As the chief executive officer of the Louisville Urban League, I often find myself putting out fires that I didn’t start.
I’m but the latest in a long line of visionary firefighters whose work began in 1920 with the founding of the Louisville Urban League. In her book “The Warmth of Other Suns,” Isabel Wilkerson writes about the mass migration of refugees of the brutal South to urban cities that seemed like beacons of hope.
During and after the migration, Louisville’s white residents began to set literal and figurative fires. As black, and sometimes white, Louisville residents watched crosses burn in their front yards, their own property investments also went up in flames.
In the racist system of “redlining,” neighborhoods were color-coded and so-called “risk evaluation” became a code word for “race.”
Across the country, Urban Leagues were founded to help mitigate the policies that created urban ghettos, red-lined zones of despair.
I stand on the shoulders of these progressive founders and still, we are surrounded by flames. African Americans are still experiencing the effects of 20th century zoning policies. In 2015, Louisville experienced a dramatic spike in violent crime. The red-lined neighborhoods of yesteryear are still the ones most impacted by crime.
Red-lined neighborhoods are still most affected by unemployment and low incomes, a known predictor of violence. Alcohol, substance abuse and other destructive behaviors become coping mechanisms for unbearable stress, and babies are watching hope go up in flames.
Meanwhile, some hold buckets filled with admonishments to make better choices and expect the flames to subside. People ask me why I don’t talk more about personal responsibility, but that is precisely what I am talking about when I talk about red-lining, zoning, and investments in West Louisville.
Louisville must take personal responsibility for the policies it enforced less than a century ago.
As we decide where to place financial investment, we can’t responsibly use the same “risk evaluation” measures of the 1930s. Not when children are watching their neighborhoods burn like those crosses of yesterday. And investment cannot be equal across the community. We must invest unequally, just as the laws were applied.
I still see hope beyond the flames. From my vantage point, I see neighborhoods broken by policies which can be mended with intentional investment. I am bolstered by the support of community members who have not remained silent, who have demanded fair treatment and equal opportunity, and who have decided to hold hope in the face of despair.
Standing with them is what gives me hope — that mighty, resilient fire hose that can neither be dropped nor held alone. Thank you for standing with the Louisville Urban League and saying, “not on my watch.”
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