3 million images to honor Barry Bingham Jr. and the Courier-Journal

My father-in-law, Barry Bingham Jr., was a visual person. One of his first jobs was making documentaries at CBS; he always had a camera with him, made and edited videos for us, and printed large-scale photographs until his last year; and when he moved back to Louisville in the 1960s he considered himself lucky to be part of the management team at WHAS. He became a newspaper publisher only after the tragic death of his brother Worth, and among the gifts he brought to the Courier-Journal and Times was passionate support for its large crew of talented photojournalists. And among the many awards won during Barry’s time as Publisher was the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography (covering busing in Louisville) and a 1980 Pulitzer for international coverage that included photography (this Kentucky newspaper sent a reporter and photographer to Cambodia!).

Barry left the Courier when it was sold in 1986 so it wasn’t until after he died that I realized something else: the people who worked for him, including the photojournalists whose work he championed, adored him. He was always ready to fight for them, and they knew it; he loved them, and they returned it.

These two threads come together beautifully today with the naming of the Barry Bingham Jr. Courier-Journal Photography Collection at the University of Louisville Photographic Archives.

For almost a decade my wife, Emily, has told UofL that she would endow the preservation of the Courier’s photographic archive in Barry’s memory if the newspaper would release it. Finally that day has come, and now more than 3 million prints and negatives will now be carefully preserved, without risk of theft or damage, and made accessible to the public forever. Thank you to the librarians and archivists at UofL who made this all possible! Now the world can enjoy the work that Barry (and his brother and his father) supported, and the talent of hundreds of photographers who built long careers reflecting all of Kentucky (and sometimes the world) back to itself. Emily, our sister Molly, other family members, and others who loved Barry are supporting this great legacy for a photographer who loved photographers, a journalist who loved journalists, a Kentuckian who loved Kentucky, and a father and father-in-law who gave us his love, too. We miss him.

“Promise, Witness, Remembrance” is now a Book

Since I left the Speed Art Museum a year ago I’ve been working to document “Promise, Witness, Remembrance” – the exhibition built around Amy Sherald’s portrait of Breonna Taylor. That work is now a Speed-published book, co-authored with Curator Allison Glenn and Community Engagemnt Strategist Toya Northington and with contributions from many.

What made this exhibition was the people who brought it together: the 4 Black women pictured here (Amy Sherald, Tamika Palmer, Allison, and Toya) and the teams of advisors they organized and listened to, the 22 artists whose work was presented, and our 100+ colleagues at the Speed (among staff and our 2 boards) who made it happen.

The New York Times called “Promise, Witness, Remembrance” one of the best art exhibitions of 2021. In the words of critic Holland Cotter, “the show was assembled in four months ― warp speed in museum-time ― and created a prototype for institutional responses to history-as-it’s-happening.” 

The book tells that story in real-time, conveying our fears and the tensions that we worked to resolve as we all sought to honor the memory of Breonna Taylor, her family, and our community through art. It also tries to share what the exhibition felt like and how it helped us all process one of the hardest years of our lives.

We hope you’ll take a look. It’s available (with thanks to our partners at UK Press) at the Speed, at Carmichael’s and on Amazon.

We Need a “Clean Slate” for Criminal Records to Grow Kentucky’s Economy

The following was published as an opinion piece in Louisville Business First on June 22, 2022.

Kentucky has celebrated some great employment news over the last six months. The biggest, of course, is Ford Motor Co.’s and SK Innovation’s announced battery plant project in Glendale, which will employ at least 5,000 people. 

Other good news has followed, including the expansion of Toyota’s plant in Georgetown, GE Appliance Park in Louisville, and Tyson Foods in Bowling Green, which will bring 1,400, 1,000, and 450 new jobs to the state, respectively.

Congratulations to Gov. Andy Beshear and many state legislators from both political parties who have worked together for the commonwealth’s economic development. 

Now it’s time for the same elected officials to come together to make sure that there are enough eligible Kentuckians for these businesses to hire. 

According to a 2021 report by the League of Women Voters, over 175,000 Kentucky citizens have completed serving their sentences for nonviolent felonies and another 200,000 (most of whom have completed their sentences) have other felony convictions. We need to build on existing laws and make it easier for these potential employees to clear their records.

Legislators took an important step six years ago when they made it possible, for the first time, for Kentucky workers to expunge, or clear, their criminal records — a requirement for many high-paying jobs with benefits. A clean criminal record is required for most jobs and most jobs funded by federal contracts, but the process has been called “costly and sometimes arduous.”

The petition-based process is always arduous, since it requires paying to check your record, hiring an attorney, appearing in court, updating the records, responding to any objections by prosecutors, and then paying a fee of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars.

All of these steps are required to utilize the opportunity for record clearance that a person has already earned by serving a sentence and remaining crime-free for five additional years. Automating this process is essential to making record clearance easier. 

The road map to progress is clear, and help is at hand. Indeed, the Clean Slate Initiative, a national organization lead by Executive Director Sheena Meade, has led successful efforts to automate record clearance in seven states. 

I had the opportunity to meet Sheena Meade earlier this year when she visited Kentucky, a visit that also connected her with members of the Kentucky Smart on Crime Coalition, which includes groups as different as the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, the ACLU of Kentucky, the Kentucky Council of Churches, and the Kentucky NAACP, together with people who had personal experiences with obtaining an expungement in Kentucky. 

I am excited by the Clean Slate Initiative’s interest in supporting this work and personally energized to do whatever I can more to help those aiming to clear their criminal records.

Notably, the Louisville Urban League led its first expungement clinic on a snowy February morning in 2018, and almost 800 people showed up by 8 a.m. to clear their records. I am inspired by people who have paid their price to society and remain hungry to participate in a growing economy, to buy houses, to invest in their families and neighborhoods, to pay more taxes, and to make this a better community for all. 

Artist Amy Sherald Shows us the Way

Artists are the most generous people I know, and I can’t think of a more creative philanthropist today than the amazing Amy Sherald.

When the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates invited Amy to paint a portrait of Breonna Taylor in the summer of 2020 for the cover of Vanity Fair magazine, she reached out to Breonna’s mother, Tamika Palmer, to learn more about the 26-year old daughter she had lost to a police killing that March. That personal connection added to what Amy already knew about Louisville, which she had visited in 2017 when a painting of hers was on exhibit at the Speed Museum (where I was Director from 2017-2021).

When Amy started thinking about where the painting would end up, and how, she had a few brilliant ideas and some key allies. Because Breonna Taylor’s life and death had become part of the history of Louisville and part of Black history in America, Sherald wanted the painting to serve both stories. While she did not want the painting to end up on a collector’s wall, Sherald also knew that simply giving the painting away would miss a bigger opportunity (while also devaluing the market for her work). So she reached out to her friend, the actress Kate Capshaw , who reached out to her friend, Ford Foundation CEO Darren Walker, with an idea.

And here’s what happened:

  • The Ford Foundation gave the Speed Art Museum $500,000
  • Capshaw and her husband (director Steven Spielberg, through their Hearthland Foundation) gave $500,000 to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
  • The two museums created a partnership to share the ownership and display of the portrait, and paid Sherald $1 million to purchase it together.
  • This week Sherald announced that she had given that entire $1 million to the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law to create an annual Breonna Taylor Lecture on Social Inequality, the Breonna Taylor Legacy Fellowships for law students and the Breonna Taylor Legacy Scholarship for undergraduates, providing resources to students devoted to social justice work. Forever.
  • Along the way, the Ford Foundation generously supported the Speed in building an exhibition around the portrait, which we called “Promise, Witness, Remembrance,” creating a new and nationally recognized model for museums to serve their communities at times of trial.

Because we hoped these connections would provide mutual aid and support across Louisville and among Black-led organizations, we introduced the Ford Foundation to Roots101: African American Museum, which applied for and got a large grant supporting its operations. To describe this in a different way: Amy Sherald used her God-given talent to honor the memory of Breonna Taylor with paint; then made sure the work would remain part of our city’s cultural legacy and the nation’s history forever; then doubled the benefits of that gift with an endowed fellowship that will support young leaders at UofL who may help us create a world where tragedies like the killing of Breonna Taylor may never happen.

Can you name a greater act of creative, regenerative philanthropy? I ask not as a challenge – I’d love to hear other examples – but also to thank and honor Amy and SOME of the people who made this virtuous circle of creativity, healing, and love possible: Kevin A. Pemberton, Tamika Palmer, Lonita Baker, Toni Carver Smith, Kate Capshaw, Darren Walker, Thelma Golden, Alice Gray Stites, Allison Glenn, Toya Northington, Adrienne Miller, Kim Spence, Evan McMahon , Kevin Young , Debra McDowell, Cedric Merlin Powell, and many more. You are all heroes.

With all the problems we want to solve, with all the bridges we need to build, maybe we need to be looking to the entrepreneurial, generous creativity of artists not just to make paintings, but to show us a better way forward for all.

How to Start a Movement

I think I saw a movement start this weekend.

The New Kentucky Project hosted its first Ideas Conference yesterday in Lexington. I’m honored to serve on the Project’s Executive Board, but even insiders had no better expectation than most other attenders what the event would deliver.  We certainly didn’t expect that a sellout crowd of 600 people who didn’t know each other would spend a cold Saturday gathering to remind ourselves that we can build a better future together.

Several speakers captured the day’s theme: new ideas that appeal to people of all stripes because they appeal to universal values, new ideas framed outside the paralyzed and hostile terms of current debates, and new ideas that matter equally to people in rural and urban Kentucky.   Here are a few examples:

  • Harlan County Judge Executive Dan Mosley (the youngest of 120 county judges in Kentucky) talked honestly about opiate addiction. When he asked audience members to stand if we had been directly or indirectly affected by substance abuse, at least ¾ of us did so (I was one of them). This issue affects Republicans and Democrats equally. When Judge Mosley then told us that only 10% of his neighbors who seek addiction treatment can get it . . . well, what can you say to that? It called on our shared values for action.
  • From the other side of the Commonwealth, Henderson County Attorney Steve Gold shared his vision for making his constituents safer without simply “throwing the book” at them – in his terms, a “cure” that would be worse than the disease.   He uses practices of restorative justice because “if we get juvenile justice right we don’t have to worry about adult justice.” Who wouldn’t sign up for that?
  • State Rep. Chris Harris (from Pikeville) made a bold call to something anyone who is not an entrenched politician can rally around: nonpartisan redistricting. He almost got a standing ovation, and uncovered a promising idea for the future. Incumbents have protected themselves in a way that drives voters apart and made parties less relevant to the average Kentuckian, especially if you agree (as NKP co-founder Matt Jones does) that 80% of Kentuckians agree on 80% of the issues.  Maybe the politicians who recognize that will end up as winners (with the rest of us) in the future.
  • State Rep. James Kay (from central Kentucky) gave a passionate talk about student loans, an issue that affects just about everyone. James made the point that defunding public education has created $1.2 trillion in student debt. Given the importance of education as a public asset, student debt has become, in effect, a public debt. In his great phrase, “We are selling education to our children, not providing it.” What a great way to rethink an issue we should all agree on.

We aren’t spending much time talking about these four issues – juvenile justice, opiate addiction, redistricting, and student debt – even though they affect us as much as any of the issues that do distract and divide us.  I’m grateful to these  four leaders, and a host of others, who showed 600 Kentuckians that we can rally around a positive vision for the future and work for it together.

Movements are both exciting and delicate, and it’s too early to know where this one will go. I’m confident that Adam Edelen and Matt Jones (the co-founders of the New Kentucky Prorecognize that this one will succeed only if they let others own it and move it along; I’m excited to support that process.


Local Food Projects Can’t Succeed if We Expect them to Solve Every Problem

Almost all American cities are asking how they can eat more food that has been grown by farmers who live nearby.  We all want the resulting benefits, from greater food security and an elevated tax base to healthier soil, water and people.  But no American city has yet answered that question, at least not on a large-scale or in a sustainable way.

In cities all over the country there are exciting projects underway, but it’s not always clear which ones are addressing issues in a meaningful and sustainable way.

Our own excitement about the local food movement sometimes results in a lack of clarity about what is actually working – or not.  An added challenge: instead of encouraging each project to succeed on its own terms, people who are passionate about local food sometimes expect individual projects to solve problems they aren’t even trying to tackle.

Even Great Projects Can’t Solve Every Problem

Recently, a project in Detroit has garnered a lot of attention. The Agrihood is a mixed-use development and neighborhood center built around a 2-acre farm.  Produce from the farm is given away to local non-profits.

The Agrihood is an exciting project, but I don’t completely agree with its self-description as “America’s first sustainable urban agrihood.”  It may be built with “sustainable” products; it may help “sustain” the neighborhood around it; it may even practice “sustainable” agriculture, but it will require ongoing charitable support to survive. It does not make the production of local food a more sustainable business.

One article contends that the Detroit Agrihood might solve a staggering range of problems: “[P]erhaps other communities will look to this agrihood as a model to increase healthy, local food and to solve community problems, like hunger and access to fresh food — all while giving people a greater sense of community and happiness, creating more sustainability for cities, and improving our food system.”

That’s a lot of responsibility to put on one project. Even the Agrihood’s developers don’t claim it will solve all of these problems; they appear focused on using a small urban farm as a tool in responsible development, strengthening one neighborhood in Detroit.  We should let them do just that.

Then there is the fad of Food Halls (as in Chelsea Market in New York or Revival Food Hall in Chicago.)  Because they are often built in gentrifying parts of town that may still include food deserts, some people are asking how food halls will create better access to fresh, local food for their food-insecure neighbors.

A recent article in Civil Eats, for example, asks about a project in Birmingham, Alabama: “Can a New Food Hall Transform a Food Desert?”

What a question. The first goal of a Food Hall is not to transform a Food Desert, but to create a sustainable business.

The director of one Birmingham non-profit also concludes that food hall pricing is a mismatch for food-insecure citizens, but acknowledges that the food hall might encourage more restaurants to buy local, “The different restaurants that farms could connect to at the same time could serve as a unified drop-off point [and might] lower price point hurdles and other time and capacity hurdles that sometimes keep restaurants from buying from local farms.”

This is the right answer.

Local Food Businesses Need to Focus — and we Need to Support Focused Businesses.

Businesses that succeed – and profitability is the ultimate source of sustainability – usually adopt a single business model.  If we want businesses in the local food industry to become sustainable we have to let them focus.  We cannot measure them based on whether they solve the problems of every other business (or non-profit), but based on how they contribute to the overall goal of increasing the amount of food people can buy from regional farmers.

No city will succeed at this goal if we keep confusing projects – asking a neighborhood center to solve hunger, or asking a gourmet food hall to reverse food injustice.  Such confusion (which can sometimes seem like a resistance to shared goals) not only puts those individual businesses at risk, but poses a more serious risk that we might someday look back on this movement to make a better world as nothing more than a fad of early 21st Century America.