Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
January 21, 2022

Things I've Learned with Melanie Shell-Weiss

By Peter Sicher | December 2, 2009

In light of the ongoing urban revitalization project in Middle East Baltimore by East Baltimore Development Inc. (EBDI), in which Hopkins is heavily involved, and recent news from the community, The News-Letter sat down to talk with Professor Melanie Shell-Weiss.

Shell-Weiss is a professor of history at Hopkins and teaches a course called "The Power of Place: Race and Community in East Baltimore." Students in her course take part in the East Baltimore Oral History Project.

News-Letter (N-L): Tell me about the oral history project.Shell-Weiss (MS): We officially launched in fall of 2008. We're now going into a little over the second year of the project. Both Ben and I really like the idea of - and Nia has been a real advocate for this as well - putting students at the center of these kinds of history documentation efforts as something that provides an exciting opportunity for students but also something that really provides a framework to bridge across generations . . . it's not just the trauma that happens to adults who are being forcibly relocated, it's what this means for their kids and their grandkids.

What does it mean not to be able to see or know where you grew up, being robbed of any sense of place or roots? It has serious psychological effects for people.

The opportunity to involve young people at Hopkins, and undergraduate students in particular, in this documentation effort seemed really exciting.

It seemed an opportunity to not only show young people in the neighborhood what was possible, but also to reach young people in our university community and teach them about Baltimore.

N-L: How has EBDI affected Hopkins' relationship with the community?MS: I think the response to EBDI has been decidedly mixed from the community. There are a lot of folks who are very quick to point out the wonderful, wonderful things EBDI is doing.

Members of the Hopkins community that are involved with EBDI are very proud of that and should be.

EBDI is doing a lot of good things. What this project really tries to do . . . is to really evaluate the full scope of what's going on and the full impact for the men and women who are living through these changes directly, the residents of the neighborhoods who are most affected.

It really gets back to this issue of how these programs are carried out and the ongoing request on the part of community members for full transparency and the opportunity to be considered as full and equal members in the conversation about what is going to happen to their homes and residences.

There's really no history of that ever taking place when it comes to urban renewal processes and that strikes me as being fundamentally unjust.

I'd like to think, if you look at all the different ways Hopkins is involved both with EBDI and with the various efforts taking place in the community, that many of the efforts taking place now are very much geared towards fostering this equal dialogue and trying to make this urban revitalization initiative a humane initiative.

It doesn't always work out that way and that is really troubling.

I certainly do not think Hopkins' relation with EBDI is hurting how Hopkins is perceived in the community anymore than that relationship already was hurt.

There is a deep history of inequality there. There is a very deep history of what many members of these communities see as outright exploitation that pre-dates EBDI.

EBDI really came into the middle of that. I think the challenge now is how not to commit those sins of the past.

N-L: How will EBDI help or hurt Baltimore?MS: I think what EBDI proposes to do sounds really good. It's a marvelously optimistic way of thinking about how to breathe new life into urban neighborhoods.

A lot of the things they proposed to do, [such as] the vision for the community school, the vision that EBDI and members of the Urban Health Institute have for thinking about ways to do community health that integrates education, [and] other social and political needs in the community [are very good].

There's a lot of really good stuff happening there [in terms of] sustainability . . . I think the challenge comes in practice . . . When you're talking about taking over individuals' and families' homes through eminent domain and forcibly relocating them, this is really, really problematic . . .As EBDI is quick to point out - and this has certainly become clear in the oral histories student for this class have done - there are a lot of people who have been relocated, not initially by choice, out of these neighborhoods, who ultimately feel very positively about the outcome . . . They wanted to get out of the neighborhood for a while.

They had no way to do this. They appreciate this assistance. They felt EBDI and the various partners had been fair to them and were very satisfied. There are other families that had a very different experience, however.

I hope this project is a way of highlighting all the many facets of that story and setting up a dialogue - certainly here in Baltimore but also a national and international conversation - about urban revitalization and urban renewal and the challenges associated with it, the real human challenges, the downside of these kinds of projects as well the promise.

N-L: What is your relationship with East Baltimore residents like?MS: From the first days I was here I found the city of Baltimore to be a very welcoming place.

I will always be an outsider in these neighborhoods . . . I don't live there and my family is not from there. I'm not from Baltimore, I'm originally from Detroit. I work at Hopkins. I'm a white woman.

In all these respects I've am outsider and always will be. I've never been made to feel like an outsider by any of our community partners or residents with whom I've worked and I've been overwhelmed by the warmth, the generosity, the kindness and the patience of the people who we work with.

When I think about my role in the community I think of myself much more as a facilitator and a learner . . . I hope to open up opportunities for conversation between students . . . and members of the community.

N-L: How do you feel about the recent closure of the Save Middle East Action Committee (SMEAC)?

MS: My involvement with SMEAC only dates back a little over a year ago with the lunching of this project . . . I have been really, really impressed with SMEAC from the get go.

I think it's one of the most exciting examples of a grass roots organization for change anywhere.

I know from talking to folks from cities across the country in a lot of different contexts that SMEAC also cast a very big shadow. Folks in other cities . . . are aware of what SMEAC was doing, were really inspired by it.

The members of SMEAC and the leaders of SMEAC have been very generous to me and to my students - leading walking tours, talking tirelessly with students, answering their questions and so forth.

I've been so incredibly grateful for that. I think . . . what SMEAC managed to do for residents . . . has been really inspiring. It's very much a David and Goliath story. You have a group of people who by just about any conventional measure don't have much power, and yet they've managed to do very much and they've also managed to serve as a public conscience for a lot of the decision makers and the big institutions that have been involved with the urban revitalization efforts, including our university, and that's really tremendous.

For all those reasons I was really surprised, and I was saddened, to know that SMEAC was disbanding . . . Certainly the folks who are residents of the community and members of SMEAC have a much better idea of what is going on than I do, and I defer to their good judgment.

From an outsider looking in, though, I have to say I do have serious questions about this idea that there is no longer a need for a public conscience, that there's no longer a need for an organization that is going to give voice to the way that these endeavors are affecting local residents. As an outsider looking in it does not appear that that project has reached its conclusion and things are so secure that there's no longer a need for that kind of organization. For that reason I hope that even though SMEAC is disbanding, there might be another organization that will move in and take up that charge.

N-L: Former SMEAC president Donald Gresham has talked about starting a new organization. What is your opinion of that?M.S.: I have to say that over the time I've been working with SMEAC, Donald Gresham has been front and center in all of that.It really has been Mr. Gresham who made it possible for us to work so closely with SMEAC. He has devoted so much in terms of learning and teaching and fostering and framing dialogue with the Hopkins community and especially with those who've been working with me on this project.

I certainly hope Donald will continue to be a public voice for change, that he'll continue to be a public voice within Middle East and in the context of the EBDI urban revitalization process.

Donald strikes me as a natural to continue to be a community leader and to lead a new organization.

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