Preventing Another Baltimore

05/01/2015 12:34 pm ET | Updated May 01, 2016

The recent violence in Baltimore is heartbreaking and will sadly portray the city in ways that are undeserved. As a Baltimore native, I know there are many good people working to promote better relations between law enforcement and residents, to improve police practices, and to increase citizen engagement to ensure that residents are being heard by government officials and are responsive to local needs. I take great pride in the contributions of Baltimoreans from all backgrounds and walks of life that labor everyday to make the city a place that cares for all including those living on the margins.

Though the degree of violence that took place in Baltimore and before that Ferguson might have caught leaders off guard, the underlying problems of social inequity, police overreach, and citizen distrust should have been recognized. Too often leaders, be they elected or community based, fail to grasp the need to solve deep-seated problems and bridge chasms that exist in many communities. We know that it was not all about Michael Brown or now Freddie Gray. Though these tragic consequences are significant and demand immediate attention, they were triggers of more serious challenges that these and other communities face.

The events in Baltimore should be a wakeup call for communities to examine the state of their civic health. And this should not be limited to those working within the political realm. Americans participate in civic and community organizations whose objectives are to advance the common good. Whether it's a PTA group, a civic association, or even informal groups such as a book club or work colleagues, it's important that Americans take time collectively to reflect on the state of civic relations in their communities. This could be considered a civic 'check up' having us look inwardly to identify indicators that direct us to areas that need attention. Tough questions need to be posed. Are all voices being heard and respected in our group or association? Do members see our group as advancing broader societal goals? Does our group reflect in its membership sufficient diversity that we are able to recognize community-based problems that need attention? And once we identify needs, what can we do? This is not to suggest that a PTA group or book club must be directing its attention to fixing police/community relations. But having a conversation validates a pressing problem and can point the way for others to take action. This process of consciousness raising is the means by which we ensure that our society provides opportunities for all and guarantees fair and equal treatment in the marketplace, in the schoolhouse, and in the police station.

Prevention is a popular notion in health care. Taking care of one's physical and emotional state has been ingrained in Americans and is a significant dimension of health care practice. We have come to recognize the warning signs of everything from suicide to a heart attack. But what if our community is on a path that can lead to a "community heart attack"? Once a situation like the violence that took place in Baltimore is underway, many will ask 'could of, should of, would of' questions, but will likely be frustrated in their failure to notice the warning signs and take remedial measures. The challenge with prevention and working to repair often slow growing societal problems is that it's difficult to engage individuals in strategies that may appear to be perfunctory and don't produce immediately measurable and media worthy outcomes. But the failure to invest the time and effort in keeping communities strong, civic relationships healthy, public officials (including law enforcement) accountable, and citizens engaged can lead to frustration and violence. Just ask a Baltimorean.