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From activist to lawmaker: Shameka Parrish-Wright is the newest Metro Council member

A woman laughs and claps her hands while seated at a desk
Roberto Roldan
/
LPM
District 3 Metro Council member Shameka Parrish-Wright sitting in her new office in Louisville City Hall.

Shameka Parrish-Wright has spent two decades as an advocate for progressive causes, making demands of elected officials. Now she’s on the other side of the political equation as a member of the Louisville Metro Council.

Parrish-Wright is still adjusting to the added weight that comes along with representing thousands of people, all from different walks of life, she said in a recent interview with LPM News. She took office last month after winning a special election.

“There’s 28,000 people in my district and they’re dependent on me, whether they voted for me or not,” she said. “I felt like I was carrying the world before in knowing that I was carrying the role of many women and poor people, but now I’m carrying working class [people]. I’m carrying the business community. I’m carrying environmental issues.”

Parrish-Wright came to public prominence as leader in the 2020 racial justice protests in Louisville that followed the police killing of Breonna Taylor. She was already serving on numerous nonprofit boards and was the site manager for the Louisville Bail Project.

She’s currently the executive director of VOCAL-KY, an advocacy group focused on ending mass incarceration, homelessness and the War on Drugs. Parrish-Wright said she plans to stay in that role now she’s also Metro Council’s District 3 representative. Her district includes Shively and some of the surrounding West End neighborhoods, and her term lasts through 2026.

Parrish-Wright said that while she wants to help shape Louisville’s policies on the issues close to her, she also wants to focus on residents’ broader needs.

“We’re not going to let anyone leave our office with a question mark,” she said. “It’s going to be a connection. We’re going to try to solve what we can. And if we can’t, we’re going to raise that issue with the whole council and see how they’ve handled it in the past.”

LPM recently sat down with Parrish-Wright to talk about her transition from activism to legislating. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Many people got to know you in 2020 during the racial justice protests. You were obviously a very prominent voice in the justice for Breonna Taylor movement. How have you managed the transition so far?

For more than 25 years I've been organizing the community to address the issues around the criminalization of poverty, starting with my very own father and brother who both spent many years in and out of prison. I think that most of us who are called to do this work, even if you're a nurse, or a social worker, you want to improve lives. You want to save lives. You don't want things happening when it's your turn on the watch. And that's what I feel like. I want more people to see my journey. I've been very vocal about my journey, so that they can see I was homeless, I was a teenage mom, I was someone who struggled throughout the years.

Do you think that the personal experiences that you're bringing offer a unique perspective for Metro Council?

Yes, I do. I can speak from direct lived experience. For instance, we were recommending people to be appointed to boards. That's important. I've served on community boards for the last 20 years. Those boards need to be represented by good people, not letterhead people. It can't just be about building your resume.

In that meeting, one of the applicants had a history of working with transportation and they said they actually rode TARC 3 [paratransit service]. A lot of people that are on the TARC board, people who operate our public buses, a lot of those people don't ride the bus. When you don't have people with direct lived experience in decision-making positions, then you're missing some meaningful voices of people who can tell you what should happen, what will improve things.

Most recently, you were the executive director of VOCAL-KY, an advocacy group focused on ending mass incarceration, the AIDS epidemic and homelessness. Are these issues that you want to address in your role now, as a metro council member?

When we knocked on the doors in District 3, the top issues were around housing, affordable housing, seniors who want to age in place, who want to get the home repairs that they deserve, and transportation. A lot of the people in the community depend on public transportation. They don't necessarily own a car. With my work as director of VOCAL-KY, there's a lot of natural overlap that I couldn't have made up. So many people are dealing with a lack of services and care.

We see a rise in public safety issues, and my thing is health care is public safety. Housing is public safety. Adequate transportation is public safety. So, if we're going to really address the violence and the things that really matter to people when they see it on the news, it starts with people having their basic needs met.

When you were running for the special election for District 3, you mentioned also wanting to do the little things right. We know that residents in west Louisville and Shively, some of the things that they frequently complain about are trash on the streets and sidewalks, sewer smells. How do you plan to tackle those issues?

Since we've been here [since November], our calls are about speed humps. Ben, [my legislative aide], did an amazing job today connecting a woman who was living in our district without a furnace. It's a lot of problem solving.

So, me and my team have decided that we're gonna get in here, we're gonna learn what we can and we're going to problem solve. We're going to meet the constituents' needs. We're going to have somebody that actually answers the phone. We're going to call people back, the very basics of why we elect people in the first place. And then, as we join our fellow council members in the bigger fights that they're already engaged in, we're going to make sure that there's a connection to lift every one of our 12 neighborhoods in District 3.

Roberto Roldan is the City Politics and Government Reporter for WFPL. Email Roberto at rroldan@lpm.org.