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.