The Power of Community

Louisville Collaborative (from left to right): Isa van der Drift ’20, Cameron Champion ’20, Pavani Peri ’20, Nick Mckenzie ’19, and Jack Turner ‘20

To me, in general terms, a community is a group of people that are united through a set of common struggles, successes, and experiences. While each individual does not share the same stories, they do share the same collective stories that are unique to their community. In many ways, they endure, harmonize, and succeed together.

Our program, Civic Collaboration, is centered around ambiguity. When we all applied, we expressed what interests we had in relation to a city’s issues and urban planning but without the knowledge of who we would be working with, for, or where. Talk about uncertainty! After the big reveal in March, where we were given a vector, or area of focus (ours being “Food accessibility in the Russell Neighborhood”), the reins were passed over to us with no deliverable in mind at the end of our eight short weeks. While many prefer structure and rigidity in knowing what they will be doing, I saw this as a blessing. A blessing for my work to be shaped by my own interests. A blessing to discover how projects like this get created. A blessing to have this openness and ability to explore at my own pace and make our end output. There are few opportunities that have this approach, and while I know it will be frustrating at times, it is an approach that is positively challenging, and one that allows for us to really embed ourself in the community to do good. Hopefully, we can be a part of that power in the community.

What a fantastic first week. We have been welcomed with open arms by all of those with whom we’ve come in contact, and this support has fostered great traction in terms of our project and its outputs. These connections have made me so included in the community; Whether that meant a 2-hour comprehensive driving tour of West Louisville by a Louisvillian, an incredibly inclusive group of well-connected corporate professionals at a panel discussion about business development incentives by the Metro government, a dinner with UNC and Morehead alum Gill Holland ’87 and his kids, or a sit-down with the executive team at the Muhammad Ali centre and a visit to his museum, our first week comes to a close yielding more support than I could have ever imagined. Moreover, our meetings allowed us to establish some critical connections with members of the community and with businesses that relate to our focus for the summer of food access in West Louisville and specifically, the Russell neighborhood. Without these people, it would have taken us months of snail-searching to connect ourselves to the people we have in just five working days. As I learn how a city becomes successful, I realized how much of that success is grounded in each community. This doesn’t just mean the top civic leaders that affect major change in these places but also the citizens, families, religious institutions, and organizations that support those initiatives and support each other.

So — what are our ideas? An obvious need off the bat is finding ways in which food-related businesses can be established or moved into the Russell neighborhood: whether that be a Kroger, a set of Bodegas (corner all-purpose grocery stores), food co-ops, or even food trucks. Heck, even all of them. But this type of development needs to be done from the GROUND UP, not from the top-down. We don’t want big businesses or dollar stores to infiltrate these spaces like in the past. We want the people of the community to be the ones starting the businesses, manning the stores, and restoring these communities with their love for their neighborhoods.

Our meeting Friday led us to the idea of providing different metrics of demand models to alter the mindset of how developers look at a distressed neighborhood like Russell. Russell is one of a few US neighborhoods that recently received the Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grant ($30 million dollars) by the HUD, which has allowed for affordable housing projects like Beecher Terrace (700 units) to be scrapped and replaced with effective mixed-income areas that spur economic growth. How can this play a role in uplifting the community and acting as a metric to encourage food-based businesses to open up? Other questions spark adjacent influences and models: How is Western Louisville’s enormous faith community involved in this issue and are there any gaps in their work? How did the Americana community in Louisville establish a thriving food area despite having similar conditions only a decade ago? We will continue to address these questions over the coming weeks.

The power of community allowed the Louisville Collaborative team to immerse itself in this incredible city, and it is with the power of community that neighborhoods like Russell will be able to fight the challenges it faces such as food access and insecurity. I only hope that we can be a part of change for Russell.