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With 'Lean In Louisville,' City Aims To Address Discrimination, Inequality

Corrine Armstrong clicks through emails on a computer at the South Central Regional Library, trying to kill some time.

She just dropped her daughter off at daycare and has a job interview scheduled for later in the day.

Armstrong is admittedly nervous about the interview. The job, medical technician, would be a blessing for the single mother of four children.

“It’s very important,” she said.

Bills seem to stack up, at times, for Armstrong. There’s the daycare, the rent, the utilities. Burdensome worries, all their own. But for Armstrong — there’s more.

She said she has to deal with racism. Armstrong said she sees it in parking lots when people lock their doors as she passes, in stores when people direct their children away from her, and in the rudeness from strangers at work.

Armstrong teaches her kids how to deal with the subtle racism of near everyday life — especially her two sons, aged 10 and 14. She said she knows it’s tougher for them, because they’re black boys.

“It’s not easy,” she said.

As Armstrong talks, a crowd of city officials and nonprofit and business leaders gathers in a room on the other side of the library.

They’ve come to hear Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer lay out his plan to address some of these same issues Armstrong deals with — discrimination, racism, prejudice.

Fischer’s new initiative — Lean In Louisville — will be built around three components: learning opportunities, talking circles and public art.

The aim, he said at a Friday news conference, is to confront discrimination and its history, and the impact it has had.

“Each and every one of us face challenges,” he said. “But for far too many people, they face barriers and burdens that have nothing to do with their individual character, but result from some kind of difference or systemic issues or institutional issues.”

Money Talks

But missing from the mayor’s announcement was any significant fiscal investment in neighborhoods most victimized by disinvestment or programming designed to curtail and deal with discrimination and inequity. And Fischer shied away from identifying specific policy directives that could enforce efforts to quell hate or displacement.

Chanelle Helm, an organizer with Louisville's Black Lives Matter chapter, said grassroots organizations have long been focused on issues of discrimination, displacement and disinvestment.

She said Fischer should show more support for groups already working on issues he highlighted with the new initiative.

And she scoffed at the program’s focus on conversations, instead of investment and resources that could assist housing disparities and food deserts.

“I don’t want to play pattycake with a white man, I want his wallet,” she said.

Joshua Poe, a community organizer and city planner who has studied the impact of redlining on Louisville neighborhoods, said Fischer deserves some credit.

“With his leadership, the conversation has changed in this city in the last three years,” he said. “We’re able to talk about things professionally that we maybe weren’t able to three years ago.”

But, Poe said conversations about equity are conversations about economics.

“And if we don’t frame it in an economic lens, namely through a redistribution lens, then there’s a chance that those conversations can be authentic,” he said.

Poe said the public budget is a good place to start by investing in repairing vacant homes and abandoned properties, put more funding into social services and less in police departments. And in terms of policy, Poe said efforts should be taken to ensure people are not pushed out of or trapped in neighborhoods.

“Let’s deal with these structural issues that are really a form of violence on black communities in general, but the west end of Louisville,” he said.

Poe presented a metaphor — that a plan with no resources is like trying to build a house with blueprints, but no tools.

“These conversations are not that radical,” he said. “A. Philip Randolph, Martin Luther King Jr., they were talking about these things in the ‘60s — we should have been doing this 30 or 40 years ago.”

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.