From Louisville and beyond, organizing one-on-one is essential

 

Organizing one-on-one – a conversation that one person schedules with one other person in an organizing context – works, but, as Mariame Kaba says, if you’re preaching organizing, show the receipts from when it worked. So here goes:

Receipt #1: Last week, I had a 1-1 with a white leader to talk about my organization’s new healthcare issue. First, I asked her about what privilege she had related to healthcare, and she had this eloquent statement about having good insurance because of having education and a job with good benefits, “but so many aren’t so lucky.” All 100% true, all coming from a 100% good place. 0% new information.

I wasn’t going to motivate her to step up more based on something she already knew: I needed to push her to see herself in a new way. So after the privilege thing, I asked how she is harmed by our healthcare system, and she had no idea what to say. No idea. I will not tell the details of this 1-1 to respect her privacy, but here’s the spoiler: she is harmed. She is a victim of a crappy healthcare system just like the rest of us. But it was hard for her to say that, because no one likes seeing themselves as a victim.

I have tried this on myself, family, friends, and other organizers. All of us easily talked about the advantages we’ve had, and all of us tried every trick in the book to get out of telling stories about when we felt like a victim, when we feel scared and angry and hopeless.

NO SHIT. Who likes talking about when you were a victim? I like talking about when I’m awesome and productive and #blessed. Isn’t it just easier for us white people to let the people of color do the work of being victims and send them a check?

Receipt #2: Last year in Louisville, we started challenging people in 1-1s about their own stories around affordable housing, not just how sad homelessness is. That was work. At first, no one – black or white – wanted to talk about their housing problems: embarrassing stuff about their adult kids living in their basements, affording assisted living, crime in the neighborhoods that they had lived in their whole lives.

As of today, we’ve collected 500 stories about affordable housing from across the county. All of a sudden, if you had an adult kid in your basement, you knew a dozen other people who did, too. So that experience of telling your story wasn’t one of complacent privilege, and it wasn’t one of embarrassment. It was one of anger: at a city who would let an affordable housing crisis spiral this far out of control.

We told those stories, over and over again, at our congregations, to our public officials, to the media, and we won $2.5 million for our Affordable Housing Trust Fund. And we’re going back this year for $10 million annually, because our people – black and white – were in no way satisfied with $2.5 million. They had too much skin in the game.

 

(Editor’s note: With this, Anne joins other organizers to launch a series on organizing by organizers, where we will collect and share organizing and organizers’ experiences as well as skills. In her next intervention, Anne will explain what exactly a one-on-one is. If you want to share your experiences as an organizer or explain a key organizing skill, contact Dan Moshenberg)

(Photo Credit: Center for Community Change)

The “crisis” of jails in Louisville, Kentucky, is the criminal justice system

Over the past few months, jails in Kentucky have been making headlines. Earlier in the year, the headlines were about how “a pattern of employee misconduct” in one juvenile jail killed a teenage girl named Gynnya McMillen.

The new headlines, though, are about the jails in Louisville, KY, the largest city in the State. You see, Louisville’s jails are overcrowded. How overcrowded are they? To quote former inmate Jennifer Kennedy, “It was terrible…I slept on the floor, on a mat. I had to borrow a cover from someone who had one in there.”

But wait, there’s more. Louisville’s jails are so overcrowded that the State has deemed it a crisis. The director of Louisville Metro Corrections even ordered the re-opening of an old, now illegal jail. This supposedly temporary jail is illegal because the building is not up to fire evacuation standards. One judge remarked that “If they have a fire there, people are going to die.”

Even when faced with the prospect of a holocaust of prisoners, the State continued putting people in jail, and so the old, illegal jail also filled up. Now prisoners are forced to sleep in gymnasiums and use portable bathroom facilities. With every new “temporary” solution, prisoners get moved around—and moving prisoners is a violent, destabilizing process.

It’s easy to think that this overcrowding crisis is sudden and surprising, but it’s neither. The State of Kentucky created this crisis. Faced with a surplus of revenue and falling wages throughout the commonwealth, state and local governments looked to prisons and jails in which to invest excess capital. More prisons and jails mean more prisoners, an induced demand that does not depend on crime rate. This resulted in the Kentucky having the fourteenth highest overall incarceration rate in the world and the third highest women’s incarceration rate in the world.

First, the State of Kentucky knowingly hyper-incarcerates people, especially women, who worldwide are the fastest-growing prison population. The State keeps demanding more, its thirst for caged bodies never satiated, and puts these prisoners in cramped, fire-prone conditions. State officials throw up their arms, wondering how anyone could have predicted this.

How will Louisville and the State of Kentucky “solve” the crisis? The State government offered to take 200 inmates into its custody from local jails, but the state jails are just as overcrowded; state facilities were already leasing out prisoners to local jails to begin with. Instead, the State is looking to reopen two private prisons run by the CCA as another “temporary” solution. Never mind that the Kentucky CCA facilities were major harbors of sexual abuse against women prisoners.

As Louisville and Kentucky scramble for solutions, two things are clear:

  • Women prisoners, and all prisoners, matter. As the State creates and covers up its own crises, women prisoners become targets of violence to solve said crises. The pain their bodies and minds must endure directly correlates to the amount of money the State invests in prison infrastructure. Women prisoners’ space and time are inversely related to these investments. The conditions that women prisoners endure—such as the risk of being burned to death in overcrowded facilities—are also the conditions on which entire modern cities, like Louisville, are currently being developed.
  • The solution for prison overcrowding is not to build more prisons or to find more “temporary” solutions. The existence of prisons at all, as Ruth Wilson Gilmore reminds us, is a crisis in itself, a major contradiction in a supposedly “free” society that allows “un-freedom” to exist. The only real, lasting solution is to abolish prisons and create alternative forms of justice that do not inflict more violence on other human beings.

 

(Photo Credit: WDRB)

In Louisville’s West End, Walmart wins and guess who loses?

 

After months of delays, protests, and legal wrangling, Walmart’s arrival on the border of West Louisville’s California and Russell neighborhoods looks increasingly likely. Some residents praise and are eager to hasten the construction of the big-box store in an empty lot in the West End. What lead to this pro-Walmart attitude?

The empty lot at 18th and West Broadway was leftover when Phillip Morris left Louisville, laying-off thousands of workers in its West End plant. The city government acquired the former factory and used the excuse of having this surplus land to embark on various neoliberal economic redevelopment schemes to turn a profit.

Phillip Morris’ exit from Louisville is part of a long history of deindustrialization that leaves Black workers in the lurch and many residents of West Louisville neighborhoods in precarious situations. For many, daily life is about survival through conditions of violent State-sanctioned economic disinvestment that mostly targets Black people. In fact, Louisville is the tenth worst city for Black poverty. This high rate of Black poverty directly correlates to the high rates of health problems that Black communities in West Louisville neighborhoods face, from staggering levels of infant mortality to stroke to cancer.

Politicians in the West End often characterize the need for economic revitalization as “desperate.” Desperation can drive these same politicians to reckless actions, “regardless of risks or consequences.”

Walmart wants to build a brand-new supercenter in an empty lot in the California neighborhood. The company promises 350 new jobs and economic progress. These promises alone were enough for some church leaders to hold a prayer vigil in support of the big-box store.

However, supporting Walmart as a way to decrease poverty in the West End ignores some key facts: the fact that Walmart has a tendency to exploit workers and the environment, as well as a tendency to actually increase poverty in many areas.

Another key fact ignored is that Walmart has a special relationship with harming its women workers. Whether it’s exposing pregnant employees to dangerous chemicals, buying clothes from factories that massacre women workers, or routinely discriminating against women workers in pay and advancement, Walmart is always in the business of hurting women—always. How can a company that participates in the degradation and murder of women be expected to improve a neighborhood?

The State does not care about the women workers of Walmart in Louisville or globally, nor does the State care about using tax revenue to improve working-class Black women’s lives in Louisville. It plans to reward Walmart for maintaining about 100 fewer jobs than the company promised to create in the West End, and spent millions to buy up land around the building site. One Louisville councilmember who mentioned Walmart’s low pay rates rationalized it by the need for economic development. Another councilmember who actually stood with Louisville labor groups against Walmart was demonized and later voted out of office.

Organizers and activists are fighting back in the streets and in the courts. Groups like Women In Transition and labor unions are mobilizing bodies and putting forward alternative plans. A lawsuit has been filed over the proposed design of the store and surrounding landscape, which has at least held up the process for now.

The capitalist developers who want to bring in big-box stores like Walmart like to appeal to a sense of place, community, and home (see picture below). But this sense of place, community, and home is built on the exclusion and death of poor women of color. These women are the surplus population that pays the price of “economic development.” These women are also the ones who fight back, specters of the living and the dead that haunt redevelopment projects around the world.

Walmart

 

 

 

(Photo Credit 1: WDRB.com) (Photo Credit 2: Paul Seltzer)

Who’s Afraid of Louisville’s West End?

Recently, I moved to the city of Louisville, Kentucky, largest city in the state. It is famous for the Kentucky Derby, bourbon, Louisville Slugger baseball bats, and being the “Gateway to the South,” among other things. Last year, AARP rated Louisville as the number one best city to visit in 2014. So when I packed my things and resettled in Louisville, I was unprepared for a warning I got from a resident there.

The resident was a worker for a pest-control company, doing routine preventative spraying in my apartment. Right after he finished spraying but right before leaving the apartment, he told me that he was glad to be done with his assignments that day in the West End of Louisville. I asked him why he felt this way.

“Well, you know, those people in the West End, the way they live. They make really great choices with their lives. Always doing what’s best for themselves,” he told me. The sarcasm in his voice was obvious. New to the city, I had not been in the West End yet. The pest control worker left quickly, and I did not get to press him on what he meant by his implications about “those people” who live in the West End and their supposed “choices.”

Then, at a recent meet-up of leftists in Louisville, someone made a comment that “white people are afraid to go into the West End.” I was intrigued.

I did a quick search on the internet of the words “West End Louisville.” From the results, it was obvious that the West End is Louisville’s Black ghetto. The first result that came up was a webpage listing “Louisville Warnings and Dangers.” Many commenters on the page remark that the West End is unsafe in general and especially for visitors. They warn of high crime, of drugs, of gang violence, while demarcating a border not to cross: “DO NOT venture past 8th st at night.”

One commenter writes: “there are kentucky fried chicken stands on every corner and crack dealers..the west end is where 99 percent of murders and rapes happen..its kinda like the harlem of the mid west,,so if your white and go past 8th street run the stop signs and dontstop.” These comments remind me of what a well-meaning friend of mine said to me when I told her I would be living in South Atlanta (where much of the city’s Black underclass resides) for a while: “Stay away from the areas around the airport They are incredibly unsafe.”

If you look at a map, the West End is a very large portion of Louisville and is made up of many different neighborhoods. Yet the political class, media, and outsiders talk about the West End as a monolithic block. Yet when analysts examine “crime in the ‘West End’,” the data does not uphold the myth of a criminal (Black) area where most crimes are committed.

We are familiar with the narratives around neighborhoods with high densities of Black people, constructed through histories of neoliberal gentrification schemes and the War on Drugs. They use tropes such as welfare queens, thugs, rampant violent crackheads, etc. They also invoke the theme of personal choice, as if the Black working class and underclass somehow willingly chose to live in substandard housing, to work low-wage jobs, and to be subjected to intense surveillance. These narratives are part of the white paranoia that makes excuses for State violence against Black people; they are always already guilty of a crime, always already guilty of making the society at large unsafe.

I drove west down Broadway, into the Shawnee neighborhood of the West End, to get my Kentucky drivers license and library card. As I drove and walked through various blocks, I did not see roving thugs, dead bodies, or drug deals. In fact, I did not see much of anything. No grocery stores, few restaurants beyond fast food, fewer houses with central air conditioning, fewer people out and about. The landscape was bare, save a paternalistic billboard here and there warning Black mothers not to have abortions. I wonder what everyone is so scared of.

 

 

(Photo Credit 1: Irena Tran / louisville.com) (Photo Credit 2: Sierra Club)