Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
March 5, 2021

Applications open for the University's Innovation Fund to reduce city violence

By MICHELLE LIMPE | January 25, 2021

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Community partners interested in participating in the Innovation Fund can network with Hopkins affiliates at a virtual partner matching session on Jan. 25. 

Community partners can now submit proposals to the JHU Innovation Fund for Community Safety through the fund's website until 5 p.m. on Feb. 25.

University President Ronald J. Daniels launched the four-year, $6 million initiative last September to engage the community in creating public safety efforts that do not involve policing. Projects in Mount Vernon, Charles Village and East Baltimore will be prioritized. 

In an email to the student body sent on Jan. 14, Bloomberg School of Public Health Dean Ellen J. MacKenzie, Vice Dean of Public Health Practice and Community Engagement Josh Sharfstein and Vice President of Economic Development Alicia Wilson affirmed the University’s commitment to decreasing crime in Baltimore. 

“The University has long supported community-based approaches to public safety, and we believe that this moment calls upon all of us who care deeply about Baltimore and its citizens to imagine alternatives for reducing violence that don’t rely on sworn policing,” they wrote. “This initiative will only succeed with the engagement, creative energy and support of our community working together.” 

Karen Lancaster, assistant vice president of external relations for the Office of Communications, stated in an email to The News-Letter that the fund aims to strengthen the relationship between the University and the community.

“Short term, our goal is to receive and review proposals that tap into the insight, creativity and expertise of our broad community and build momentum for change,“ she wrote. “Long term, we want to take those ideas — rooted in community partnerships and to be implemented by community residents — to increase community safety and develop models that can be adopted more widely across the city and elsewhere.” 

Lancaster explained that applications will be reviewed based on their provided rationale and potential impact. The proposed plans must be pragmatic enough to produce substantial results in the near future using an appropriate budget. Additionally, the organizations and partners taking lead must have demonstrated experience with past projects. 

Freshman Jake Szeszko, who promotes civic engagement as the communications chair of the student-run organization IDEAL, finds the Innovation Fund to be timely given that crime rates have recently increased in Baltimore. According to the Baltimore Sun, nonfatal shootings increased by 17.5% from 2019 to 2020. 

In an email to The News-Letter, Szeszko argued that the University should consider the feasibility of the projects amid the COVID-19 pandemic when evaluating proposals.

“A project proposal may appear to benefit the community, but it may not follow safety guidelines,” he wrote. “Due to social distancing and limits on how many can gather in a group, it is likely that meetings will be limited, leading to less communication that is essential for the program to work. The University should provide the communities with clear guidelines and the means to either meet safely in-person or online.”

Besides solely focusing on proposals that directly address reducing crime, Hopkins alum and President of the Charles Village Civic Association Miller J. Roberts III stressed in an interview with The News-Letter that the University should prioritize creating livelihood programs for those struggling with poverty.

“The people looking to be part of this Innovation Fund want to address homelessness. They’re looking to address food insecurity. All those things come together because if you’re homeless or hungry, you may resort to doing something drastic to get your basic needs,” he said. “The programs that come out of the Innovation Fund should help people get into workforce development programs so they don’t find themselves in those situations.” 

Organizations can request annual grants of up to $250,000 and will also receive technical assistance and research support from University experts. These community-based nonprofit organizations must be located in Baltimore and registered as nonprofits in Maryland in order to be eligible to receive the grants. They also must partner with a Hopkins affiliate on the project. 

Roberts expressed his excitement for the University’s initiative, as it provides Hopkins professors and students an opportunity to be involved with the surrounding community.

“Beyond the money, that’s a great side effect of the process. The involvement and investment in the community is important because in order for the University to grow and for more students to spread out, we have to stabilize these areas,” he said. “Through this process, we’re going to find out about programs that are maybe smaller or novel that can help address some of the violence we have in the city. The numbers are staggering, and they should not be.”

However, in an email to The News-Letter, senior Colin Bilyeu asserted on behalf of the Coalition Against Policing by Hopkins (CAPH) that the Innovation Fund is a publicity move by Hopkins to detract from the activity related to the private police force. CAPH consists of more than a dozen student and community groups.

“If Hopkins truly values innovative approaches to community safety as they claim, why waste money on private policing?” he wrote. “It’s hard not to see the Innovation Fund as another kind of lobbying for finding and funding ‘local’ projects and community organizations to provide support for the private police project.”

According to Bilyeu, the amount of money allocated for the Innovation Fund represents less than 0.1% of the University’s total annual operating budget, which does not support the administration’s demonstrated commitment to supporting local organizations. 

Applicants will be in charge with overseeing that the grant funds are managed and used properly. Each applicant can use a maximum of 20% of its proposed budget for administrative costs, including utilities and rent, professional services and equipment rental, but they cannot be given to Hopkins affiliates. They can also distribute these funds to other organizations and partners as long as they ensure that they continue to be applied in line with the organization’s initial proposal. 

The University will be hosting a virtual partner matching session on Jan. 25 for community partners to meet and connect with potential proposal partners among the Hopkins community. Nominations for the fund’s Steering Committee, which will be tasked with determining and selecting grant recipients, opened on Jan. 19. 

Szeszko emphasized that the University should consult with community leaders when making final decisions on proposal applications. 

“This would help ensure that the Innovation Fund projects are addressing the needs of the community,” he wrote. “One of our main goals at IDEAL is to foster political dialogue because we believe some of the best policies are made from rigorous public discourse. If policymakers do not listen to the concerns from the public around their policy, how can the policy effectively address the problems the public is experiencing?”

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