Bob Blum

A Partner for the Community

Interview by Brian W. Simpson

As interim director of the Johns Hopkins Urban Health InstituteRobert W. Blum wants to topple the "town and gown" barriers that separate Hopkins' elite medical and research institutions from the socioeconomically disadvantaged population of East Baltimore. A long and uncomfortable history that includes racial segregation and the institutions' expanding footprint in the community has fostered lingering mistrust. Improving the sometimes-fractious relationship and involving the community in research projects will benefit both Hopkins and its neighbors, Blum says. "From my perspective, the University's long-term survival is closely interlocked with the health and vitality of our community," says Blum, the William H. Gates Sr. Professor and Chair of the Department of Population, Family and Reproductive Health. "We cannot have a flourishing university in a disintegrating community." An international expert in adolescent health, Blum is an outspoken advocate for relying on people in the community to help with the search for solutions.

Hopkins as an institution has frequently been criticized by our surrounding community, but there are numerous individuals working at Hopkins who have terrific, long-term collaborative relationships that are the basis upon which to build. In meeting with people in the community, I've found there is a tremendous desire to have Hopkins at the table. I've experienced hostility, but I also have experienced this tremendous willingness to say, "Let's sit down and see if we can't figure out how to do it better."

Together we can make Baltimore a learning community—not a "laboratory" where students or faculty go out and do things to the community, but a place where there really are true partnerships, where the urban health curriculum we are developing really represents the breadth of thinking that exists across this University and the community. For example, as we train our students, how do we develop a new cadre of public health researchers really armed with the skills to do community-based participatory research that adds to knowledge and science as well as improves outcomes in the community?

I think if we can demonstrate a true university-community collaboration, if we can demonstrate how to [draw on] community leaders to act as educators of our students, if we can demonstrate how faculty at this University can work effectively in and with the community, we will become a national model of how to deliver urban health.