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Louisville youth share ideas to solve community issues at second-annual JusticeFest

Students from Western High School presented a four part project called "Say Our Names: The Collection".
Students from Western High School presented a four part project called "Say Our Names: The Collection".

Louisville youth proposed ideas to improve and uplift their communities at the Kentucky Derby Festival’s second annual JusticeFest on Saturday.

The event gives local students an opportunity to pitch their ideas to a panel of community leaders. It’s hosted in collaboration with Justice Now, a program through Jefferson County Public Schools created in response to the racial and social unrest seen in the city since 2020.

Students participating in Justice Now work with staff sponsors at the schools to create, plan and present initiatives and projects that address the issues that affect their lives.

Dodie Howlett, vice president of marketing and creative strategies at the Kentucky Derby Festival (KDF), said JusticeFest is part of a larger program called The Derby Equity and Community Initiative. 

“The purpose of that initiative is to find ways during the Derby season, and all year long, to restore, support and create,” Howlett said.

JusticeFest falls under the “create” pillar of that initiative by giving students a chance to present their ideas to local leaders who can aid in making them a reality.

More than 20 different student groups showcased their projects on Saturday.  

Some groups focused on ways to advance projects that were already in the works.

Mighty Shades of Ebony’s “Tricked Out Trash Cans” aims to design trash cans and trucks in a way that helps curb littering in Louisville’s West End. They’ve already acquired trash cans to paint and redesign. 

“Now, we’re trying to get community organizations that actually handle the trash cans —waste management, public works— to help us learn the next steps of that and then get it into neighborhoods that also need some funding,” Howlett said.

Other students, like those from Wheatley Elementary, were presenting their ideas for the first time.

The group from Wheatley took aim at the stigma around hoodies in their project “Hoodies for Hope.” They argued against the notion that hoodies somehow signal criminal or bad behavior. They want to create a hoodie line that promotes anti-violence messages in their design and remove the JCPS ban on wearing hoodies in schools. 

A group from Western High School proposed a multi-part project called “Say Our Names: The Collection.”

“Some of the things we’d like to shine a light on is racism, child abuse, neglect, substance abuse, mental health, gun violence and more,” said Sanaa Bolton, a 14-year-old student who presented to the panel.

“Say Our Names: The Collection” is made up of four components, including the creation of a book and documentary that would chronicle the process of how students come up with and follow through on their project ideas.

The students also want to put on a play about the issues that affect them, written in their own words.

“It’s a way for us to show people who we are, what we go through,” said Aubreyonna Durah, a 14-year-old student in Western’s Justice Now program.

The other two components would honor Breonna Taylor, who graduated from Western High School. Taylor was killed by Louisville Metro Police during a raid of her apartment, which led to racial justice demonstrations that have continued since 2020.

“I feel like Breonna Taylor didn’t get a lot of light shined on her name, so I really wanted to help that,” Bolton said.

During their presentation, the students read a quote from Taylor found in a Western yearbook: “I want to be one who finally breaks the cycle of my family’s educational history, I want to be the one who finally makes a difference.”

That quote was a guiding principle for their projects. 

The proposal included creating memorials dedicated to Taylor at Western. The group said they would hold a competition at the school to choose student designs for the memorials.

The biggest part of Western’s project would be a community center, called The Breonna Taylor Performing Arts Clubhouse. It would hold space for students to express themselves, along with a kitchen, lounge, media room and garden.

The overarching goal of all the students' projects is to create a safe place for people who look like them.

“If they have a safe place, whether it’s within our place, in our clubhouse or within them watching our documentary and getting hope for themselves that they can do something like this, I feel like it’s good and will be better for them,” said 16-year old Brooklyn White.

A full list of the presentations can be found on KDF’s website, where people can get involved in the projects through mentorship, networking or funding. 

Breya Jones is the Arts & Culture Reporter for LPM. Email Breya at bjones@lpm.org.