Dreaming of a better world: The future of Kentucky Jobs with Justice

Jul 22, 2015 at 3:44 pm

If you are at all familiar with the social and economic landscape in Louisville, you have heard of Kentucky Jobs with Justice (KyJwJ). Its victories against the Yum! corporation’s exploitation of farm workers, it’s successful campaign to get Louisville to sign onto Ban the Box (a national movement addressing employment practices that unfairly target ex-offenders trying to reenter society), the Fight for 15, its support of the JCTA contract issues and the Louisville Teach-In, to name a few significant campaigns, made a mark on the city and changed the way it conducts business and has changed the way people see social and economic justice. And if you know who they are, then you may have noticed you haven’t heard anything from them in awhile.

The reason is that, for all intents and purposes, KyJwJ has shut its doors. For now.

Depending on who’s doing the talking, a few different reasons have contributed to the current state of things. Conventional wisdom, or maybe public perception, would suggest that funding in the not-for-profit sector has never really recovered from the recession.

According to former Executive Director Boneficio Aleman, a general squeeze on funds probably is part of the reason for KyJwJ’s temporary retreat. Aleman also said, though, part of the issue was simply a decline in revenue across the board. “For the better part of a decade, there’s been a decline in income. Funding is drying up on the national level.”

One of the biggest funders was The Ms. Foundation for Women. But, Aleman said, when that organization realigned, the issues KyJwJ focused on fell outside of its funding parameters. He added, though, that in many ways his last year there was one of the best when it came to funding. While it’s true that the Ms. Foundation decided to put their money into other worthy causes, area labor unions supported KyJwJ more than they ever had before. “That was only 10 percent of the budget,” he said. “But that is still significant.”

That local connection, Aleman said, is central to the model the National Jobs with Justice office hands off to its local chapters across the country. And according to Aleman, it is a pretty good model that includes everything from power analysis to coalition building and fundraising. If there was a difference between the national model and the model used by KyJwJ, Aleman said it was in how the issues and campaigns were chosen. A lot of times the issue would come from a local labor union, or an issue brought up by other community groups, like Ban the Box.

That local touch is one of the many things that gave the organization such a public face. Aleman said that being KyJwJ executive director meant being the spokesperson for the organization and for the issues the organization campaigned over.  While the national model calls for a point person — someone to be the informational conduit for campaigns — Aleman said one of the things he learned very quickly is that the job, including funding, is almost entirely a one-on-one proposition.

When Attica Scott resigned as coordinator and Aleman was hired as executive director, he learned quickly that who is in charge matters. “At that time, we heard from funders who told us they weren’t sure if they were going to continue funding us,” he recalled, “because [they] didn’t like to see directors change.”

Aleman also pointed out that the Kentucky organization ran differently because it was difficult to get everyone trained. “It’s an amazing model,” he said speaking of the National Jobs with Justice model. “And it works — as long as you know the model.” The problem was that not everyone working there did and getting more people trained was an issue he had been working on up until he left.

In addition to being the face of three different extended campaigns, Aleman was also responsible for fundraising, which in itself is a full-time job. And when he left KyJwJ, Aleman was very vocal about his reasons. His support of their causes never diminished, but his energy and time eventually did.

Local activist and musician J.P. Wright resigned from the board. He said that the organization was “suffering from all the things organizations suffer from when they don’t support their frontline warriors.”

“It’s a tough row to hoe,” admitted current board member Robert Smith.

Smith said that the organization has always been well-funded. The real problem, Smith said, is that the leadership role is hard and that it’s difficult to campaign and fundraise. “We had an extensive list of contributors. But when you stop reaching out, then people forget to send a check.”

Aleman said that interpersonal relationships are central to the job, and are among the things that make being a social activist in Kentucky different than other places he’s been. He said he learned two things early on: that the South organizes differently than any other part of the country and that Kentucky organizes differently than the rest of the South. “People here are more hands on,” he said. “But they also want a spokesperson.”

He said that one of the differences he noticed, especially not being from here, is how important storytelling is. “People here love a good story; but they also love a story where the sides are clearly defined.” He said he found that to be an effective tool, even if there was an opposing side. “People really appreciate that here.”

Smith said that while it looks as if KyJwJ is gone, nothing could be further from the truth: “Kentucky Jobs with Justice is alive and well. We don’t have a full-time executive director, but we do have the organization. We can still work alongside other organizations. We still have this strong vehicle. We still have people interested in social justice. Now more than ever.”

When asked whether an organization like KyJwJ was still needed in Kentucky, Aleman said yes. “Kentucky Jobs with Justice is the kind of organization that defines issues,” he said. •

Update: UofL Foundation and NTS back down from Old Whipps Mill development project

Residents who live near the Shelbyhurst Business Campus took the announcement that NTS and the University of Louisville are passing on their attempt to rezone some property between Beargrass Creek and Whipps Mill Road as a victory.

On Wednesday, July 15, residents from Lyndon, Bellemeade, Holly Springs, Perry, Whipps Mill Road and the surrounding areas met at the city hall in Lyndon. The original reason for the meeting was to help community members organize and protest against a proposed zone change that would enable the UofL Foundation, through NTS, to build apartments along Whipps Mill Road across from the Shelbyhurst Business Campus.

However, they were greeted with the news that, according to the letter from legal representative Glenn Price of Frost Todd Brown in downtown Louisville, “As a result of the neighborhood meeting and resident contacts, the University has determined that it will not file a zone change request for multi-family use on this 18.19-acre tract at this time.”

After the applause died down, Mike King of Lyndon pointed out that while it was a victory, that residents should pay attention to the caveat at the end. “At this time,” he said, “[Which] means they can refile at anytime.”

King and Kevin Craycroft from the Holly Springs Home Owner’s Association used the meeting to tell the audience about the Greater Lyndon-Beargrass Creek Preservation Alliance, LLC. “There will be other issues that come up,” King said. The LLC will function, according to King and Craycroft, as a “watchdog group” to ensure whatever development plans the University has in the future do not simply slide past scrutiny.

King said the group had an email and website, and would have a Facebook page in a few weeks. King also told the audience that it would only be through this “Minutemen” approach and working together as a community with UofL and others that “a permanent solution” for areas like the flood plain between Beargrass Creek and Whipps Mill Road could be found. •