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July 25, 2012

No easy fix

A work group is charged with curbing violence in west Louisville. Now what?

On the evening of June 18, a group of 37 handpicked community leaders — from activists to pastors to judges — piled into Metro Hall. At a podium, Mayor Greg Fischer charged the group with devising a plan to help disrupt violence in the city, violence that data shows clusters in certain west Louisville neighborhoods. The formation of this group transpired in the days after the chaotic May 17 shootings that left three dead and three injured in Parkland.

Fischer pledged, “I’m your partner.”

Since then, the entire group has met two more times and separately in subcommittees pinpointing potential initiatives in areas like education, juvenile justice and economic development.

This effort can be perceived a few ways, likely depending on your intimacy with Louisville history and your allegiance to Mayor Fischer: 1) a novel, genuine attempt at tackling systemic social justice issues; 2) a stodgy government exercise (highlighted in the group’s careful naming, from the West Louisville Working Group to the Violence Prevention Work Group —“not a task force,” reporters have been told) that will rehash well-known problems and submit a report similar to those that have come in the past; 3) a blend of both.

After attending two meetings, it’s clear many involved feel strongly that effective strategies must be implemented. Work group chairman Blaine Hudson, dean of University of Louisville’s College of Arts and Sciences and a venerable source on the city’s black history, shares that sentiment.

“These are problems created by people — people can solve them,” Hudson stated at the group’s initial meeting.

But he’s admittedly been down this road before. In 2001, for instance, the Louisville Urban League and University of Louisville completed an exhaustive project that yielded 200 pages on the state of African-American youth in Louisville, along with dozens of recommendations on ways to close the education gap, increase college attendance among at-risk youth, and build hope in struggling neighborhoods. Each strategy listed proposed budgets.

Yet, discussions around the same themes persist a decade later. Ricky Jones, professor of Pan-African Studies at U of L and a LEO columnist, sits on the work group. He believes the mayor is sincere in his quest to understand and improve crime and socioeconomic inequalities. But he says once the report comes out, both the community and the mayor need to show some muscle.

“There’s nothing new that’s going to come in this iteration than what’s come in years past,” Jones says. “The question is, is the political arm going to move it forward? That’s what it boils down to.”

 

LaQuandra Nesbitt co-chairs the work group. She’s also director of the Metro Department for Public Health and Wellness. She says the fact that the mayor commissioned the current work group makes this attempt totally different than past undertakings. (Blaine Hudson has cited the mayor’s involvement as the reason he agreed to serve as chairman.)

“This time you have a mayor … saying we want input on these issues. We want to understand what the recommendations are,” Nesbitt says. “And not in a sense of ... then government will fully implement what’s in this plan, because we all recognize a lot of this work will have to be done through public-private partnerships.”

In Mayor Fischer’s June 18 address, he said the group’s final report should involve plans as well as “ways to fund them.”

At a time when the city is facing a projected $20 million budget shortfall, the appendage wasn’t surprising. Still, Jones took note. He comes to the table well versed on problems and ideas, not financing.

“That’s not what I fucking do, to tell you the truth. You don’t tell me to give you a proposal and then go out and shake my ass to give you the money,” Jones laughs. “That’s your job as a politician.”

With that said, Jones recognizes the importance of political will when it comes to funding. He hopes the city’s populace will back resources funneled to west Louisville.

At the work group’s July meeting, the interplay of politics and funding was discussed. One example of lost resources involved the Office of Youth Development. In four years, its budget dropped from $3.5 million to $200,000, with many direct services for kids disappearing.

But Nesbitt says a lot of proposals could wind up being “cost neutral.” She says existing programs can revamp outreach to more effectively reach the 15-to-34-year-olds who typically wind up in trouble.

“There are really no people on the work group who are not influencers,” Nesbitt says, adding that as leaders they can use the work group’s recommendations as a blueprint for change at their particular nonprofit or after-school program.

Richard Whitlock, an affable 29-year-old, runs a year-round education program targeting at-risk youth called Getting All People Partnership. He’s one of the youngest work group members.

Whitlock was a child when his father was murdered, and he ran away from home at age 14; his adolescence was spent engaging in what he calls “dirt under the fingernails” activities, something he says is a rite of passage for many. As a result, he’s deeply invested in providing hope to kids who mirror his younger self.

Whitlock wants the work group to yield tangible change. Just recently, he asked a young boy “how much negativity” he was surrounded by.

“Eighty percent,” the boy answered.

(The 2001 Urban League/University of Louisville report included a survey that showed African-Americans from “black and poor” neighborhoods viewed “neither their circumstances nor their prospects in positive terms.”)

Whitlock feels success relies on all of Louisville stepping up. “I put a fourth on Metro, a fourth on the working group, a fourth on the business community, and a fourth on the entire community,” he says.

For now, the work group continues to pore over data and formulate proposals. Public hearings will occur next month. By October, a final report should be complete. Next steps beyond that remain unclear.

“If you’re asking me will the mayor then find someone to hire, will the Mayor’s Office shepherd the recommendations, I don’t know that that’s the plan,” Nesbitt says. “I don’t know that that’s ever been the plan. But what we do know is that there’s people who come and say, ‘We have to do something.’”