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Here Are the Bingham Fellows' Ideas For Revitalizing West Louisville

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At a barbershop on the corner of 28th and Madison streets in west Louisville, the men inside have more on their minds than tight cuts and smooth fades.

They’re trying to extend a message that, despite the issues area residents face, success can be had by people who live in the neighborhoods west of Ninth Street—especially young people.

“We set a different tone and we, hopefully, let the kids see something positive,” said Eric Ward.

Ward, 27, grew up in west Louisville and has been cutting hair at Mirror Mirror barbershop for about four months.

Business lulls just before closing time Thursday afternoon and Ward steps outside to smoke a cigarette.  As he leans against the building’s gray brick, puffing on the cigarette, he nods when he hears about a plan the 2014 Bingham Fellows class has for west Louisville.

It's a nod of approval, but it doesn't come without some skepticism.

The 44 Bingham Fellows developed three projects that aim to bolster the educational, employment and environmental gaps that have long plagued Louisville’s westernmost neighborhoods, said Cynthia Knapek, president of the Leadership Louisville Center, which runs the year-long fellowship program.

The plan was unveiled Thursday.

Education

By focusing primarily on neighborhoods within the 40210 zip code, the Bingham Fellows have a goal of boosting kindergarten readiness by 5 percent come the 2016-17 school year, Knapek said.  The current rate of kindergarten readiness in Jefferson County is about 52 percent, but the rate in the 40210 zip code is only 35 percent.

“The plan stems from reading and the importance of reading,” Knapek said.

Through partnerships with Metro United Way, Jefferson County Public Schools and the Louisville Free Public Library, the Bingham Fellows class plans to install front yard libraries through the area to help boost the LFPL initiative 1,000 Books Before Kindergarten program and “make books within walking distance," Knapek said.  The group has also developed a plan to expand Metro United Way Parent Cafes and increase the distribution of kindergarten readiness kits to area families, she added.

Strengthened efforts for providing early childhood education will improve the likelihood of employment down the road for students, Knapek said, which is a leading aspect in the “cradle to career” model the Bingham Fellows adopted.

Employment

Unemployment rates are higher in western Louisville than other areas of Jefferson County, Knapek said. And through the Bingham Fellows “We Hire Together,” initiative residents will have streamlined access to employers, she added.

Knapek said the initiative will seek to connect influential neighborhood leaders with “the people that have the jobs” in effort to get residents looking for work into an environment where they can succeed.

“Whether they happen to be jobs in west Louisville or not,” she added.

Environment

Getting more jobs and capital in to west Louisville is an ultimate goal of the initiative the Bingham Fellows dubbed “One West.”

She said business owners have said that areas of west Louisville “don’t look like a place that I could put my business.”

The initiative will look to improve the physical space of west Louisville neighborhoods in a way that appeals to business owners, she said.  Establishing a loan fund and applying for New Market Tax Credits will be long term goals for One West, as well as developing a West Louisville redevelopment plan, Knapek said.

'A Village Raising a Child'

Outside the barber shop, Eric Ward said the plans the Bingham Fellows devised sounded appealing, aligned with a message he works to send to young people: success follows positivity.

But the plans' chance for success depends on how well they are acted on.

“One of my mottos is just talk less and do more,” he said.  “A whole lot of people do the talking and no action.”

Knapek said the Bingham Fellows class of 2014, comprised mostly of civic and business leaders, was selected based on the desire they expressed to work on a project focused on west Louisville.

“When we were having these conversations about west Louisville what you could hear from people is that they were ready to say, ‘I need to do something about it, tell me how I can make a difference,’” she said.

Ward said a large group of talented and determined people focusing their efforts on helping an underserved area is “the same as a village raising a child.”

“You’ve got to have voices,” he said.  “You’ve got to have people that are willing to do it and put in the work, and everybody else will follow suit.”

“Things will change. It’ll happen.”

Just about half of the 44 fellows spend time, daily, in west Louisville and even less than that live in the area, Knapek said. UPS has given a $10,000 grant to help get the Bingham Fellow's plan enacted, and they hope to raise more funds.

Getting people to care about an area they may never venture to was not necessarily easy, she added.

Being a Bingham Fellow requires a commitment of time and money(it cost about $4,200 to participate in the program; some participants had the costs covered by their employers or through scholarships), Knapek said. That can deter anyone who isn’t fully vested in the topic, which is already decided before applicants begin applying.

“If you are a small business person in west Louisville or a west Louisville resident who is trying to work a full-time job and not necessarily getting time off, then it does require some additional conversations on our part about the importance of doing it,” she said.

Ward said it’s a project worth undertaking and hopes to see it end successfully. He added that the stigma surrounding west Louisville—poverty, crime—shouldn’t blanket everything west of Ninth Street, and when outside groups want change they first need to understand that "not everything needs changing."

“It’s a pretty good area,” he said.  “It’s not what everybody says it is, man, it’s what you make it.”

Jacob Ryan joined LPM in 2014. Ryan is originally from Eddyville, Kentucky. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.