“I believe this is the change we need.”
Edna Manns has been waiting a long time to say that. The West Baltimore community leader has spent years trying to help her community lift itself up. Apart from the Bon Secours Health System’s Community Works program, she’s been frustrated by a lack of enduring support.
That is, until that system partnered with Kaiser Permanente.
Bon Secours’ newest community needs assessment had found the 21223 ZIP code faced serious challenges to socioeconomic security, mental health, and health care access. Operating there for nearly 100 years, the system runs a number of community initiatives for all ages: job and skills training, financial education, child care, engagement, leadership development, recreation and more.
“The challenge,” said Community Works Executive Director Talib Horne, “is that we were one of the only institutions to continually invest in this area.”
Kaiser Permanente, spurred by the same conclusions in its own needs assessment, was looking for a flagship partner in the community. Manns and her neighbors were looking for help.
That’s how the Future Baltimore program began.
By assessments, the neighborhoods in 21223 are the unhealthiest in the state. But there was also the matter of timing. The studies, on regular three-year cycles, came soon after the city’s turmoil sparked by the death of Freddie Gray.
“The nation was all eyes on Baltimore,” said Kaiser Director of Community Health Destiny-Simone Ramjohn. “It made our commitment accelerate.”
Working with the community on everything from needs, to feedback, to the name of the program, Kaiser and Bon Secours mapped out deliberate initiatives and programs targeting the identified challenges. They connected with the city state’s attorney’s office, an employment and economic development organization, and others. Among the myriad approaches is a program for those coming home after incarceration. Already, they’re seeing success.
“The returning citizens program has a 22-percent-or-lower recidivism rate for participants,” Ramjohn said. “Compare that to the city of Baltimore that has a 70-percent recidivism rate, and you see something very unique happening here.”
Future Baltimore’s projects include renovating the shuttered Payson Street library into a community resource center where Bon Secours’ Community Works programs can have an accessible home. Kaiser provided a $1.7 million grant for the capital project, which Bon Secours will match with fundraising and other grants. But the work won’t stop there.
“Partnerships are important because they are long-term in nature,” Horne said. “They break down systems. It’s not a transactional relationship, it’s a transformational relationship.”
The difference in this partnership, he explained, is that the organizations rely on community engagement to guide it. And it serves as an advocacy platform to encourage state, philanthropic and corporate organizations to invest in the area as well.
But most importantly, Kaiser and Bon Secours are doing this work with – not just for – the communities they serve. Residents like Manns have continually shared needs and feedback with the two health systems, and have had extensive input on the old library’s renovation.
The relationship, said Ramjohn, has created a shared mantra: “Nothing about me without me.”
Leaders from Bon Secours, Kaiser Permanente and the community meet once a week to discuss Future Baltimore. The respective CEOs are briefed regularly and talk quarterly. Morgan State University is on-board to evaluate metrics and assess effectiveness and efficiency, which Horne said will ensure a return-on-investment conversation that guides further investment, work, and priorities.
The partnership is on a five-year plan, but all parties want it to last longer. Though the idea is to work locally, there’s potential to become a broader influence.
“We see the success of this initiative as poised to become a national model for how health systems can come together and think about ourselves in a more comprehensive way,” Ramjohn said.
For the community, the commitment isn’t just financial; it’s personal. Bon Secours CEO Dr. Samuel Ross personally gave out community leadership awards at the last community holiday party. He and the Kaiser Foundation’s president for the region, Dr. Kim Horn, visit the neighborhoods. No longer were organizations swooping in with their best and brightest for a short time, and then leaving Manns and her community on their own for the long haul. To her, the investment means a healthier environment, from youth involvement to crime rates to mental and physical care.
“Future Baltimore has brought influential people to the table, working to get involved,” Manns said. “[It] has given me more focus on how to create a more positive path for my community.”
True success in a neighborhood, like any other kind, comes largely from showing up.