The Greek myth of the phoenix, a bird that dies in a show of flames and then arises from the ashes, symbolizes renewal, rebirth and hope. It could also easily serve as West Louisville’s mascot, as neighborhoods continue to re-develop and re-define themselves.
For example, in California the West Louisville FoodPort is poised to become a transformative urban reinvestment project. In Russell, Chef Spacebrings opportunity and space for budding food-focused entrepreneurs. The West Louisville Outdoor Recreation Initiative is focused on making Shawnee Park’s Shawnee Outdoor Learning Center, the focal point for outdoor recreational programming in west Louisville, a reality. While the Portland Investment Initiative, which purchases and renovates real estate in the Portland neighborhood, continues closing on properties.
If you need more convincing, take a walk through Louisville’s Parkland neighborhood where on the side of a building a mural depicts a phoenix rising from flames, with the words “we will rise together” written above the art.
Better yet, visit a photo of this piece of artwork, and many others taken by an estimated 50 members of the West Louisville and St. Louis communities at the new exhibit, “Yet We Live, Strive and Succeed,” at the Kentucky Center for African-American Heritage.
“Yet We Live, Strive and Succeed” is part of a Photovoice project designed to provide an opportunity for expression and discussion about community concerns. The project, which began in May 2015, was led by the University of Louisville School of Public Health and Information Sciences’ (SPHIS) Office of Public Health Practice.
Trinidad Jackson, SPHIS senior researcher, wanted to launch the local Photovoice project after collecting images and stories from his hometown of St. Louis, during the week of the Ferguson protests triggered by the grand jury decision to not indict police officer Darren Wilson for crimes in the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown.
For the exhibit The UofL SPHIS Office of Public Health Practice invited various community groups to take photographs representing aspects of justice, safety, hope and racial equity. Office staff then asked the participants to discuss the meaning of the photos, and propose action associated with identified problems.
“We invited activists, youth, faith leaders, people employed in the education sector, single mothers, black men, older adults and LGBTQ community to participate,” says Jackson.
Researchers also attempted to recruit police officers, social service providers, and business owners, but convenient participation was unable to be coordinated within the project timeline.
“The images in this exhibit characterize real life situations that impact all of us in some way, but some of us cannot easily escape the real consequences attached to certain social phenomena such as having dark skin or living in a certain zip code,” Jackson says. “Data generated from places like police departments and hospital emergency departments often project damaging narratives of populations that have, for centuries, been inequitably impacted by Eurocentric systems that facilitate community destruction.”
Creating its Own Narrative
While there were more negatively themed photographs, the photograph of the phoenix stood out most for Jackson because it represented so much power that is generated from the community.
Jackson says he hopes the exhibit will provide a means for the local community to create its own narrative about historical and contemporary positives and negatives to present “a more comprehensive context—one that includes the community’s truth and power.”
“Communities struggle to address issues because we collectively lack the patience and humility to listen and to acknowledge that people have lived experiences that are different than ours,” adds Monica Wendel, SPHIS associate dean of public health practice. “This exhibit creates space for people who aren’t usually heard to tell their stories, talk about their experiences – and if we invest our time in listening, we can learn things that help us know how to create meaningful change in our community.”
Aukram Burton, executive director of the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage, hopes that the exhibition will facilitate productive conversations and dialogue that will lead to new ideas and partnerships in solving community issues like excessive force by police and the unacceptable level of gun violence.
“’Yet We Live, Strive, and Succeed’ is a brilliant exhibit of photography from community members sharing their lived experiences,” says Burton.
Photographs Reflect Community Strengths and Weaknesses
Originally developed by Caroline Wang, at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, the goal of Photovoice is to use photographs as a tool to reflect on community strengths and weaknesses, serve as a platform to discuss important community issues and act as a catalyst to reach policymakers.
While it’s great to see West Louisville receive positive attention for its many developments, what makes this project so important is because it highlights issues that community members face every day.
“People who don’t live in the participant’s environments only hear about issues, and many times, it’s from a removed perspective,” says Jackson. “Additionally, there are many assets in West Louisville that are overlooked because of negative narrative perpetuated by those who don’t live there. When decisions are made at different levels—family, organizational, community, policy—without people’s input, systems of oppression and marginalization are maintained.”
UofL’s Office of Public Health Practice Photovoice project exemplifies one of multiple community-based participatory research efforts facilitated by the office. Their research team plans to analyze data from the Photovoice project and other community forums to provide actionable information to local leaders and mobilize local residents for community improvement. On Sep. 18, the office plans to invite the community to learn about their findings and engage participants in developing solutions to identified problems.
Jackson’s goal is for this type of data representation will become a regular element of art and science that levels the playing field for community members, many of whom express that their voices are never heard or considered.
“Our city encompasses initiatives and institutions that promote equity, and we want to ensure that our efforts contribute to actualization of the community’s truth and power through these types of participatory processes,” he says.
“Yet We Live, Strive and Succeed” at Kentucky Center for African-American Heritage is curated by IDEAS xLab and open Monday – Friday from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. and runs through Sept. 23. Admission is free. For more info visit here.