As Johns Hopkins health care leaders were setting up testing stations for COVID-19, scheduling virtual town hall meetings and procuring face masks to protect vulnerable city residents from the deadly virus, Alicia Wilson was also attending to another fundamental community need: food.
Partnering with local organizations, the Johns Hopkins administrator helped establish the East Baltimore Food Initiative to serve working adults who weren’t eligible for programs that targeted children and older adults. Before long, the effort was helping more than 7,000 residents and 2,000 families on a weekly basis. The initiative has served more than 1.5 million meals.
Such community service is central to everything that Wilson does. As vice president for economic development for The Johns Hopkins University and Johns Hopkins Health System, the 38-year-old attorney heads the institution’s efforts to expand Johns Hopkins’ role as an anchor institution and economic engine in Baltimore in ways that benefit both Johns Hopkins and its surrounding neighborhoods.
“As an institution, the way we can care is to apply equity to our work in the community,” Wilson says. “Our reach across East Baltimore, even into communities that haven’t always agreed with us on issues, demonstrates that we want to have a relationship.”
This means using social determinants of health to guide community health work and looking at the institution’s pipeline to make sure that internships, jobs, education and other opportunities are available to graduates from Baltimore schools and area colleges.
Other aspects of her job are examining hiring and promotion practices and endowment investments and working with the institution’s various business-building arms to attract a mix of large and small businesses to Baltimore.
Wilson understands the promise, and the complexity, of these goals. Growing up in Northeast Baltimore, she was a top student who went on to become a partner in her law firm and lead community negotiations for Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank’s Port Covington project. In building her career, she has also continued to mentor youth and to serve on boards of many community organizations and nonprofits. (See list of accomplishments here)
“Our proximity and interactions with our community are vital,” she says. “They help us to be better educators; they help us to be better clinicians; and they help us to be nimble and anchor ourselves in a way that is responsive and humble.”
This approach was crucial as the COVID-19 crisis took shape. Aware of the disproportionate effect the pandemic was having on Black and Latinx communities, Wilson formed and led the Pandemic Anchor Strategy Work Group of health system and university leaders to bring education, testing and other resources to underserved communities.
“A silver lining in the pandemic has been the opportunity to work closely with Alicia and support the community,” says Sherita Golden, vice president and chief diversity officer for Johns Hopkins Medicine. “Partnership between the Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Health Equity and the Anchor Strategy Work Group allowed us to not only support our JHM employees and external community during the pandemic, but also provided an avenue for us to brief multiple national organizations and legislators on the disturbing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our most vulnerable communities and the public health approaches necessary to achieve health equity.”
Better Health for All
When Wilson realized that few Spanish-speaking people who needed emergency food were calling the 211 Maryland United Way Helpline, she worked with the city health department to create a system for safe food delivery. Now if needy residents test positive for COVID, or are discharged from the hospital, they can receive food via Amazon, allowing them to quarantine safely at home.
The Anchor Strategy Work Group also collaborated with Nicki McCann, vice president for payor/provider transformation and Johns Hopkins’ lead for the Baltimore Public-Private Partnership, to make the community aware of the Lord Baltimore Hotel provision of quarantining rooms for COVID patients who live in crowded households. The work group also contacted community youth to determine what kinds of pandemic information is most useful for their town halls.
Known to friends as the Energizer Bunny, Wilson balances numerous online meetings with Johns Hopkins leaders with check-ins with community organizations. She begins every day by contacting a partner at a nonprofit or city agency to gain perspective on community needs.
On a recent call with Gregory Countess, director of advocacy for housing and community economic development at Maryland Legal Aid, Wilson learned that older adults living in public housing had questions about COVID-19 as well as trouble getting protective gear. Before long, she had arranged for Johns Hopkins to hold a virtual town hall meeting for those residents and to supply them with face masks.
The anchor metaphor comes up a lot in conversation with Wilson — she talks about Johns Hopkins as an anchor for the community, but also about the community as an anchor for Johns Hopkins. Her own anchor is her home in Frankford, the neighborhood she grew up in with her parents and two brothers.
“I live with the decisions I make very closely,” she says. “When I’m talking about economic development and real estate, that’s happening in my neighborhood. When I’m talking about wages and compensation, those are my neighbors. When I’m talking about helping people with barriers to accessing health care, I’m talking about my friends.
“My proximity to the people most impacted, and my status in still being among them, helps me to be more thoughtful.”
Wilson grew up on a block of row homes adjacent to the Hollander Ridge housing project and a high-rise apartment building, both of which were plagued with criminal and drug activity.
“You, sadly, witnessed things you probably shouldn’t have when you’re a kid, and you realize a lot of dreams don’t come true,” she says. “I had praying parents, real praying parents, which made all the difference. My mom and dad went to work and came home every night, and I think that made a significant difference in my life.”
While a number of her neighbors never made it past the ninth grade, Wilson graduated from Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School as valedictorian.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa and became the college’s first student to be named the Harry S. Truman Scholar for the state of Maryland, a scholarship awarded to one college junior in each state making a difference through public service. She earned her Juris Doctor from the University of Maryland, where she received numerous scholarship awards and was co-captain of the Maryland Law National Trial Team, leading it to be ranked #1 in the country.
She spent eight years as a trial attorney and legal adviser at the Baltimore law firm Gordon Feinblatt LLC, becoming the firm’s first Black partner.
In 2016, Wilson joined the Sagamore Development Company, co-founded by Under Amour CEO Kevin Plank. As senior vice president of impact investments and senior legal counsel for Plank’s Port Covington Development Team, she was a driving force in securing a $660 million tax incremental financing (TIF) package — a publicly financed subsidy — for the $5.5 billion redevelopment project.
“I’m a hard-nosed negotiator, but that doesn’t mean you don’t look out for the interests of the community,” she says. “I advocated for my client, but I also advocated for that community.”
Michael Middleton, chairman of the South Baltimore 7 Coalition, the nonprofit formed out of Port Covington’s community benefits agreement with its six surrounding communities, says he could always count on her word.
“If it [a proposal] was an injustice to her conscience, she wouldn’t go with it at all. I admired that immensely,” he says.
Under Wilson’s direction, the community benefits agreement for Port Covington includes initiatives around workforce development, supplier diversity, inclusionary housing and youth enrichment.
In 2016, she received the Cherry Hill Homes Tenant Council Community Leadership Award, recognition given to community leaders who commit to social, political and economic advancement of public housing residents. She considers it one of her top honors.
Staying Connected to Her Roots
During law school, Wilson bought the house she grew up in for her family so that they could continue to live there. Her own home is only three blocks away.
“I think the kids in my neighborhood deserve to meet lawyers,” she says. “They deserve to know that people who grew up just like them, people who look just like them, people who experienced the same challenges and struggles, choose to live among them and choose to make things better from the inside rather than from a distance.
“But I also do it for myself. It allows me to stay humble, stay connected and stay responsive to the community that raised me.”
Wilson lights up when talking about other projects — such as bringing a grocery store with fresh produce to East Baltimore — that may benefit the community. Upbeat and focused, she says she’s always happy, which has earned her the nickname “Sunshine.” She ends her 12- to 14-hour workdays with reading and prayer.
“I believe God has me here for a very important reason,” she says. “I don’t know what it is, but it’s not about me. It’s about something much bigger than me. If I do it well, the world’s a little bit better. What drives me is trying to fulfill God’s will here on Earth so that things are better for other people.”
She says her work with Johns Hopkins presents just such an opportunity.
“I’ve always tried to figure out how I can progress and continue to serve, and when you think about who the largest engine in this city is, it’s Hopkins,” she says. “It impacts so much in so many ways. It’s a chance of a lifetime.”