November 2, 2012

It takes the ‘Ville to change it: Community activist talks alternatives tin Louisville’s quest to eliminate violence

By Wes Kerrick–

By time it began, only four of 200 chairs were occupied.

A small crowd’s power to transform communities and eliminate a culture of urban violence was the Rev. Alvin Herring’s theme last Thursday when the former U of L dean of students spoke. By 7 p.m., about 35 people had arrived in the Miller Information Technology Center’s Bigelow Hall. In attendance was Steve Conrad, chief of the Louisville Metro Police Department.

Herring surveyed the empty chairs. “It’s not about the numbers, it’s about the power that’s generated…. You could have a thousand people and no power.” Born in Louisville, Herring is a community organizer. He now leads the Working Interfaith Network in Baton Rouge, La. Sponsored by the Office of the Vice Provost for Diversity and International Affairs, the event was called, “It Takes the Ville to Change It.”

Herring recalled traveling to Clayton, Ala., when he was seven. “In a very segregated and violent South, my mama took us to a white-only Laundromat.” Herring said the whites’ reaction was terrifying, but one white woman said, “It’s gonna be okay.” That moment defined Herring’s path. “There’s a deep longing alive in each of us for community,” he said.

Periodically, Herring’s volume soared like a preacher’s and a “Yes!” sounded from the audience. Students and faculty, black and white, looked up attentively. Police officers took notes. Herring asked everyone to talk to someone they did not know, then looked around the room. “Race. Age. Gender. It’s mixed up. No one told you to do that. You did that.” Audience members said they enjoyed this. “This is our default,” Herring said.

Herring said tensions exist because people don’t “see” each other. “When black folks really start seeing white folks… there’s great change,” he said. “The beginning place to change our community is to respond with moral outrage.” Instead of complaining, he said, community members should ask themselves, “Whatcha gonna do about it?”

After Herring concluded around 8 p.m., sophomore Chad Caldwell walked to the front. “I want to say thank you.” A political science major who lives in western Louisville, Caldwell said he was impressed that people were discussing solutions to the crime that racks his neighborhood.

“He was able to reach people, to get them inspired,” said physiology major Rashad Mitchell, a Louisville native. “I would like to see some of this come into reality.”

Conrad shares Herring’s vision for engaging the community. “If we want to have those breakthrough kind of changes that can alter the status quo here in Louisville,” he said, “we’re going to have to try some different ideas. And I think this is as great a place to start as any.”

“It’s amazing how God works,” Vice Provost Mordean Taylor-Archer said. “It was the right people here at the right time.”

Herring spent the next hour chatting with attendees over pizza.

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