Six stories from the front lines: Social justice activists find ways to make a difference

The term social justice means different things to different people. For some, it represents a fight for economic equality, achievable only by changing government and redistributing wealth. Others view social justice as a relentless campaign to advance human potential by guaranteeing rights and parity for all.

Yet at their core, social justice activists, or warriors, share the goal of standing up to societal wrongs and fighting to correct them. We chose the following six people to profile, with the intention of reflecting the breadth, diversity and passion of people who fight every day to make change in Louisville. Whether it’s helping inmates to get justice delayed, giving hope to people addicted to heroin or writing plays that focus on neglected, hidden history, these men and women stand against discrimination, inequality and marginalization by the majority.

Larry Muhammad
The Kentucky Black Repertory Theater
History has a way of forgetting individuals, especially people of color.
Larry Muhammad remembers them.

As a playwright and play producer, Muhammad celebrates the lives of black Kentuckians by bringing their stories to the stage. Through his company, The Kentucky Black Repertory Theater, the Memphis native focuses on telling these tales to audiences that might not have heard them otherwise.

“I deliberately try to get characters, create situations, find historical narratives that give the general public a wider lens so people can understand and see different segments of the community that they might not even be familiar with,” Muhammad said. “Everyone is kind of living in their own little bubble.”

A self-described child of the ‘60s, Muhammad grew up during the civil rights movement. Memphis was a segregated city then, and the future writer witnessed injustice firsthand.

He also saw hope.

During Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” speech in 1968, Muhammad watched with the other onlookers, and even ran into King as he was exiting from the side door.

Journalism would provide an outlet for the young man’s growing interest in social activism. His first job in the industry was writing for the Black Panther paper in West Oakland, California. After joining the Nation of Islam, Muhammad also covered social justice issues for its newspaper. At that time, it was the biggest, most widely-circulated black publication in America.

Following jobs at the Chicago Daily Defender and several other Midwest newspapers, Muhammad would end his journalism career at The Courier-Journal. Here, he was introduced to prominent black figures whom he would later feature in his plays. Individuals including the famous turn-of-the-century jockey Jimmy Winkfield and Henry Bain, the inventor of a famous sauce bearing his name.

In addition to these Bluegrass histories, Muhammad, now 69, writes and produces contemporary urban-themed plays that address societal ills such as racism, sexism and workers’ rights. By highlighting the issues for a broad audience, he works to paint a realistic portrait of the injustices the black community continues to face.

“All of the issues that we’ve been talking about and fighting against for years and years, they’re still there,” Muhammad said. “I can’t say we haven’t made progress, but there’s a whole lot more to be done. And we need to try to make sure we’ve maintained the gains we have achieved. We can’t go back.”

Lisa Livingston
The BreakAway Women’s Recovery Home
On the frontlines of the heroin epidemic, Lisa Livingston has dedicated her life and savings to starting a halfway house in New Albany for women in the throes of substance abuse.

But that idea wasn’t always met with a welcoming hand. Neighbors of the proposed drug recovery home tried to get the city to block it. In fact, the city refused to change zoning regulations at the first house Livingston had hoped to rent, saying it was too residential for such a use.

The zoning board approved her second request. Now, The BreakAway Women’s Recovery Home is scheduled to open this spring at 1514 Spring St. in New Albany.

“Helping other people keeps you sober,” Livingston said. “You’ve got to stay involved. It’s just like any disease. You’ve got to treat it.”

Livingston’s journey towards sobriety began in 2005 when a court ordered her to enroll at the treatment program at Jeffersonville’s Bliss House, the recovery home on which The BreakAway is modeled. After remaining drug-free for five years, the Paoli, Indiana, native relapsed in 2010. Following a drug arrest, she once again graduated the Bliss House program in 2014.

“I almost welcomed death before I got arrested because I couldn’t quit. I would cry at night and want help, and I’d wake up the next day and get high again to function,” the 51-year-old said. “That’s why we’re doing what we’re doing, because we’re trying to get these girls some hope.”

Once she was able to manage her addiction, Livingston began to save money. She also relied on her faith to guide her way. Eventually it became clear that her future entailed founding a home for women struggling with substance abuse dependence.

With few facilities on this side of the river, the addition is much needed. Women with addictions, especially those being released from jail, face shame and bias. Gainful employment and even housing can be difficult to obtain.

Through The BreakAway, Livingston’s goal remains to provide enough resources that the women who come there will, over time, be able to support themselves.

“If I relapsed one time, I would have lost my savings anyway through drug addiction, so why not invest it to help other women?” she said. “I do know that God’s got me. I don’t know what’s going to happen but I know it took what it took to get me to where I am today.”

Nima Kulkarni
The New Americans Initiative
Nima Kulkarni became an immigration attorney because she wanted to help people.

“And it sounds really hokey but it’s true,” she said. “In immigration, you can see the impact. I can help this person with this very concrete thing and have a tangible result.”

Now, with President Donald Trump having issued two executive orders banning people from predominantly-Muslim countries from entering the U.S., while intensifying deportation efforts against undocumented immigrants, Kulkarni is doing a lot of helping. “I think of my focus as getting as much accurate information out to the communities as possible because that’s the only way we’re going to be able to resist some of these challenges we’re facing,” she said.

Challenges were evident even before the age of Trump. For decades, the U.S. has failed to adopt a comprehensive immigration policy that embraces the economic advantages of welcoming high-skilled immigrants into our country, she said.

And that’s just dealing with issues of legal immigration. For those workers who are here undocumented, few options exist after the fact to legalize their stay. Biased and untrue narratives about these communities also lead to continued misunderstandings and greater injustices.

“You hear a lot of this rhetoric only when you’re talking about a different sort of socioeconomic category of immigrant, or if you’re a brown person,” the 38-year-old said. “That’s something to consider when people talk about the security of our country, who are you targeting and what basis really are you doing it?”

The private practice attorney who specializes in business and employment-based immigration, Kulkarni also teaches others about immigration and refugee related issues. In addition, The New Americans Initiative, an organization she founded, focuses on providing education, assistance and support to eligible immigrants throughout the naturalization process. The non-profit hosts talks and facilitates other public discussions about immigration issues throughout the year.

Kulkarni also helps organize public conversations for individuals to meet immigrants and refugees and learn from their experiences. The goal, she said, is to share their stories with people who might not know why immigrants are coming to America, or the lives they live once they arrive. Understanding these motivations can allow for more empathy. “As a country, we’ve gone through these waves of restricting immigration and expanding immigration, so this is not a thing that is necessarily new to us,” she said. “We’ve always gone back to the rationality of it and the rule of law, so I still have faith in certain institutions, and I think combining that with the support of the community will allow members of our community who are feeling scared to know that they are not alone; that they will not be abandoned.”

Johnathan Helm
Team Friendly Louisville
When Johnathan Helm’s friends began to reveal their positive HIV status, he was saddened to see how some regarded them.

“You saw how so many of them were treated, just the stigma attached with it. And I couldn’t take it anymore,” Helm, now 40, said. “We need to do something about this. This needs to stop.”

His answer was to found Team Friendly Louisville, a local nonprofit chapter of the nationwide grassroots organization called Mr. Friendly. Michigan resident Dave Watt created the first Mr. Friendly in 2008. With 45 members now in the Louisville chapter, their mission is to destigmatize HIV, while providing education and resources to minimize its spread.

In recent years, one of the most effective ways of lessening an individual’s chance of contracting HIV is the use of PrEP, a pre-exposure prophylaxis known by the brand name TRUVADA. Prescribed the drug, people at a higher risk for HIV transmission who are HIV negative take the pill daily.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, consistent PrEP use can reduce the risk of getting HIV through sex by more than 90 percent. Combine PrEP with other preventative methods, such as condoms, and that percentage climbs even higher.

Quite a few insurance plans, including Medicaid in Kentucky, cover much of the cost of PrEP. For those without insurance, TRUVADA’s producer Gilead Sciences, Inc. has created a medical assistance program to help pay.

“Right now this is the closest we have to a vaccine for HIV,” Helm said. “Even working in medical as long as I have, I still will explain what TRUVADA is or what PrEP is to some of the nurses, and they’ll look at me and they’re like why isn’t everybody taking this? And I’m like, exactly.”

Team Friendly Louisville hosts such events as PrEP rallies at local bars, to provide information about the prophylactic, tips for discussing it with doctors, as well as a list of physicians who will prescribe it. There, while socializing with friends, attendees feel more comfortable speaking about it than they would elsewhere. The nonprofit plans to increase awareness of the drug to other marginalized communities in the city.

“It’s a lot more affordable and you are seeing less of the stereotype (of using it), especially in the Louisville area,” Helm said. “It’s been proven it’s effective. It works.”

James ‘Jimmer’ Dudley
The Kentucky Innocence Project
Jimmer Dudley specializes in second chances.

As an investigator for The Kentucky Innocence Project in Frankfort, Dudley travels the state and examines inmates’ claims of wrongful conviction. He uses a variety of methods to help convince the courts of their innocence. DNA analysis, when applicable, is the easiest and fastest route, but research, interviews and old-fashioned footwork also play a role. On average, investigations can last anywhere from six to 10 years.

Abuses and mistakes that cause innocent men and women to be convicted include prosecutor misconduct, witness misidentification, coerced confessions and flawed police work.

Developed by the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy in 2001, the initiative has helped to exonerate 14 wrongfully-convicted individuals. “That’s just the people that we know of. There’s even more that we just can’t prove,” Dudley said. “There have been a lot more that we’ve tried to clear, but we didn’t win or it wasn’t enough evidence. It’s hard when you work for years to get somebody out and it doesn’t happen.”

Previously, as an investigator with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, the 42-year-old Kentucky native certainly had experience with the criminal justice system, albeit on the federal side. But little could have prepared him for the cases he would see since he joined The Innocence Project in 2010. “When I was with NCIS, I didn’t think this stuff happened, that people falsely confess to a crime, that cops hid evidence, that prosecutors didn’t play fair,” Dudley said. “But this job has opened my eyes that it happens.”

In addition to helping release wrongfully-accused defendants, the group also advocates for state laws that could decrease the likelihood of erroneous convictions. That includes legislation to better regulate how witnesses identify suspects and laws to require entire recordings of suspect questionings, not just snippets.

For now, though, Dudley stays busy investigating claims of innocence. “I just do it because it’s the right thing,” Dudley said. “I see what happens on the local and state level that passes as good police work and it just bothers me. I try to use my background and my knowledge to figure out where that went wrong and try to right that wrong.”

Mary Sue Barnett
Louisville Coalition for CEDAW
An act of violence led Mary Sue Barnett to her work. While volunteering at the Center for Women and Families’ crisis hotline in her 20s, she took a call from a woman who had left college after being raped. Whispering, the caller just needed someone to listen and care. The raw experience would stay with Barnett for decades to come.

“It does feel like you’re pushing against a very heavy weight and resistance when you’re trying to work through these issues or advocate for someone who is very traumatized or hurt or in danger,” said Barnett, now 54.

The encounter would lead her to become even more involved in fighting oppression of women. In 2014, she founded the Louisville Coalition for CEDAW. With a stated aim of improving the lives of girls and women in the areas of equal pay, violence and health care, the group of 25 active members draws its inspiration from a worldwide treaty of the same name, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, or CEDAW.

In 1979, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted this international human bill of rights for women. More than 50 countries have since ratified the accord. The United States is the only industrialized nation to not approve it. But that hasn’t stopped equal rights advocates from finding other ways to push the treaty at the city level. In March of 2014, the Cities for CEDAW campaign was launched to do just this, and Barnett took the lead locally.

“Leaders from our country and around the world who work as advocates for girls and women in many different ways realize we can not impact a lot of the discrimination against girls and women unless we transform our thoughts about girls and women,” Barnett said.

In 2014, the Louisville Metro Council passed a resolution that reflected the goals of CEDAW, with Mayor Greg Fischer signing the declaration.

The Louisville Coalition of CEDAW concentrates its grassroots efforts on Article Five of the original treaty, which calls for dismantling gender stereotypes that narrow the full expression of men and women’s humanity. In addition to its leadership in getting the Louisville resolution passed, the group also sponsors local events including roundtable talks, film screenings and book discussions. “We are focusing on that in terms of educating about how harmful the stereotypes are. They don’t just hold us back from our full potential and expression, but they feed into aggression against females and violence,” Barnett said.