Louisville is among cities harnessing the collective power of community-based organizations, local government, and nonprofits to become a more equitable place where everyone can thrive.
Two Metro Louisville government leaders driving these efforts were guest speakers for Humana’s celebration of the life and legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. This year’s theme: Unity in Community.
Kellie Watson, Louisville’s first Chief Equity Officer, and the Rev. Dr. Vincent James Sr., the city’s first Chief of Community Building, discussed the state of our nation and the city of Louisville. The speakers also highlighted Humana’s partnership with Lean Into Louisville, a city-wide effort that will provide an unprecedented series of presentations, conversations, activities, and art exhibits to explore and confront the city’s legacy of discrimination and inequality.
Ms. Watson provides strategic, visionary planning and oversight to advance racial equity throughout Louisville Metro Government. She oversees the Departments of Human Resources and the Human Relations Commission.
Watson is leading the city on an “equity journey,” joining national partners and other cities to learn how government can make a difference. A top goal: Rooting out structural racism, institutional racism, and implicit bias. This requires raising awareness, investing in marginalized communities, and helping people navigate difficult terrain together.
She shared a startling fact about how black income continues to lag behind white income: “Black wealth is at $5.04 for every $100 that a white family has. That’s $5 for every $100. Those are the inequities that government helps perpetuate that we need to fix.”
“How does government break down the institutional barriers around racism?” she asked. “How does government break down those systems that continue to perpetuate the barriers that keep people from reaching their full potential? And as we all know, government has perpetuated a lot of those barriers throughout history.”
“Governments,” she observed, “must be intentional about fixing such things.”
Each Louisville Metro Government department now has a “racial equity liaison.” These high-ranking leaders have authority to represent issues effectively within their areas.
To evaluate proposed policy changes, Ms. Watson and her team use a “racial equity toolkit.” It provides questions to help define desired outcomes, highlight relevant data, and identify community stakeholders so they are represented.
There were 8,500 victims of hate crimes in the United States in 2017. Ms. Watson gave a powerful, personal account of Louisville’s efforts to reduce these crimes, noting that recently she and her family have been victims.
Rev. James also spoke about being called to serve, saying he was horrified and inspired to act after a triple homicide near his church. He arrived at the scene to find two young people whom he had mentored among the dead.
“I said I never wanted to see another young person die in our streets,” he said. “I asked what would happen to them if I don’t help. I volunteered for everything.”
James left his corporate career to become Chief of Community Building. He focuses on the city’s comprehensive public safety strategy, supervising departments including the Office for Safe & Healthy Neighborhoods, Public Health & Wellness, Youth Detention Services, the Louisville Zoo, and Parks & Recreation.
He serves as the Faith and Community Based Coordinator in the Office for Safe & Healthy Neighborhoods, which works to address the root causes of violence through community engagement and programs such as Pivot to Peace and mentorship.
James is also pastor of Elim Baptist Church in Louisville’s Parkland neighborhood, and he has been involved in multiple non-profit community-building initiatives.
He said the work that he, Watson, and Mayor Greg Fischer are doing is “helping us understand how we got here, that we didn’t just arrive at this point in time in our country, but it was through systems and government policies and individuals who wanted to keep things the way they were without allowing others to have full access to opportunities. Years and years of divesting from our communities have led to what we see.”
The goal, he said, is to bring equity to all communities.
“Why is it that if you lived in one zip code versus another, there is a 12-year lifespan gap?” he asked. “That’s injustice.”
“When you give people jobs and hope, and they have the opportunity to receive an education, it changes history. That’s the work that we’re in. We’re in the people-changing business.”
After a Q&A session with associates, Maria Hughes, Chief Inclusion and Diversity Officer, closed the session with a quote from Dr. King: “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”
Learn more about Lean Into Louisville. Learning opportunities will be available throughout Louisville.