Justice, Health and Hope in Two Kentucky Communities: Berea and Louisville

Collaborative Learning Exchange Recap

On the morning following Hasan Davis’ powerful performance of  YORK: Explorer at the Kentucky Center, Louisville Family Justice Advocates and Partners for Education, Berea College gathered for our third of four collaborative learning exchanges.  Participants included teams from Louisville and Berea who work in health, criminal justice and the arts. Some have direct experience with the impact of incarceration.  All are committed to connecting our home communities across the rural/urban divide in our state.

Learning Exchange participants meet on February 5, 2020 in Louisville, KY/Hasan Davis

Hasan co-led this exchange with Dreama Gentry Davis, the Executive Director of Partners for Education. Both served as Children and Family Fellows at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Together, they combined arts-based strategies for energizing creativity with the Casey Foundation’s powerful Results Count framework. Working together, Louisville and Berea participants spent the morning building trust and imagining and mapping  shared strategies for capacity building.

Hasan introduced us to a River of Life art-based exercise that explores the successes and challenges that inform our current place and work. Each of us drew/mapped/graphed/illustrated our own river of life on a large sheet of paper. All designs or depictions were welcomed, and everyone’s river was unique. Drawing our river became a clear and visual way to explore the currents that shape us. Sharing what we drew with each other built trust and unity; especially around the advocacy work all of the participants care so much about.

Participant shares River of Life illustration/Hasan Davis

Building on that trust and unity, Dreama presented an introduction to Casey’s Results Count framework. She challenged us to think harder about the population we are focusing on in our work, asking who is at the heart of the central goal of our organization? You must be clear about the population you are serving to build the results you want. Through careful clarifications, it became clear that our focus is children and their families with incarcerated loved ones in our community. In other words, children are at the heart of LFJA as an organization.

While building results-oriented leaders to carry out our goals, Dreama pointed to the importance of recognizing that we all operate at three different levels in our social change work: individual, role, and system. The River of Life exercise helped us understand our individual motivations and values. Next, we discussed the importance of being aware of what role we are playing, or in other words, what hat we are wearing, in any given interaction. Are we speaking as a friend, co-worker or advocate? Likewise, it is important to be clear on what system we are trying to change. For example, the criminal justice system, encompasses policing, judicial decision making, incarceration, and re-entry. 

And this artmaking and results-thinking happened all in one three-hour session! We all left more inspired and informed than when we arrived.

We witnessed: the power of art to express our deepest feeling; the importance of building trust and working in collaboration; and the importance of being clear about our role and impact at the system level. This session lived up to the title of our Collaborative Learning Exchange about justice, health and hope in each of our two communities in Kentucky.

An Equity Framework Links Children's Health to Systems of Power

The health of children and families with incarcerated loved ones in Louisville Metro is at the heart of our organization. We use a health equity framework to guide our analysis of the power systems that shape criminal justice in Louisville.

Louisville Family Justice Advocates grew out of weekly artmaking activities of The Special Project. In 2017 and 2018, the Special Project partnered with the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health & Wellbeing and Center for Health Equity to assess how an incarcerated parent affects the health of a child in Jefferson County.  This Health Impact Assessment Report shows that parental incarceration harms children’s health and disproportionately affects black children in our community. You can read the highlights of this report here.

Working together, the Special Project Team, Louisville Metro, and the Center for Health Equity developed the image of tree as a metaphor to understand an equitable framework for health.

Leaves The leaves of the tree represent visible health outcomes for individuals, such as well being or illnesses.

Roots Beneath the tree, under the ground and often out of sight, are the root causes, such as income, employment and housing, that lead to individual health outcomes.

Soil The soil which feeds the roots, represents historical and current systems of power, like racism and sexism. This shapes how people experience the root causes and contributes to overall health. 

This tree is LFJA’s framework for creating more equitable policy in our local criminal justice system.

In 2020, LFJA is focused on three criminal justice policies and practices:

1. Create art activities that decrease toxic stress and increase protective factors for children and families in the Visitors Lobby of the Louisville Metro Jail.

2. Improve visiting policies and practices in the Visitors Lobby.

3. Work with District Judges to create Family Responsibility Statements for consideration with defendants who are parents.

Using the health equity framework means LFJA must work on all three aspects: children’s individual health (leaves), root causes (roots) and systems of power (soil). Collecting and analyzing health outcomes and root cause data is essential, and understanding systems of power is equally important. Personal stories, past and present, are creative pathways to realizing how systems of power develop. Through stories, we see how individual choices are shaped by the soil and roots where they are planted.