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One Summer Day

One Summer Day

A shuttle ride shattered by violence. A life’s mission defined.

Words by Sonia Sarkar • Illustration by Anna and Elena Balbusso

A couple of years ago, I was on the shuttle in East Baltimore. I used to ride it every day, for years, from the Homewood campus to the public health campus. I remember it was a bright sweltering summer day, the kind that we had too many of last summer.

As I was looking out the window, we came up on the running track at Central Avenue and Monument Street. The grass field was patchy because it had been so hot that summer. A group of teenagers were goofing around on the lawn, the way kids do on summer days. I had my headphones in, and I was listening to Rihanna’s “Umbrella.” As that “ella, ella, ella” refrain that you can never get out of your head reached its peak, I watched as a skinny kid in a yellow T-shirt and high-tops came up behind the group that was on the lawn and reached for a gun that was in his waistband.

A shot rang out. On the bus, it was total chaos. People were yelling out, “Call 911!” “What just happened?” “What are we looking at?” The bus driver was furious. “Sit down,” he said. “Sit down! My job is to get you to the medical campus. Sit down.”

And so the bus rolled on, and when we reached our destination, the School of Public Health, we filed off and disappeared into our classrooms, our offices, our laboratories. Except that moment kept playing again and again in my head.

I felt sadness and surprise and frustration. But most of all, I felt angry. I felt angry with myself because I knew that although I lived here in Baltimore, I wasn’t yet a part of it. And it wasn’t yet a part of me. See, I knew in my head that what I had seen that day was a result of forces much larger than those few seconds. Things we have to name: structural racism, trauma, poverty. But I also knew that I couldn’t grapple with those forces in any sort of effective way unless I knew in my soul what it was about me that drew me to those things.

I am a proud, proud product of Hopkins Public Health. With Baltimore, it’s shaped pretty much every aspect of my identity. But I am other things, too. I am a brown kid on a white bus riding into East Baltimore daily, physically protected and extraordinarily privileged. I am a girl who loves this city, but is from the Texas suburbs. I am someone who is fiercely committed to health justice but still grappling with what that means in terms of being a true partner, a champion, a real ally.

So the question that I ask myself again and again is: What is public health? That’s something my parents asked on a recent visit and that I still think about all the time.

For me, public health is action. It’s doing what we know is right. It’s enabling us to actually grapple with those root causes of violence. It’s the reason that I came back to this city to work at the extraordinary Baltimore City Health Department, where every day we are putting that public health knowledge into action. We’re actually taking steps to make sure that we aren’t just observing and analyzing from afar—because I never again want to be a bystander to health inequity like I was that day.

Sonia Sarkar, MPH '13, is chief policy and engagement officer for the Baltimore City Health Department. This essay was adapted from her September 2016 Alumni Day talk during "Stoop Stories: Public Health for Real: Stat-Free, Unvarnished and Me." View all the alumni stories.

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