Morgan State University School of Community Health and Policy Associate Professor Lawrence Brown gave a lecture on working in communities as an embedded researcher on Tuesday, Sept. 17. The lecture, which took place in Clark Hall, was part of the Engaged Humanities Speaker series. Brown emphasized the importance of integrating oneself into the community being researched in order to understand the injustices it has experienced.
He began his talk by explaining the history of communities being exploited around the Hopkins campuses in Baltimore, namely the deliberate uprooting and displacement of black communities under the guise of public health concerns. As illustrated through an article in the Baltimore Municipal Journal, in the early 1900s, Baltimore Mayor James Preston believed that the tuberculosis epidemic rampant in black communities would spread to white households and threaten the sanitary environments the city had worked to establish.
“We see this sort of language [in the article] that’s really highlighting these efforts to ‘maintain sanitary, healthful environments for ourselves,’ this sort of exclusionary public health,” Brown said. “The idea that you can maintain health for yourselves and that other people can come into your community [and bring] diseases — things that will defile and destroy the white community.”
As a result, the Preston administration decided to remove these communities and replace them with public parks, namely Preston Gardens. However, Brown highlighted that only white communities enjoyed these parks, and that black communities were instead blamed for the necessity of building a park.
“They were viewed as the reason why this park had to be built and they had to be uprooted in the first place,” Brown said. “It was blamed on their condition, that tuberculosis [was] running rampant in the black community, so [they] had to tear it down and build a park.”
In the early 2000s, then-Mayor Martin O’Malley launched East Baltimore Development Incorporated (EBDI), which intended to build a bio-tech park that would bring 8,000 jobs to the area. Much like the consequences seen after the construction of Preston Gardens, the displaced community was not able to enjoy the park and did not receive the promised jobs. The vacant housing became property of Hopkins and the city, but it was never reconstructed for the black community, Brown explained.
“The city becomes a large property owner, and so does Johns Hopkins. Do they fix up the housing that they own? Do they make sure that this housing is something affordable, that people can move in and the community can flourish?” Brown said. “No, they sit on that property, they allow it to remain vacant and then they tear it down.”
As a result of this history of exploitation and redlining, Brown emphasizes that the only way to be a researcher in Baltimore is to embed yourself into the community as much as possible.
“I’m arguing in this instance that embedded researchers are effective researchers in the humanities,” Brown said. “You really want to build relationships with the community and make sure that people see you, that you show up when it’s time to show up, that you’re available, that you’re open, that you’re able to lend [the skills you have] in some form or fashion.”
Brown stated that research is usually taught as something to be executed objectively, where the lens of the researcher is trained onto the communities being researched. However, he proposes an inverse methodology instead.
“We’re always training our lens on those who are below, trying to see what their pathologies are, trying to see what their dysfunctions are,” Brown said. “What I’m arguing for is not necessarily joining this research institution and training your lens down, but actually learning to research up, to punch up.”
To define “researching up,” Brown describes a method in which investigators are thinking critically of the people in power who developed these projects, the type of reasoning behind them, how they were financed and how power dynamics operate.
“The research that is worthwhile in the humanities is to understand how the powerful and the prominent were able to use their influence and wealth to create these narratives that demonize the people that were actually just trying to survive,” Brown said. “We have to look at the historical record; we have to find and lift up the voices of people that have been uprooted [and] displaced intentionally and allow them to tell their stories and speak for themselves.”
Though there are already members of the Hopkins community, Brown believes that Hopkins affiliates can still be embedded in the nearby communities by conducting research.
“We need people to research why Hopkins makes the decisions that it makes, what the power processes are and how they get away with some of the things that they do,” Brown said. “We cannot make black lives matter if we don’t make black neighborhoods matter.”
Brown further stated that in taking a neutral stance and being silent toward the oppression the institution induces is to be complicit.
“Research teaches us to be objective; research teaches us to not get involved, to not have a thought or feeling or bias,” Brown said. “But [in] the situations that we’re researching, bias is all up in it. Oppression is all up in it. There’s no way to be neutral, especially in the face of rampant oppression.”
Therefore embedded researchers must be fully committed and loyal to the communities that they are researching and must not only participate when it is convenient or necessary. Brown emphasizes that because Baltimore communities have experienced abuses and condemnation from external institutions, it is imperative to navigate residents’ skepticism and strive to establish relationships.
“Baltimore is a town where people can tell whether you have a real commitment, care and concern. The only way I think to really demonstrate that is to be in communities over time and to be consistent,” Brown said. “Being embedded is not just being there when your project is funded; you have to be there beyond the funding. You have to find ways to help build capacity even when the dollars aren’t there.”
Junior Jeremy Berger was intrigued by the history of the University’s exploitation of local communities and the effects of its actions on these communities.
“Hopkins is a world-renowned research institution with a problematic history in terms of who its research benefits and who its research exploits specifically,” Berger said. “The black population in Baltimore has been hurt by Hopkins’ research many times. It was really interesting to hear more about that history and more about how you can teach that dynamic where research can be uplifting and empowering to communities.”
Berger, who participated in the Garland Sit-In protesting the establishment of a private police force last spring, said that some of the injustices that Brown outlined reminded him of the way the University handled the sit-in.
“I think there are a lot of parallels between this talk and my experience at the Sit-In, specifically how Hopkins uses the Baltimore government to push forward its own agenda, whether it’s bribing government officials to support a bill that would allow it to create its own private police force or, in the case of this talk, using the government to use eminent domain to take over communities and displace communities,“ he said.