Jennifer Ortiz and James Wilkerson help drive diversity and empowerment in NuLu

29th October 2020

By Steven Krolak

(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)–This year’s protests against racial and social injustice in Louisville were a full-throated demand for change.

But how, specifically, can that energy and vision truly transform the community?

To help answer that question, IU Southeast’s Dr. Jennifer Ortiz and James Wilkerson recently lent their expertise to the NuLu Business Association’s Diversity Empowerment Council.

Ortiz designed and led the council’s first event, a training session for 55 NuLu business owners on “Building Diverse, Equitable and Inclusive Work Environments.”

During the summer, the association began discussing the need to increase diversity, and sent a letter to business owners announcing its intent to create a diversity council to tackle this challenge. The move received a note of urgency on July 24, 2020.

On that day, Black Lives Matter protesters occupied an intersection in the heart of NuLu’s business district. They challenged neighborhood businesses to back up their words of support for diversity with actions. They presented a contract to business owners containing a list of measures that included proportional hiring of Black staff and proportional representation on the boards of the NuLu Business Association and area nonprofits (23%, to match Louisville’s Black population). They also demanded round-table discussions for accountability on racial equity and diversity, equity and inclusion training.

Police dissolved the demonstration and arrested 76 protesters, but the march proved to be a catalyst for meaningful action: The NuLu Business Association announced the formation of the Diversity Empowerment Council, with a mandate to expand the number of Black-owned businesses and cultivate a more inclusive business atmosphere.

Support for racial justice in a NuLu shop window.

The area branded as NuLu, literally “New Louisville,” is not new at all. Only its rebirth as a hotspot for hipster gastronomy, green tech, art galleries, hospitals, health-insurance administration, and boho retail is new.

Officially defined as the East Market District, the area is part of Phoenix Hill, a historic working-class neighborhood. In 2000, Phoenix Hill was nearly 70% black. Today that share has fallen to just above 50%.

Over the years, efforts to revitalize the area have acknowledged the need to harmonize more profitable new businesses with the desire to maintain livability for an established low-income community.

In its 2008 neighborhood plan for Phoenix Hill, the Louisville Metro Department of Planning and Design summarized feedback from community forums that reflected these points of view.

“There are concerns that such development may gentrify the neighborhood and potentially push low-income residents from the area,” the report said. “Phoenix Hill is recognized as a diverse, socially-conscious community and many expressed a strong desire the neighborhood retain that quality.”

Fast-forward to 2020, and those concerns and desires are at the center of a more urgent activism linked to the politics of race, and are witness to the breakneck gentrification in adjacent neighborhoods such Smoketown, Shelby Park and Germantown.

Enter James Wilkerson, IU Southeast’s equity and diversity officer. Born and raised in Louisville, Wilkerson maintains personal contacts with many of those involved in the conversations around NuLu and gentrification.

Responding to the call for actionable steps that could move the needle forward, Wilkerson reached out to Ortiz, assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice, who has contributed to policy dialogues around diversity and equity in Louisville, Jeffersonville and New Albany. Currently serving as president of New Albany’s Human Rights Commission, Ortiz accepted the invitation. She presented her training workshop on October 20.

The workshop presented a basic introduction to the vocabulary and concepts of diversity before delving into concrete steps business owners can take to make their operations more inclusive.

Ortiz presented examples of exclusionary attitudes and behavior, unconscious discrimination, as well as a roadmap for overcoming them. She instructed the participants on how to draft a diversity and inclusion statement; how to develop procedures to expand diversity, inclusion and equity; and how to establish a structure for reflection and evaluation, including soliciting and discussing input from employees, customers and community stakeholders in order to cultivate a culture of improvement.

“By teaching ways to develop more inclusive and equitable working environments and businesses for all people, I hope to empower these small business owners to take tangible steps towards addressing discrimination and inequality,” Ortiz said. “I believe my training is crucial because it shines a light on some of the issues faced by marginalized groups and in doing so I help us take the first step towards finding solutions to these issues.”

Ortiz explored the implications and impacts of micro-aggressions, seemingly off-hand actions or remarks that reflect conscious or unconscious prejudice.

“Micro-aggressions cause discomfort and anxiety for the recipient,” Ortiz said. “While one micro-aggression may be tolerable, when someone is subjected to micro-aggressions over and over, every day, it causes discomfort.”

Citing research findings, Ortiz demonstrated that micro-aggressions can reinforce cultural and racial stereotypes, and sharpen discriminatory attitudes and behaviors.

By making these dynamics more visible, her presentation connected bias at the individual level with larger trends at the center of the NuLu protests, such as gentrification.

Gentrification and displacement, commonly discussed in purely economic terms, are tightly intertwined with discrimination.

“Gentrification is colonization by another name,” Ortiz said.

Since income, class and race are themselves intertwined, gentrification can be seen as the concrete outward expression of attitudes.

“Gentrification leads to the influx of middle-class individuals seeking cheap rents, which ironically leads to increases in rental prices,” Ortiz said. “Increased rental prices means that working class individuals can no longer afford to live there.”

Ironically, while those moving into a neighborhood like Phoenix Hill may be drawn to its unique and diverse character, the influx can quickly reduce or destroy that character.

“The opportunities in gentrified areas are given to the middle-class individuals who move in,” Ortiz said. “There is often no attempt to mandate affordable housing in the area that would allow working class folk to remain in the area, so the people who kept the community going for decades, or centuries, are priced out.”

Andre Wilson, chair of the Diversity Empowerment Council, praised Ortiz’ workshop as informative and high-level.

“Everyone walked away with greater understanding and applicable next steps to implement,” Wilson said.

He especially appreciated the time Ortiz devoted to terminology, the building blocks of a true conversation.

With this first training under its belt, the Council will move forward with workshops on the effects of redlining and the way that diversity can help improve business performance.

In addition, Wilson envisions events in NuLu to celebrate Martin Luther King Day, Black History Month and Juneteenth.

For Ortiz, seeing her training embedded in a wider culture of equity is professionally gratifying, and another demonstration of IU Southeast’s dedication to community engagement.

“In being a public criminologist, I strive to tear down the walls of the ivy tower so that my knowledge is accessible to the public,” Ortiz said. “Academic publications are great but what good is our research and expertise if we aren’t using it to change the world?”

Homepage photo: Support for Black Lives Matter in a NuLu cafe window.

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