university, or a person, "good."

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