Mobility Partnership member Kathryn Edin is Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Public Health at Johns Hopkins University and director of the 21st Century Cities Initiative. She combines qualitative and quantitative research methods in rich, detailed investigations of poverty in America’s cities.
Edin lives in Baltimore, Maryland and was there when riots, protests, and National Guard troops followed the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African American man who suffered a fatal spinal injury while in police custody.
In December, Edin talked about her experiences in Baltimore as a resident and a scholar and how things stand more than a year and a half after the unrest.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and space.
How long have you lived in Baltimore?
I've been there three and a half years, but I have been doing research in Baltimore since 2003. I’m part of a team of researchers that has been following a cohort of young people who grew up in public housing but had the opportunity to move to higher-resource neighborhoods. We first met the kids and their parents in 2003, and we followed them through 2012.
It was a unique way to be introduced to the city, through these young people, many of whom have grown up against incredible odds: very high rates of parental disadvantage, drug use, father absence, and more.
The kids were so compelling. I really felt drawn to the city because of those encounters.
Where were you when the unrest in Baltimore started?
I was out of town, traveling. Hearing the news was startling. My first response was, "How can I get home?" I think a lot of people who were traveling at the time just felt this powerful sense that they needed to be in Baltimore, in solidarity with their neighbors.
I got into Baltimore Penn Station on the Amtrak. If you were around town during that time, you probably remember the army tanks in the street and just the unbelievable amount of military presence. It seemed like there were helicopters everywhere.
My husband met me for a quick dinner at a restaurant called Pen & Quill, which had the virtue of having a lot of windows onto Charles Street [which runs downtown, near city hall]. We just happened to be there when a lot of Hopkins students were coming back from city hall, having, in many cases, engaged in their first real political act of protest. We don't tend to think of Hopkins as a hotbed of radicals. Hopkins students’ favorite place to hang out is the library, because they're so intent on getting good grades. But on several faces there was just this look of joy. It's due to the fact that they were able to show solidarity with others in the city.
In the aftermath of the unrest, we interviewed 60 young people who lived in the area where the unrest occurred. Many of them did not participate in the protests. What was striking is how we felt such license, as privileged whites, to participate in these marches. But many of the kids for whom these practices of police brutality had been most salient were too afraid to participate. In fact, they were mostly sheltering in place at home, terrified to go out because they could be arrested or perhaps even become a victim of violence. Of course, many within the west Baltimore community did protest. But it was very interesting to see how these kids saw such risk to themselves if they made that choice.
It was a frightening time, but it was also a time when the legacy of decades of oppression started to come to light.
I don't hear many academics use the word “oppression” to describe urban poverty and racism. What did that oppression look like from your perspective?
Your audience might know that redlining refers to practices by realtors and banks that left some communities completely starved of credit. Redlining was invented in Baltimore. Baltimore literally invented legalized segregation. It was quickly outlawed, but we were the first and only place to really legalize segregation.
If you look at maps of all the social ills that plague Baltimore now, and you overlay them on those historic maps of the redline, it's astonishing to see the correspondence. Generation after generation of folks have experienced that institutional, policy-driven oppression, in a myriad of ways, and, of course, that's been compounded by new sources of redlining. Many of those communities still don't have banks that will lend in them. This is not ancient history. It’s ongoing.
So I think in Baltimore's case, “oppression” is the correct word. In fact, it might not be strong enough to describe what’s been happening.
You've studied poverty in communities around the country. Are there elements that make Baltimore unique?
Based on our early research in the early 2000s, I would have said no. But since then, I’ve seen two unique things.
First, for a while, up until the recession and the real estate collapse, Baltimore was one of only a handful of cities across the United States that was seeing decreases in concentrated poverty and economic segregation. I believe they cut the number of high-poverty tracts in the city in half.
But the other unique thing about it is the incredibly low rate of economic mobility you see inter-generationally. Of course, one of our Partners, Raj Chetty, has been at the forefront of that work. You can also feel that palpably when you talk to young people in the city. It's as if many young people have read the academic papers and really don't see Baltimore as a place where they can pursue, as one kid said, "who I'm going to become." The act of becoming, in their minds, has to take place outside of Baltimore. Even though they may love their city and feel connected to it in some way, most of them don't see a future in Baltimore.
I have not seen that in other places.
I grew up in Baltimore. I remember feeling unsafe almost always, but it was a long time before I realized there are alternatives, that not everyone lived in places where they were literally and figuratively constantly looking over their shoulder. So how is it, do you think, that the young people you spoke to, growing up in these segregated communities, knew they could demand more?
I think the national outrage that began emerging as the underbelly of the history of this city was revealed was really cathartic for the young people. Suddenly, there were whole communities of people saying, "This is wrong. What's happening in Baltimore is wrong. What we're experiencing is wrong, and we don’t have to put up with this anymore."
Maybe that's why we see what's going on in the city currently. There is a high rate of robbery, often in daylight, in places where you might not expect robberies to occur. A lot of the times the perpetrators are juveniles with no prior convictions. They're risking a felony [conviction] to get an iPhone.
I don't know whether it’s true, but it seems the unrest lit this match of awareness that young people are having a hard time turning away from. Again, that's speculation, but that would be my guess.
What is the 21st Century Cities Initiative?
The 21st Century Cities Initiative is a signature initiative of Johns Hopkins University, one of five initiatives that signal to the world what Johns Hopkins is about.
Part of our goal is to create actionable research. Researchers don't know what the policy levers are for city officials. We don't know what's keeping them up at night. Through twenty-first century data, we want to transform the way universities interact with cities and do city-level research.
Cities are such a wonderful place to innovate. It's not clear what's going to happen at the federal level in the coming months, so cities may become very important as a sort of test bench for innovation, because you can engage all of the actors and test an idea in a way that’s harder to do with larger entities. It might be a real moment for cities.
One of the 21st Century Cities Initiative's early areas of focus was the conditions that led to last year's unrest. What did you and your colleagues discover with that body of work?
The initiative started just before the unrest. We knew we wanted to study cities, but after the events of April  occurred, we decided we wanted to study neighborhood transformation. Our signature theme, inclusive neighborhood transformation—with a heavy emphasis on the “inclusive”—was born out of the realization that what drove the events of April was a history of segregation, of exclusion so deep that it’s amazing the lid was kept on the kettle as long as it was.
A lot of the young people we talked to in west Baltimore were confused about the specific impetus for the unrest. "Why Freddie Gray?” they asked. “Why Freddie Gray?" This came up over and over again in interviews. In probing them, they would say, “This happens all the time. There was nothing special about what happened to him. This is business as usual in our neighborhoods.”
The unrest is the indirect lineage of the redline. The redline is a shorthand for all of the political, institutional, and cultural sources of exclusion that have been layered on for generations.
How would you compare where Baltimore is now to where it was more than a year and a half ago? Can you point to any signs of progress?
Baltimore was emerging as a tale of two cities. It's breathtaking to see how much redevelopment is occurring in the city. It’s in select areas, mostly downtown, around the Inner Harbor.
I think a lot of people were really worried that that was going to stop after the unrest. But it seems like people picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and got back to it. That development is not inclusive development for the most part.
There is another wave of redevelopment in the city, which I would characterize as inclusive. A lot of it is driven by non-profits in historically middle class or working class but now downtrodden African American neighborhoods, especially in the east side of Baltimore. Those developments have inclusivity baked in. The goal is not to gentrify those neighborhoods but work toward inclusive revitalization.
I think there's a chance that might happen. It's rare. Sometimes you get lucky, for example, in the South End of Boston you've got a lot of public housing, so it remains inclusive, but in an odd sort of way: there are rich people living next to people in public housing.
Here, the idea is to really knit together the renters, the homeowners, the middle-class nurse from Hopkins, and the struggling single mom, who may be finishing a GED or struggling through community college. That development seems to be continuing as well.
We still have a lot of crime. We just had our three-hundredth murder. There is this rash of robberies. For many people, Baltimore feels palpably less safe than it did prior to the unrest. That will really hurt the city if we can't get it under control.
I do think the unrest, was galvanizing for everyone: Hopkins, the business community, non-profits, young leaders. There's a passion about the city that's pretty striking. That's the heartening part.
I'm interested in your approach to poverty research. You ask people in poverty about their life circumstances, the choices they make, and what shapes those decisions. I find this noteworthy for at least two reasons. First, the fact that you even think to ask these questions presumes that we don't know the answers, that these are complex people in complex circumstances, that whatever we think we know about poverty could be challenged. Second, it sets up people in poverty as experts on their own lives. Is this as radical an approach as it sounds to me? I see a lot of paternalism in poverty research.
I got into poverty research in part because I couldn't live on my graduate school stipend. I got a job teaching college courses to welfare recipients. My first class, by the way, was Minority Cultures. I was the only non-minority person in the room, so I was stumbling along. I did this on Saturday mornings in North Lawndale, a very poor neighborhood in Chicago. We had class in the basement of a church.
Afterwards we would go up to the parish hall, and we'd just talk. It was like a focus group every Saturday. I was taking a Christopher Jencks course on poverty at Northwestern University. Nothing that I was hearing from the people in North Lawndale was being taught in my class. I thought, "Wow, this is what's really going on."
I think I learned early on that almost everything that we think of as true probably isn't. In fact, I probably have an overabundance of skepticism about everything because of this experience.
It has been really fun spending all these years listening. None of the things that I've ended up finding could I have predicted when I started out. I have been wrong about just about everything, and of course, the truth is so much more interesting than anything I could have made up.
I really like listening, and I like telling stories. I probably would have been a narrative non-fiction writer had I not become a sociologist. My mother's an artist, so she looks, while I listen. Her attention to visual detail, having been an artist for all these years, is so intense. She can tell you where the freckle is on your ankle. It's uncanny.
Are there colleagues in your field who look down on qualitative research methods as being insufficiently rigorous?
I think that's definitely true. I think I've gotten something of a pass, because I tend to interview a lot of people in a systematic way in most of my work, using something an economist might recognize as a sample.
I've always carved out this intermediary path between quantitative and qualitative. I've collected numbers and collaborate with a lot of quantitative people. I've published articles with economists.
My most recent big project, $2.00 a Day, on extreme poverty, has a big survey component that's kind of the spine of the book, but the data are all ethnographic. It has increased my respect for the ethnographic method, which I do think a lot of folks look down on.
Now, it has its pitfalls, and those are important to recognize. In some ways, with really in-depth ethnographic work, you don't really know what it’s representative of. That's where I think ethnographers fail. Of course their findings are representative of something, but what is that something? Often, ethnographers don’t think hard enough about that question.
As respect for some of my work grows, maybe I'll be able to bring some other people along. It's interesting: Angus Deaton, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, was recently on the EconTalk podcast, and he talked about two books that use ethnography, $2.00 a Day and Matt Desmond's book, Evicted.
I think one real value of these kinds of studies is that they put different pictures in quantitative researchers' minds than the ones that are already there. I can’t tell you the number of times I've seen quantitative researchers use their own experience as a substitute for the key qualitative grounding you get from the kind of work I do. People assume from their own experience, unless they have something else to put in that space. I think that's what really limits the utility of a lot of quantitative research. Researchers ask their own questions and make their own assumptions from the get-go.
You have been very engaged in the Partnership's work. When you focus those observational skills you inherited from your mother on the Partnership, what do you see? What stands out about what we're doing and how we’re doing it?
I have a confession to make. This is a really diverse group of people. At first I thought, “Gee, I’m an academic. What am I going to be able to learn from practitioners and advocates? Are we really going to be able to come together in a productive way, or is it going to be science versus anecdote?"
But now, whenever we get together, who do I want to hang out with? The Partners who have on-the-ground experience.
Just yesterday, for example, I got to hear from Ai-jen Poo and Anthony (Tony) Iton about what it really means to organize in twenty-first century America after we've almost killed the whole concept of organizing in this country. This type of exposure expands the range of what you believe to be possible.
The site visits have also been very interesting. I'm not sure everybody saw the value in them right way. But it's been tremendously moving to have all of these examples in your head. Part of what we learn through site visits is that there are no magic bullets and the work is really hard. That doesn't mean there aren't a lot of promising things happening all around the country.
If leaders in Baltimore asked you how they could make the city a place where young people wanted to stay to grow into the people they’d like to become, what would you tell them?
My answer would be informed by an experience I had as a member of the Mobility Partnership. Anthony Iton, one of my fellow Partners, was born in Baltimore but grew up in Canada and didn't visit Baltimore for many years until he came back for medical school.
He tells this story. When he came back, somebody drove him around east Baltimore. In the car, he was quiet for a while, then asked, "Did a bomb go off?" Here's an African American guy in the 1980s coming to Baltimore, one of the most segregated cities in America, for medical school, in a neighborhood where it looks like a bomb was dropped.
Well, during one of the Partnership’s meetings, somebody was asking me about Baltimore. I was doing my Baltimore booster thing, saying what a great city it is, how quirky and authentic it is. It has all these amenities, is racially diverse, and a friendly town. I summed up by saying that Baltimore was a great place to live. Tony turned to me and asked, "For whom?"
Of course I know he's right, but that question knocked me off my feet. The people who want to see the city flourish are often not asking the question "For whom?"
The city that invented redlining must become the city on a hill, the place that shows the world that inclusive revitalization is possible and that the benefits of revitalization can flow to everyone. If we're not vigilant about that goal 24/7, it's not going to happen.
Now, will Baltimore become Brooklyn? Well, 20 years ago, no one thought Brooklyn would become Brooklyn. It's possible. We're 38 miles from one of the most expensive housing markets in the country, and we have all these amenities.
We don't need to follow the template of every other city. We need to craft our own template, acknowledge our legacy of segregation, and create new forms of social cohesion across diverse population groups.
That can create the kind of opportunities that would make our young people want to stay in Baltimore and view the city as a place where they can become who they dream of being.