As the unrest in Baltimore over the tragic death of Freddie Gray is starting to subside, the systemic problems that plague our city are once again laid bare for the nation and the world to see. Such problems are certainly nothing new for the underserved people of Baltimore and similar places where economic and social disparities fuel insidious and long-lasting damage on the very fabric of these communities.

While I hope the national discourse is beginning to shed light on the roots of systematized inequality in underserved neighborhoods, many of us in Baltimore have been shaken to our very core by this recent wakeup call.

My Johns Hopkins colleagues and I are determined to help create real, lasting solutions that will allow our communities to heal and thrive. But before we can do anything at all, we must listen—and hear—what people in our neighborhoods have to say.

When we reached out last year to our neighbors in East Baltimore— the home of The Johns Hopkins Hospital—we got a stark reminder: Far too many of East Baltimore’s young African-American men are in prison, a place they are likely to return to once released. We learned that only 42 percent of community members think we’re involved in youth mentoring, and a mere 32 percent believe we have afterschool programs for children. Just 14 percent of people believe that Johns Hopkins does anything at all to employ ex-offenders.

Can we do more in these areas? We can and we must. We learned that more than 80 percent of people feel we have a positive influence on the community, yet we need to do more and communicate better.

But I believe that any new work has to begin by engaging and listening to our community, by understanding their needs and appreciating their most acute concerns. We can’t begin to grasp the gravity of the reality that our neighbors, youth and children face without hearing what they tell us and opening our hearts and minds to their words and their worlds.

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