As the new director of the Johns Hopkins
Urban Health Institute, Robert Blum plans to do a lot
of reaching out this summer — but he doesn't need to
reach far (Hopkins and East Baltimore will do).
Blum, who has served as the institute's interim director
since May 2006, recently sat down with The Gazette
to discuss the future plans for the institute and his goals
A pediatrician and expert on societal influences on the
health and welfare of adolescents, Blum will coordinate the
efforts of the university and Johns Hopkins Health System,
in collaboration with the community, to improve the health
of residents of East Baltimore and other economically
stressed parts of the city. The Urban Health Institute,
established in 2000, also seeks to promote evidence-based
interventions to solve urban health problems nationwide.
The institute's objectives are to serve as the community's
primary portal to JHU, a repository of Baltimore health
data and information, and a forum that brings together
university and community leaders around a range of issues.
It also seeks to participate in community planning, program
development, research and evaluation efforts; develop an
urban health education curriculum linking undergraduate,
graduate and postdoctoral trainees; and initiate long-term
sustainable interventions that improve the health and
well-being of citizens of East Baltimore.
Blum, the William H. Gates Sr. Chair of the Department of
Population and Family Health Sciences in the Bloomberg
School of Public Health, said that he plans to broaden
university and community representation in a revised
organizational structure for the institute. He also wants
more university staff, faculty and students involved with
UHI's mission, and plans to initiate a small grants program
that will support innovative collaborations between the
university and community in research, program development
and new urban health and development courses.
He talked about these initiatives and more, such as making
the center and its work more visible, and user-friendly.
Q: I'm wondering what health issues — the big
problems — the institute is focused on now.
A: We are not approaching our work from the
perspective of problem reduction. Rather, we have been
asking the question, What needs to be put into place to
change the trajectory for children, youth and families in
Where we have been investing a lot of our work is with East
Baltimore Development Inc., working to bring the
intellectual resources of JHU to the effort of developing a
human support and service network that improves the
outcomes for children, youth and families. Together, we
have received support from Friends of the Family in
Baltimore City to set up a family support center for
parents and children, birth to 3 years of age. We are
working with an entire consortium on a planning grant that
will result in a community pre-K through grade 8 school and
health campus that would include the first new school
building in Baltimore in more than a generation. And as
part of that effort, we are working with a wide range of
community and university health providers to develop a
coordinated and integrated health service network for all
young people and their parents in our community.
Q: Can you give me some examples of the institute's
work? Projects or programs that came out of Johns Hopkins'
involvement, or that we initiated?
A: We have developed a model community health
worker project under the direction of the associate UHI
director, Chris Gibbons, that trains 10 paraprofessionals
from the East Baltimore community to provide health
supervision to local residents, especially seniors who have
chronic conditions. In this program, the CHWs [community
health workers] assist East Baltimore citizens register for
health care, obtain insurance coverage, monitor blood
pressure and medication compliance and assist those who are
too frail and vulnerable to obtain the health care services
they need. This model is becoming the basis for new
initiatives that we are planning in collaboration with the
East Baltimore Medical Center for women about to deliver,
as well as with the East Baltimore health initiative that
is part of the planned community school and health campus.
Q: Are there other university-community
A: The UHI is part of a network of 16 colleges and
universities in Baltimore that all have an interest in and
a commitment to improving collaborations with their
communities. How that work is done and what the priorities
are vary substantially. We meet on a monthly basis to share
information and develop cross-cutting collaborations.
Q: What are your plans for the first few months as
the new director?
A: We plan to launch a newly designed Web site and
have that come online by the end of the summer. We also
have a group here led by Dr. [Bernard] Guyer [the Zanvyl
Krieger Professor of Children's Health at the School of
Public Health] conducting a review of all published health
research done in Baltimore since 1990. This large body of
research has been identified, reviewed and extracted; now
it will be made available in tabular form on our Web site.
We see this as both a university and community resource
that people will be able to use and access.
Q: In the announcement of your appointment, you
mentioned that you will be assessing the future work of the
institute. What more can you say right now?
A: Yes, we recently held a meeting that was a
community and university conversation on how to structure
an institute like the UHI. At the meeting, we were looking
at best ways of structuring our work, and collaborating
with the community. We had an extraordinarily wonderful
array of concrete suggestions. We are just beginning now to
synthesize all this, and by the end of August, I think,
we'll be moving forward on many of the suggestions.
Q: Can you offer up any specifics that came out of
A: First, we talked about how we really want to
bring in more of the community as part of our academic
ventures. One way of fostering that is giving small grants
to the faculty who team up with community members or
organizations to develop new courses here, at both the
undergraduate and graduate level, whether it's in urban
development, housing, health or application of the arts. We
want to be very broad, inclusive of both liberal arts and
the health sciences.
We also envision a small grants program for students in
partnership with community groups to conduct community
research. Students at Homewood or the schools of Nursing,
Medicine or Public Health can team up with a community
organization for a pilot study, to analyze existing data
that the agency might have or to undertake a survey that
can be used for program development. And we envision having
a similar grant program for faculty and community members.
Here, a plan for sustainability will be critical. What the
UHI can do is to help jump-start collaborations, but we
never will have the resources to sustain them.
What we are looking to do through these mechanisms is to
create bridges, through the use of $5,000 and $10,000
grants, which will spur innovation and collaborations.
We're very excited about this.
Q: In terms of the new courses, how do you see
A: For example, our faculty have been working with
community groups on health care for the uninsured. I could
see a terrific course in public health on that topic. I
could envision faculty members getting together with
community leaders in health care for the uninsured, and
collaboration on a course that covers this area. We also
have faculty who work on fair labor and fair wage
legislations, low-income housing issues. So I could see us
fostering courses in any of those areas or on the topic of
race, poverty and the community.
Q: Who else do you want to reach out to?
A: One other area we've begun to move toward is our
work with the faith community around health issues facing
East Baltimore. Early in May, we convened a panel that
included senior leadership of the East Baltimore campus
— deans Edward Miller [of the School of Medicine] and
Michael Klag [of the School of Public Health], David
Nichols [vice dean for education in the School of
Medicine], Ron Peterson [president of The Johns Hopkins
Hospital and Health System] — Jack Shannon [president
and CEO of East Baltimore Development Inc.] and roughly 50
or so ministers from the community. We wanted to begin a
dialogue with them and make some momentum with concrete
suggestions of how we can help the community.
Q: Why this group?
A: One of the constants in the community is the
faith leaders. They have both tremendous influence and are
extremely knowledgeable about the needs of people in the
community. To have an ongoing dialogue for sharing
information with them, I think, is essential.
Q: What size staff do you have, and do you plan to
A: Right now we have a core staff of a coordinator,
Amy Gawad; an associate director, Dr. Chris Gibbons; and a
postdoctoral fellow, Dr. Nadra Tyus, but we are planning to
bring in a communications specialist. We just recently were
informed by the Macht Foundation that we will be receiving
a grant that will allow us to bring in someone who can fill
this role, someone who can share information with all
constituencies in a more timely and sophisticated manner
than we've done in the past. In general, we plan to be much
Q: Will the staff grow much more?
A: We will want to add one additional new position.
This would be an information specialist who anyone in the
community can call and get any information they need as it
relates to Johns Hopkins University. One of the questions
we hear so often is, How can I speak with someone at
Hopkins when I have a question? It is a big issue, and we
hope to have someone who will field all of those calls and
questions and will either have the answer or get back to
the caller with the information that they are requesting.
Someone with knowledge of not just the institute's work but
all of the university, and the work we do at all the
Q: You said you plan to look at the organization's
structure. Can you elaborate on that?
A: The exact shape or form of the UHI I am not
positive of yet, but one of the things we are thinking
about is a coordinating council comprised of individuals
from across the university and the surrounding communities.
It would certainly have strong representation from the
hospital, schools of Medicine, Nursing and Public Health,
as well as the Homewood schools. And it would also have
representation from community-based organizations,
philanthropic organizations, political leadership, the
faith community and leaders in East Baltimore. Of course,
there are specifics to work out, but I'm thinking about a
broad-based group of about 10 to 12 people that can help
steer the institute and its work.
Q: What UHI success stories do you like to point
to? Ones you would like to duplicate?
A: Let me start by saying that the university is
not just a collection of schools; it's about individuals.
We need to showcase some of the extraordinary and excellent
things that our people are doing in the community and with
What often strikes me is that when we go out and work in
the community, people say that's not Johns Hopkins working,
that is so-and-so working, and the perception is that the
individual is working on his own behalf. They disconnect
the person from the institution. As a university, we need
to tell our story better. We need to showcase the
successes, the tremendous contributions that we are making
in a range of areas.
I think, for example, about the great work Philip Leaf
[professor in the Department of Mental Health at the School
of Public Health] has done on the mayor's violence task
force, or Alan Green's [associate professor in the School
of Education] work in conflict management. This is the kind
of work and success stories we can build on. We just need
to let people know, and some of that is certainly the
responsibility of the Urban Health Institute.
Q: Has the institute's mission changed at all since
its founding seven years ago? Broadened, sharpened?
A: The central mission of the institute really
remains unchanged, which is to serve as a bridge between
the university and the community, which in reality are
multiple communities. It's about bringing together the
human capital that JHU has to offer to help serve the
community, which the university is very committed to. It's
a very strong partnership, and we need to continue to work
at it and make it stronger.