In the wake of ‘Invisible Children’

West Louisville high-schoolers band together to help Uganda’s child soldiers and, in the process, change ideas about the place they call home

When the Central High School students watched “Invisible Children,” they saw powerful connections. The Beta Club made sure nearly everyone in the school viewed the documentary about child soldiers in Uganda and, as a result, students began to realize their own efforts might help children suffering on another continent. More poignant, many saw something of themselves in the faces of children who, because of where they live, are being overlooked.

“I’m not trying to say skin color is all of it, but having school pride — and the fact that we’re mostly African American and are black — we can relate a little,” said junior Breanna Brown. She said Africans and blacks in America are weighed down by similar stereotypes, such as being sloppy, or lazy. In the film she saw underestimated youth willing to risk their lives to learn. While she admits her situation is not nearly so dire, the parallels were clear to a girl from the majority-black part of town. Now she is working on her own video documentary of her school’s efforts.

Central is one of two Louisville schools in a nationwide competition among high schools and universities raising money and awareness for Invisible Children, a non-profit organization linked to the documentary (Sacred Heart Academy, a private all-girls school, is also participating). Central has dominated the participation category, with more than 800 students signed up. Most of the other 576 participating schools have fewer than 100.

The students have raised eyebrows — and thousands of dollars — through personal contacts and events like a 7-mile “awareness walk” down Bardstown Road in March. They say they’ll discuss the issue with anyone who will listen, and have motivated their families and friends to act. What’s more, the students welcome media attention that excludes words such as “shooting” or “at-risk.”

Vicky Ton, a senior, lives in South Louisville but chose to attend Central, which is located at 11th and Chestnut streets among a swath of public housing tracts with their signature unadorned, utilitarian look. Ton said people in her part of town assume her classmates are unmotivated, even though the school is a magnet for professional programs like pre-med.

Sophomore Tye Bridges said, “I feel like, when people think about Central, they get a movie clip in their heads of kids sitting on desks and the teacher just standing at the blackboard, but we’re actually learning.”

Bridges came up with the idea to involve the entire school in the project. Like other students, he was moved by the child soldiers’ stories, but the chance to be seen in a positive light is also a major motivator. In a place characterized by outsiders and media mostly in terms of its crime, poverty and race, these young people are savvy enough to know that energetic efforts to help others will go a long way toward improving their own image.

Although many youth and adults in the West End feel the notable is overshadowed by the notorious, nobody claims West Louisville is Mayberry. They concede that poverty, drugs, pollution and even property values can collide to create strife in the mostly black part of the city.

Merlin Jones-Smalley, Tye Bridges’ aunt, grew up in West Louisville. Although she now runs a social service agency in New Albany, she spends a lot of time here. Sitting in the kitchen of her sister’s stylishly decorated, almost sparkling home in Park DuValle, she discussed the problems she encounters as a social worker. She, too, sees a clear connection between the Ugandan soldiers she learned about through Bridges and the children she serves locally.

“They’re in kind of warfare themselves, of just trying to survive,” she said of her clients, who often lack parental support or even stable housing. “So I’m not surprised about what’s going on with the Invisible Children, just from being involved in the school system.” However, Jones-Smalley said, while certain problems might be concentrated in West Louisville, they are not exclusive to the area. She visits families with similar problems throughout the city and Southern Indiana.

Louisville is still starkly segregated among racial and socioeconomic lines, a reality brought to the forefront by issues such as industrial pollution, bussing of public school students or, like last weekend, Derby cruising — which was restricted for the second year in a row on West Broadway, prompting accusations of discrimination. Such demographics can make it difficult for young people to break out of the role in which they feel they’ve been cast. There is little disagreement about who, exactly, has put them in that role.

“Well, it’s media,” said Camille Linton, owner of Expressions of You Café at 18th and Muhammad Ali, echoing others in her community. “Anytime you have a lot of focus on a particular area that the only thing you hear is violence, violence, violence, it makes you nervous. For me, there are neighborhoods everywhere I don’t care to go in — east, west, south. There were things that happened in the East End when I lived there, but they just don’t get reported .”

Linton said part of the antidote will have to be open minds and open ears. She interacts with young people at the café, many of whom are drawn to the weekly open mic night. Their books of poetry sit among bestsellers for sale at the cozy shop. “Hopefully people within the community, and outside the community, will open up and just listen to these young people and not be afraid to hear what they have to say,” she said. “Sometimes it’s just about lending an ear.”

She has seen how just a little bit of recognition and energy can encourage West Louisville youth to realize their potential. Most of the kids she knows are hopeful, she said, and engaged in positive activities. “But people don’t see that. They see the crazy few that are down here wreaking havoc and making everyone look bad.”

Central students said seeing that same potential in Ugandan children prompted them to act. In that country, children as young as 8 years old are abducted and forced to fight in a rebellion that is now in its 20th year. The United Nations says that more than 90 percent of the rebel forces are minors. The students were horrified to see children aspiring to peace and education forced instead to live in fearful, violent, slave-like conditions.

Jones-Smalley does not hedge when delineating West Louisville’s negative aspects, but she and others note that the bad news is generated by a relatively small group of people dealing with the same issues.

As the national eye turns toward Louisville’s growth, progress might be hampered by an imbalanced representation of West Louisville. Disparities in business, education and aesthetics, noted even by the national think tank the Brookings Institution, which has studied Louisville, are closely tied to attitudes about the area. As much as reality informs ideas, perceptions also motivate actions.

Were the harsh spotlight to become a searchlight, West Louisville residents contend that ideas about them would change. Criminals exist, but so do people like Charlie Johnson, highly esteemed in the community for training and hiring ex-cons, giving them the means to stay away from crime. The Yearlings Club, a civic organization, has helped the community celebrate and address important issues for decades.

Young people, so often shown as victims and perpetrators of crime, are also helping to shape their community. Some, like Marquese Carter and Kimmie Trinh, who have started an Amnesty International chapter at Iroquois High School, are tackling the big issues. Others get into community projects through church and other groups, even if they are simply keeping their streets litter-free.

The situation where bad news about certain groups seems always to trump the good is not unique to Louisville, but the city is hampered in its own way by the problem. West Louisville youth, perhaps because they have grown up in an age of constant communication, see the damage clearly. As Central students share others’ stories through every available avenue, from city streets to, many realize they, too, could use a little more visibility.

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