Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer in 2016.
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer in 2016. John Sommers II/Reuters

Mayor Greg Fischer is serious about making Louisville a kinder place in an increasingly angry nation.

Greg Fischer, the mayor of Louisville, Kentucky, has garnered national attention for his pledge to make Louisville a “compassionate city.” The campaign dates back to 2011, and while it may seem like a lofty or nebulous goal, the program involves a series of practical efforts to work compassion into every aspect of the city’s design. Louisville has worked with the University of Virginia to institute the Compassionate Schools Project, an $11 billion initiative that introduces a curriculum focused on health, mindfulness, and welfare into 25 elementary schools. The city also encourages residents to take compassion into their own hands: Over 180,000 people participated in the city’s most recent Give a Day week of service, and residents join clusters to discuss issues like healthcare and education under an umbrella organization called Compassion Louisville.

On Monday, as the nation’s mayors grappled with the aftermath of the violence in Charlottesville on Saturday, CityLab spoke to the mayor about the meaning of removing Confederate monuments, why Louisville isn’t a sanctuary city, and how to thread compassion into urban America.

What does it mean to you for a city to be compassionate?

I define compassion as respect for each and every citizen so that their human potential is flourishing. It’s integrating compassion and equity into everything we do. Compassion is an action word for us, it’s not just, Oh I feel for you. Leaders should be reminding us of these human values, and you can see how that’s missing from our dialogue.

You’re not going to be great if you don’t have all these practices going on. We’re a large, pluralistic, diverse city—like we are as a country. That’s not going to change. We’re going to be a majority country of color in 2040. It’s amazing what we do already as a country with all this strife going. Imagine what we could do in one where people embraced inclusion.

Are there specific infrastructure projects or initiatives you think city government needs to take, or are you expecting the compassion to come from citizens through avenues like volunteering?

Equity is a lens that we look at all of our decisions through, whether it be education, income, or healthcare. We were the first city in the country to open a center for health equity. Most people’s health outcomes are related to where they’re born. How do you address those social determinants of health so that they don’t become an issue? It becomes paramount when you try to reduce violence in the community. We’re launching an initiative called the Louisville Promise. It’s the largest investment made in the last 50 years into West Louisville, which is traditionally a lower income part of our city. Its goal is to remove every obstacle from someone to get a college degree, either a two-year or four-year degree. We start with early care and pre-K, so that child does not show up three years behind an advantaged peer. When they come to the end of high school, there is a tuition scholarship available to everyone. [No other city] is really going back all the way to pre-natal care, and that’s where the problem starts. It’s integrated into every facet of the city.

After the violence at Saturday in Charlottesville, you announced early on Sunday morning that Louisville would be having its own counter-rally. Do you think more mayors around the country need to be more vocal?

I call on all elected leaders to speak out. This should be a no-brainer, it’s an assault on the very idea of who we are as America. We aspire to be a country where everybody is treated equally. We are not there, and it’s important that we recognize that we’re not there. If you’re a white guy like me, it’s been a relatively privileged run: Not everybody’s had that. We need to put that on the table and people need to not feel defensive about it.

It’s interesting, I talk about this a lot, and people say, “What are you talking about? I work hard.” You’re not responsible for slavery, but what we’re responsible for is the future going forward here. There are a lot of people that feel like they’re losing something in that conversation. You saw that in the presidential election, you saw that in this hate rally, so we can’t ignore that. That’s part of the puzzle of what we’ve got to solve here. That doesn’t mean we accept hate speech and violence, but we’ve got to realize that’s part of what we have to deal with as well.

You have also said that you believe Confederate statues should be relocated. What led you to this stance and how do you believe that move fosters a more compassionate city?

We had one large Confederate monument and we moved it about a year or so ago. When it was put in place, it was on the outskirts of the city. [Then, due to shifting demographics] it was in the middle of the city, actually in the middle of the University of Louisville’s campus. So 8,000 African Americans were walking by this every day. And it glorifies the values of the Confederacy. Does that fit in today’s world? Absolutely not.

People accuse me of being the Taliban, that I’m going to actively destroy history. And I say, We’re not destroying it—we’re going to move it to a more appropriate place. We had a dialogue about it as a community; some people sued me to try to stop it, but I had jurisdiction to do it.

[Now] it’s about 50 miles from the city, in a town that was doing some Confederate tourism. It’s in a more appropriate historical context with some other Confederate buildings and monuments so it can be explained more clearly in the context of what it is. I asked our public art commission to identify anything that could be interpreted as bigoted or racist or related to slavery in any way so we can have a community conversation around those and make an appropriate decision.

Do you believe that relocating these monuments is more constructive than simply destroying them?

It’s no question it’s part of our history. If we forget our history we condemn ourselves to repeat it again. There’s a difference between learning from history and glorifying it, and giving it a location of honor as well. I think that goes a little too far. Depending on what it is, there could be a context for it [elsewhere]: a Confederate cemetery. I think the important thing that is communities talk about it.

Last year you said there were no plans to make Louisville a sanctuary city—has that changed?

I worked with our immigrant and refugee communities on that decision. A sanctuary city has no definition; it’s become a politically charged term. It has no meaning. There’s so much confusion around this issue of enforcing immigration law. Local police departments do not enforce immigration law. They’re not trained to do that, they’re not compensated to do that. People have a hard time sometimes differentiating between ICE and local police departments; those are two separate issues.

My concern and the concern of a lot of our immigrant community was if we call ourselves that, it puts a target on us. Why would we want to do that? You know what I’m interested in? I’m interested in our immigrant refugee community prospering in Louisville.

You mentioned that the Dalai Lama has expressed interest in Louisville’s emphasis on compassion. How did that start?

That’s been a great relationship. We have a Buddhist monastery in Louisville that he came to bless, and when he was in town we developed lots of programing around him. He became fascinated that we’re this city working on compassion, so we’ve stayed in touch over the years. The work we’re going in our school system is really interesting to him. We’ve got to change people’s mindsets, and education is a way. When you’re a global religious icon like that you talk about things like compassion, kindness, love. But you wonder: is anybody doing it? In Louisville, he sees a city that’s really trying to get after it.

You have also emphasized the role of innovation districts in creating inclusive growth. How will you plan to manage to balance luring in businesses and tech centers with trying to make sure that the values of compassion extend for blue collar and “unskilled” workers?

They’re very complementary. Cities should be urban laboratories for innovation of all kinds. It’s critical, and I think the issue of the day is we’ve got to figure out a way to have more middle-income jobs. This is what you’re seeing right now—a lot of people getting a lot wealthier and a whole lot of people getting a lot poorer. That is not a sustainable equation for our country.

One of the things a city can do is identify skills required by whoever our employers are, and how we can integrate more folks into that. We offer free coding training to all of our citizens—we’ve had 500 graduates in the past few years. After they complete that they’re starting jobs around $45 to $50,000 a year. Solid, middle-wage jobs. A city can be a big partner in identifying what the need is and implementing practices to welcome your citizens into that so they can have jobs. When you create innovation districts they have anchors: universities and so forth. You need to make sure that the people around the innovation districts are involved in the success in the district itself—there might be a co-op to provide cleaning services or landscaping services, for example, so folks in the neighborhood can say, “Yeah, I do participate in that and I’m making a decent living from it.”

Cafeteria workers at Facebook, for example, are offered no benefits and their pay is not commensurate to IT workers. How would you ensure that everyone gets taken care of equally?

You start with your own employees in the city first. Making sure everybody has a decent wage and health benefits. And you can put in stipulations in if there’s government money involved about the need for apprentice training and minimum wage. If there’s public money involved, I think there should be practices in place that raise the collective wealth of the public.

If a mayor from another city came to you and said he or she wanted to make a city more compassionate, where would you tell them to start?

Sign the Charter for Compassion: that’s an effort that was started a decade or so ago committing cities to principles of compassion. When you declare that, it raises the stakes. Things are always going on in a city, and some won’t be so pleasant. Cynics will say, “Oh, there’s an officer shooting—I thought we were a compassionate city. How can you justify that?” That encourages me, because it means people know we’re trying to be something better than what we are. The most important thing for a city or mayor is to get started, think about where they can apply this, have them challenge Louisville to set a record for compassion, and read about that in the newspaper.

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