Mayor of Louisville, KY
I came to public service after spending 30 years working as an entrepreneur. In the business world, I found that the best way to accomplish goals was to envision a bright future, and then work hard in collaboration with others to make that vision a reality. That’s the approach I brought to city government when I became mayor of my hometown in 2011. Louisville, like our country as a whole, was still coming out of the Great Recession; unemployment was over 10 percent; we’d been losing jobs; and there was a general sense of anxiety about the future.
My team and I worked to address those fundamental economic concerns but we also knew that you don’t solve one challenge by neglecting the others. To prime our city for 21st-century success, we needed to change Louisville’s culture, and that meant cultivating an attitude of optimism, while also working to strengthen the bonds among the members of our increasingly diverse city of 760,000.
In my inaugural speech, I set out the three core values my team would use to guide our work: We would make Louisville a city of lifelong learning, a healthier city, and an even more compassionate city.
I emphasized these values because they’re essential for citizens in any successful, modern, global city: Lifelong learning is essential because, in a world where we’re seeing constant technological, economic and societal changes, it’s the lifelong learners who are best equipped to adapt and thrive. Health, which we define as both human and environmental health, is the most fundamental human need. Compassion helps build what I call our city’s “social muscles” – the bonds that form among the members of our community and that help us stay united in challenging times. Our focus on compassion compels us to help everyone in our city regardless of race, gender, wealth, nationality or circumstance reach their full human potential.
My decision to highlight compassion as a core value earned me some criticism from a few people who said it would make our city look weak, but it’s clear that compassion is a smart leadership strategy for any city. Seven years in, the results of our work show that compassion and economic growth can go hand-in-hand: Since 2011, our city has created over 70,000 new private sector jobs, opened 2,500 new businesses, reduced unemployment to 3.2 percent, and attracted nearly $13 billion in capital investment.
Though we’re proud of these accomplishments, a city’s prosperity is only real when it is shared by all. That’s why it’s tremendously encouraging to see signs of growth in some of our historically underserved neighborhoods, particularly in west Louisville, where too many people have been hindered by racist practices like redlining and urban renewal in the 20th century.
These were official government policies that targeted African-Americans in our community and many others. As public servants, we have an obligation to address these historic injustices. We’ve been working with partners in the public and private sectors to create opportunities in underserved areas, and have recently seen more than $800 million of public and private investment pour into west Louisville.
City government is also working to clear the path to prosperity through programs that encourage entrepreneurs, job training and home ownership. We’re also working on digital inclusion, attempting to increase access to the tools of 21st-century learning and communication.
Compassion fuels these and all our decisions at Louisville Metro Government because it’s the morally right approach and because helping more people realize their full potential helps our city reach its own. For example, if every Louisville family earning poverty-level wages earned a living wage, it would add almost $900 million to our city’s economy every year. That’s a win for everyone.
One way we’re working to accomplish this is by creating opportunities for our young people. This year will mark the seventh year of our SummerWorks program, which we created to help counter the high rates of youth unemployment that lingered after the recession. Focusing on people ages 16-21, SummerWorks is now helping more than 5,000 youth find summer jobs with more than 170 local businesses, from mom-and-pop shops to Fortune 500 companies.
We also have to continue working to help our citizens at every stage of their careers get the skills they need to compete and win in the careers of the future. Partnering with key local industries, we’ve helped establish public-private initiatives like Code Louisville, which provides free training in software coding, as well as the Kentucky Health Career Center and Kentucky Manufacturing Career Center.
In addition, as a welcoming, globally-minded city, Louisville must support the members of our growing immigrant community. That’s why we provide the opportunity to earn professional certifications through our MTELL program: Manufacturing Training for English Language Learners.
Our core values of compassion and lifelong learning come together in many of our programs, including the Compassionate Schools Project, which we launched in 2015 in partnership with Jefferson County Public Schools and the University of Virginia. Today, many of Louisville’s elementary school children are learning a revolutionary new curriculum that integrates mindfulness, compassion, nutrition, wellness and more into the school day to help our youth become better learners and better citizens.
Creating pathways to opportunity also means removing barriers, including violent crime. We created our Office for Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods, whose mission is to encourage peace and health in every neighborhood and reduce the violence too often experienced by young adults in under-resourced communities. Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods works with local and national partners to fund and facilitate innovative programs such as Pivot 2 Peace, which identifies victims of violence from ZIP codes that have high rates of violent crime – and while those victims are recovering, a social worker visits them in the hospital and provides information about pathways to education, employment and more in an effort to break the cycle of violence.
Compassion-driven programs like these have helped us respond to the challenges that Louisville, like any city, inevitably faces, and emerge stronger and more invested in one another and our collective future.
Looking ahead to the future of Louisville (and I hope, other cities as well), the vision guiding us remains the same: I see a growing community that honors and learns from the past, lives fully in the present and prepares for the future. I see a thriving city that competes and wins in the global marketplace and whose reputation for compassion, innovation and opportunity continues to grow on the world stage.
I see a sustainable city, filled with safe and healthy neighborhoods, where good health and prosperity are equally available to people of every age, race and background.
I see a connected and compassionate city, where every person has the chance to reach their full human potential.
Even as so much of our country and our world seems to be focused on division, and embracing an us-vs-them ideology, I remain optimistic about our future. That’s because I see so many determined people of all ages, races and backgrounds working to create a better future. They believe in what Louisville’s great native son Muhammad Ali called, “the work of the heart.” The world-champion boxer and humanitarian loved his hometown and in challenging moments, I take comfort from The Champ’s words, “All through my life I have been tested. My will has been tested, my courage has been tested,” he wrote in The Soul of a Butterfly. “My soul has grown over the years, and some of my views have changed. As long as I am alive, I will continue to try to understand more because the work of the heart is never done."
The City is taking a holistic approach to our economic revitalization process by hosting hundreds of community conversations across the City to help inform decisions around major projects. After hearing from our residents, we’ve prioritized investing in innovative educational programming to address historic inequities; creating dynamic workforce programs more suitable for an inclusive new economy; and leveraging our inherent strengths to produce more sustainable growth.