An invitation for young folks to explore race, opportunity, and segregation
By: Alex Flood, Director of CrossRoads Ministry
I grew up in a white neighborhood, on the white side of town, and attended schools that were almost exclusively white. My parents were friends with a Haitian couple, but other than that, my exposure to people of color was almost completely limited to the basketball games I watched on TV. The first time I saw a young, bald, black man, I thought he was Michael Jordan.
With that racial awareness backdrop, at age 16, my parents dropped me off for a weeklong retreat at CrossRoads. CrossRoads is nestled between Park Hill and California, two of Louisville’s most predominately black and most poor neighborhoods. Residents here are more than twice as likely to die from diabetes, heart disease, HIV, stroke, or cancer compared to the average Louisvillian. A child born in the California neighborhood today has a life expectancy of 67.8 years, more than 16 years fewer than a child born 8 miles east in St. Matthews.
These health factors are directly correlated with a higher rate of air pollution, a lack of access to healthy fresh foods, and a poverty rate of 46.2% for adults and 71.2% for children. California is 90% black, 5% white, and 5% other races (*all statistics are from the Louisville Health Equity Report, 2014).
I was recently talking to a priest from an east end church about doing a CrossRoads retreat for adults in his parish. He told me that he could more easily organize and execute a trip to Guatemala or Ecuador than to the Russell or Park Hill neighborhoods. The truth is, many people from where I am from will spend more time in Destin or Panama City, Florida than they will west of 9th street here in Louisville. While a lack of exposure is no excuse for ignorance, our hyper-segregated city doesn’t offer many excuses or opportunities that give young people from my background the privilege to spend time in the west end of town. As such, many young people, like myself, can grow up completely isolated and insulated from communities of color or poverty. If not for my CrossRoads retreat experience, I’m not sure I’d have visited the west end of my hometown during my upbringing at all.
It is impossible to know what it is you don’t know- and for me understanding my whiteness, and the privilege that came with it, was impossible to grasp or reconcile while isolated in J-Town and St. Matthews. Textbooks, talking heads, and social media arguments cannot even come close to explaining a truth so complex. It took real conversation and relationship with people of color in the west end to begin to understand the unfortunate and real divide that exists at 9th Street. Their experiences growing up in the same city as me were so radically different. Their day to day life presented obstacles and challenges far from my reality.
Many of our retreats begin with a prayerful mindfulness walk through our neighborhood. It’s an opportunity for young people to really see the area and to take stock of the similarities and differences between this neighborhood and their own. Afterword we journal and process to unpack some of the things they noticed- things that stood out. It’s during these discussions that young people sometimes volunteer guidance they’ve heard from their parents about which number street is “too far west” or in which neighborhoods that should keep their car doors locked.
When asked, “how did it get this way,” students are rarely equipped with knowledge concerning redlining, white-only neighborhood covenants, or restricted access to home loans for black Louisvillians many of whom were instead funneled into housing projects.
It’s from this starting point that we begin to immerse ourselves in the community: walking, riding buses, and spending time at community centers and social service agencies. Our focus is on building relationships rather than traditional service. Many community partners open their doors to us for this practice, but one example stands out as particularly impactful when thinking about the processing of race and segregation.
When St. Xavier sophomores join us for an overnight retreat, on the first afternoon we walk south down 13th Street to the Park Hill Community Center. It’s on the walk that we often get a few sideways glances and inquiries about, “what are you doing here,” or “are y’all lost?”
“Y’all must be the swim team,” a man yelled once yelled on our route.
Later, in our chapel, processing the walk a young man once said, “I’ve never noticed my whiteness before.”
Another added, “I don’t think I’ve ever been the minority anywhere.”
Once inside the community center, we play. There’s sometimes a few minutes of awkwardness, but after a half hour or so our group becomes one with the young men at Park Hill. When we the time comes, sometimes it’s hard to even get our guys- the ones who entered scared or unsure- to leave.
In processing there’s this simple but deep takeaway repeated, in many different forms: “they’re just like us.” This is a truth that’s seemingly obvious, but a necessary first step before wrestling with the reality that their lives, their opportunities, their struggles are very different from our own by nature of where they were born and what they look like. The young men are invited to juxtapose the oneness they’ve shared with the boys at Park Hill with the statistics on race, health, and poverty they’ve learned about the neighborhood (cited earlier in this story).
Frank Espinosa has been on a few of these retreats as a chaperone and had a son go through this program. Frank grew up in Louisville’s south end and personally recalls the struggles of growing up low-income and being a minority. It’s with that background, and as principal of St. Xavier High School, that he brings a unique perspective to our work. “People sometimes want to minister, rescue, or take care of from afar,” Espinosa shares, “If you don’t meet folks where they are, you can’t share experience, and you’re missing something.”
What’s happening during our visits to Park Hill is not a practice of direct service. There’s no reflection on the large impact we made on “those kids.” Rather, what we see time and again is an impact that’s mutual- a relationship.
“(This retreat) removes some barriers and helps our guys to see,” Espinosa says, “it helps to improve perspective and enhancing and nurturing empathy.” Espinosa advocates,“(St. Xavier students) need these experiences and exposure to help develop their thinking for the future.”
Our success isn’t measured in the impact we make at Park Hill in a two-hour window, but in the lasting impact on our retreatants as they move forward in life. In a new perspective of the west end and the people that live there. In being challenged to live a life that reflects the dignity of people and places that society has labeled as dangerous, different, or less-than.