Cura Personalis: Erin O’Keefe, ’03

By George P. Matysek, Jr., ’94  |  Photo by Scott Suchman

As director of Loyola’s York Road Initiative, Erin O’Keefe has developed and overseen efforts to work with community members, city organizations, businesses, schools, and faith and non-profit institutions in strengthening the Greater Govans communities neighboring Loyola’s Evergreen campus.

A 2003 Loyola graduate who earned a bachelor’s degree in political science, O’Keefe holds a master’s degree in public policy from UMBC. In addition to serving as director of the York Road Initiative, O’Keefe is also serving as the interim director of Loyola’s Center for Community Service and Justice.

Why has Loyola made the York Road Initiative a priority?

Jesuits have always been immersed in urban areas, and their mission—our mission—challenges us to be engaged in the gritty realities of urban life and to act to address injustices. York Road represents a real divide in race and class, in access to after school programming, healthy food, and opportunity for children and families. In Baltimore today, more than ever, Loyola is called to be attentive to that divide and utilize our resources, whether as an anchor institution to purchase our university food locally, or to use the outstanding talents of our students and faculty to help address systemic needs. The overarching goal is to do what we can to help those who are most in need.

Why was it important to engage the community directly?

Everything we’ve done from the beginning was a process of discernment. We started with a listening project where we engaged residents on how Loyola could best support existing work. This isn’t about saying, “We know best.” It’s about collaborating with and adding Loyola’s support to community identified and led projects and programs. This is line with Loyola’s missions and values as they pertain to social justice—and our goal to motivate students to work for a just and equitable world, beginning with working for change in their communities.

What are some of the Initiative’s major accomplishments so far?

Listening to community needs, building shared trust, and developing relationships with residents and community groups is our greatest accomplishment. A program like the Govans Farmers’ Market that makes fresh, healthy food available in the community without immediate access to grocery stores, is only possible because of strong mutually beneficial relationships. We were one of the first markets in Baltimore City to accept nutrition benefit programs (formerly known as food stamps) due to Loyola’s technology capacity to have a card reader available and online. But we would never have built 400+ weekly attendance without oversight from a community advisory committee that recommended offering children’s activities with trusted partners like the Govans branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

This fall we kicked off FreshCrate with corner stores in the area—small, independently-owned shops that in the past have never sold produce. Through Parkhurst, Loyola’s dining services, Loyola can allow corner stores to purchase through our distributor, which cuts the cost significantly for them—but the storeowners are the ones who see the opportunity and make this happen. Already, 1,000 pounds of produce are on the shelves of stores along York Road.

Is this your dream job?

Absolutely! In some of our neighborhoods there is a tremendous amount of physical disinvestment—and a real need for additional resources. Yet I have the privilege to work with volunteer neighborhood leaders who fight every day on behalf of our community. Their faith and dedication are incredibly empowering.

This past April, during the unrest here in Baltimore, I was able to march with resident leaders when we learned through social media of threats to destroy some businesses on York Road. Parents came out and said, “No way! We will be there. These are our kids.” We stood on the side of the road together—Loyola students and staff, with neighborhood residents, faith leaders, business owners. While tension was high, and our police officers arrived in riot gear, the police didn’t have to respond. The presence of community members was a deterrent in itself from any negative actions.  I’m reaffirmed that collaboration and communication among Loyola, neighbors, and community partners creates stability. It’s incredibly important to me to be part of a community standing together that creates immediate strength and maintains hope.

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