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Healing City Act Trainings For Baltimore Agencies Begin

A sign at the Enoch Pratt Free Library's Clifton Branch. Employees of the citywide library system are the first to receive government-led trauma-responsive care training.
Baltimore Heritage/Flickr
A sign at the Enoch Pratt Free Library's Clifton Branch. Employees of the citywide library system are the first to receive government-led trauma-responsive care training.

On a recent Thursday morning, about 500 employees of the Enoch Pratt Free Library system logged onto Zoom for a history lesson about redlining in the early 20th century. Lawrence Brown, the author of The Black Butterfly: The Harmful Politics of Race and Space in America, delivered an hour-long lecture that detailed how segregation and white flight led to disinvestment and systemic struggles for Black communities.

“Historical trauma is this root cause, fundamental factor that is bedeviling Baltimore to this day,” he said. “This where we end up: Baltimore has been a city that has destroyed black neighborhoods. This is trauma being inflicted on people, on populations.”

Brown’s lecture was part of the first-ever Healing City Act training for a city agency. The act mandates that employees of departments that interact with youth and families receive training to become trauma responsive — that is, learning how to understand, recognize and respond to trauma, an emotional reaction to a distressing, disturbing experience.

Study after study has shown that trauma can change a person’s brain structure and contribute to long-term physical and mental health problems. Councilman Zeke Cohen, the legislation’s architect, opened the training by declaring that if city officials want to reduce violence, they must address the trauma that fuels it.

“Our goal is for Baltimore to become a model healing city by infusing trauma, responsive care and healing standard practices into all branches of our city government,” he said.

Zuleka Henderson is a lecturer at the Columbia University School of Social Work and a community based healer. Learning the history of a community’s trauma, such as slavery and redlining, is crucial in establishing care practices, she said.

“Often with trauma-informed approaches, we look at the individual or a group who was impacted in that moment without actually remembering the foundation, our social foundation, our social fabric, and how a lot of the factors that contributed to that trauma really are emerging from this legacy, this history,” she said.

Brown’s history lecture is just one component of the training: employees will also learn about the science of trauma and how to heal on an individual and community level. Community members hold the key to what healing looks like, Henderson said.

“Anytime we get to a space where we're trying to figure out what to do, the people who often have the answers for that question are in the room or in the community that we are trying to serve,” she said.

Baltimoreans will lead each training, Cohen said: “Because we are the medicine. Baltimoreans are the key to our own healing.”

And libraries are already a conduit for healing, said Heidi Daniel, the CEO of the Enoch Pratt Free Library system.

“We help, we guide and we provide them a pathway to resources that they may need,” she said. “We are just a place where people can come in and just be.”

She’s hopeful that the trainings will allow library employees to better serve Baltimoreans, as well as guide tough conversations about practices that may re-traumatize them. She pointed to the system’s current policy that young kids are not allowed to visit the library without supervision.

“Our staff don't have the ability to have eyes on children at all times. But conversely, if this child doesn't have a guardian that can be with them, what do we do? Do we send that child out on their own?” she said. “Where is that medium balance, where we're acting in the best interests of our community and still able to provide the services that we're meant to provide as an institution?”

The city will train one agency at a time, Cohen said. Other agencies slated to receive trauma responsive care training include Recreation and Parks, the Mayorʼs Office of Human Services and the Department of Housing and Community Development.

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.