Who are the people leading the movement for racial equity within government? Over the pastfew months, we interviewed practitioners across
the country who are working to advance more racially equitable governance in their own communities. What are their motivations and their challenges? What accomplishments are they proud of? This Racial Equity Leadership Profile series seeks to capture and share these stories from the frontlines of the movement for racial equity in government.
In this installment, GARE Research Assistant Juan Sebastian Arias interviews Mayor of Louisville Greg Fischer.
Q: Let’s start by talking about your path to becoming Mayor.
I’m a former business person and entrepreneur. I enjoy building high performance organizations and teams. One of my core beliefs is that people can achieve anything given the right environment and training.
So when I sold my business in the 1990s, I was intrigued by the idea of developing a high performance city – one that connected opportunities to people how have not historically been on the opportunity bus. That drive that led me to run. Growing up, one of my mom’s cousins was a catholic priest doing social justice work in Central America. His work also had a big influence on me. All of that went into me running for public office.
Q: What inspired Louisville to focus on racial equity?
One of our challenges is that people just don’t have resources. When you observe that and analyze that, you see it has structural causes. So as we started looking at issues of access to opportunity and of poverty, the opportunity to participate in Racial Equity Here came up, and we felt it was a perfect opportunity to participate in another cohort experience (like we had with Bloomberg Innovation Delivery Teams). That led to us to apply and to be selected.
We’re also a part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities effort, where we’re defining resilience not just as an environmental concept but through a lens of human resilience. So, what are the barriers that get in the way of human resilience? It ties back to equity and access which is tied to the presence of institutional and structural racism.
Q: On a more personal level, what drove you to see racial equity as a priority?
It always upsets me when I see that people don’t have an opportunity to get ahead. I’m a white, 59-year old male with a good family – so I’ve had a lot of privilege in my life. But lots of folks weren’t hit by the lucky stick like me, and that’s not fair. I use my office anyway I can to fight that.
What I want, and what I think is the biggest challenge in the country now, is for everyone to feel they have a shot. Even before Trump’s election, too many people didn’t feel they had a connection to the economic future of the country. They felt that the economy was moving beyond them. Fewer people are getting more, and more people are getting less – and that’s neither just nor sustainable.
I got to the value of racial equity from a moral perspective, but I can also get to it from an economic or security perspective. That’s the thing about this work – people are ready for the conversation at different times. You never know when it’s going to be, so you need to just keep talking about it.
Q: Tell me a story about one of your major accomplishments in this role.
I don’t want this to sound overly congratulatory, but getting involved in Racial Equity Here was a good step to show both internally and externally the seriousness with which we’re taking this work.
We’re also approaching our 100 Resilient Cities work with equity as a lens around resiliency. I’m very encouraged about what we’ll learn and improve though that. In environmental and climate resilience, for example, we know that folks getting the shortest end of the stick are those in poverty. So we’re going to focus on that.
Internally, we’re also hiring a Chief Equity Officer who will be focused on building organizational equity. They will also focus on our over 100 boards and commissions, which are largely in balance with our local demographics, but which we can do better with. They will also focus on our internal procurement goals.
Q: What has been challenging in pursuing this work?
The feeling that we’re not moving fast enough is challenging. Louisville is about 70% Caucasian and 22% African-American, with the remaining 8% in other racial categories. 10% of Louisville’s residents are immigrants. When you have majority white population, a lot of people see this work through an individual lens instead of through a historical perspective. Some think people need to just pick themselves up by their bootstraps – but in many instances, people don’t have boots and don’t even know where the boot store is. We need to get more people to understand that, even if it’s natural for people to see the world how they do. We all join the journey at different points.
Lifelong learning, health, and compassion. Those are the main values of the City of Louisville. We define compassion as everyone having a chance to succeed, which has become a great entryway to have conversations around equity. Since we need to be intentional around this conversation, we’re training all metro employees about implicit and explicit biases too.
Q: What are the opportunities for more municipalities to advance racial equity?
Ideally, there’d be a national conversation about racial equity. It was hard for Obama to do that. I think it might take a white guy to speak about racism to the majority of the population. But while I like that idea, it’s not likely at the national or state levels.
The reality is that 85% of the national GDP comes from cities, so cities are where you’re going to see this action take place. More cities should be doing this. I’d like to see more leaders getting involved and talking about our human values. Every day, I talk about compassion, about love, and about how secondary differences – like race or religion – are just that: they’re secondary. The more we can gather around those human values, the more that equity issues will become a part of our conversation.
Q: What do you think is holding us back?
More people need to see this as a priority. To do that, you need to be concerned about inequity, and you need to see it as a human and economic problem. For me, it’s a question of human potential. How much human potential are we leaving on the table when we don’t let everyone succeed? If we can agree on that being a problem, then we can get to a new goal.
Another thing holding us back is having the courage to take this on. It helps when you can be a translator for people who don’t have this as their point of view. It’s easier for white people to talk about racism to white people. As an elected official, you often know it’s the right thing despite it being unpopular. But it’s also your role to lead people to a better place, which takes some courage.
Q: What do you think we could accomplish in the next decade?
This is important work, especially in the context of where the country is right now. We need trust in each other and in our institutions to be strong. We went through a difficult election where horizontal trust between people was an issue, as well as trust in institutions like government, business, and media. Racial equity work is at the core of trust.
We need to acknowledge inequality exists – whether racial or economic. We need to have a common belief that we’re all interconnected and that we’re all on this journey together. That is the strength of our country.