America and much of the world have been transfixed by recent events in Baltimore. What’s most important, however, comes after the cameras leave.
More than 50 years ago, Americans also were riveted as dogs and fire hoses were unleashed on the marching children of Birmingham, Ala. Participating in that march was the most terrifying experience of my life. Even so, it was not the hardest.
The toughest experiences came in the next 50 years, working to change the educational and socioeconomic systems that still exclude far too many Americans from real opportunity. At my university, students and staff work every day with hundreds of inner-city teenagers who are first-time offenders, providing them with guidance around the clock. These children and so many more need our support now more than ever.
As one of my students said to me recently, the Baltimore story -- which is the American story -- should remind us that issues related to poverty and inequality, crime and opportunity are not about “those people.” They are about us -- all of us.
How we react to events like those in Baltimore speaks volumes about our values. We know we must do much better, especially for people who have not had a chance to thrive in our society. Americans -- not just in Baltimore but across the country -- have an opportunity now to ask difficult questions and take long-term action.
Universities have an especially critical role to play as community anchors, educators and researchers. A quote from a 1923 edition of The Daily Princetonian sums up our responsibility as aptly today as it did the day it was penned: "We are almost the only section of the population which has the leisure and opportunity to study the controversial questions of the day without bias, and to act accordingly. The power of today is in our hands.”
The future will depend heavily on universities -- not only the policies we shape but the leaders we produce. Historically, one of America’s greatest strengths has been our ability to look squarely at our problems and to make hard changes. To do so often requires struggle, and we have a responsibility to embrace that struggle. To do so is a fundamental part of the learning and growing process -- and it is fundamental to changing issues of systemic injustice and inequality that are neither new nor isolated.
We have made tremendous progress since the 1960s; the fact that I can write this as the African-American president of a predominantly white university is testament to that. But recent events have reminded us just how uneven opportunity, power and justice in this country remain.
At a recent campus forum, one professor contrasted the quick disaster of a riot to the slow disaster of Freddie Gray’s neighborhood -- a site impacted by failed public and private policies since the 1930s. That slow, devastating deterioration, combined with the heightened effects of discrimination during the War on Drugs, boiled over into the West Baltimore riots on April 25.
Our responsibility as educators is to help our students -- young citizens and voters, future leaders and parents -- understand the context of recent events. The liberal arts, especially the humanities and social sciences, are powerful tools for shedding light on the challenges we face in this country. Universities must serve as models -- and actual spaces -- for talking about sticky issues of race, inequality, authority and fairness. How do we eliminate inequity if we don’t even know how to talk about it?
We recently started a program on campus to coach first-year students in intercultural communication. While the INTERACT program is completely voluntary, it reaches students who would not naturally gravitate toward such programming, often because they grew up in communities dominated by a single race or class and are uncomfortable interacting with peers different from themselves. Upperclassmen serve as peer recruiters and promote the program on their residence hall floors and in casual encounters, rather than just at multicultural events or among groups focused on diversity.
Many of my students first confront issues of race or class when they work at one of our partner schools in Baltimore. Whatever their race or background, our students often see themselves in their younger counterparts, but they also recognize that they have advantages these children have never had. Too few Americans understand what children in such circumstances experience long before they reach their teenage years.
Universities need to create more opportunities for students to connect with people in circumstances vastly different from their own and to relate what they’re learning in classes about justice, politics, economics and history to real work in the community. Our BreakingGround initiative, which works closely with the national American Democracy Project, does just that. Through the initiative, engineering students have built models of water infrastructure for the city of Baltimore, English students have performed research and service to advance childhood literacy, and American studies students have documented the proud history and decline of the industrial neighborhood of Sparrows Point.
Other students, recent alums and staff members work with hundreds of first-time offenders through our Choice program, a community-based initiative that supports and empowers youth through a host of services. Recently the program has been bringing together youths and police officers for structured conversations and the joint creation of a tile mosaic for a public space. Such initiatives build trust between communities and police and can, ultimately, save lives.
But even with abundant opportunities for engagement, students often have to be pushed to get beyond their comfort zones. Even at UMBC, where students from all walks of life and more than 100 countries study alongside one another, we have to work to get people to talk openly about race and socioeconomic differences. I often wonder if universities are doing enough. We are having renewed conversations on our campus about how we can deepen our ties to the community and keep issues of inequality and inequity at the forefront of our teaching and service.
I know we must remain vigilant. The limelight will predictably fade, but the challenges will not. The power of today is in our hands.
Freeman A. Hrabowski III is president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. His latest book, Holding Fast to Dreams: Empowering Youth From the Civil Rights Crusade to STEM Achievement, was released by Beacon Press this month.
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