January 4, 2018
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How poetry reclaimed this historic Louisville neighborhood from toxic advertising

Residents of one of the city’s oldest African American communities flipped the script with a message of hope and resilience

Residents of Smoketown, one of the Louisville’s oldest African American communities, celebrated new billboards with positive messaging as part of the One Poem At A Time project. Photo courtesy of IDEAS xLab

In July 2016, I had the opportunity to travel to Dakar, Senegal. It was the first time I left the United States, and as an African-American woman, I was thrilled that my first journey abroad would be to Africa. It was at a time in the United States when my community was reeling from the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. I needed just a moment to breathe, and Africa greeted me with open arms. From the moment I arrived in Dakar, I felt that there was a place where I belonged, a place where I was not “the other.” I recall shopping in a store, making sure to hold the earrings in such a way that the shop owner could tell I was not going to steal anything. However, I noticed that the shop owner was standing outside of the shop having a conversation with someone else, oblivious to anything that I was doing in the store. And for the first time it dawned on me that here, I was not the other.

Everywhere I went, I saw me. I saw people who looked like me on billboards. There was artwork with women that looked like my mother. The church had sculptures of angels with hair like mine and facial features like my daughter. My friend Kiara Watts told me, “The world is so much better when you can see yourself in it.” It was the first time in my life that I saw myself in the world and that shifted the way that I saw myself. Seeing me in the world empowered me to have ownership of my space and my story.

When I returned to America, that feeling of not being the other never left me. That sense of belonging and community is one that I wanted to bring to Smoketown, where I work as a cultural producer with IDEAS xLab. Smoketown is the oldest continuous African-American neighborhood in Louisville, Kentucky, and was founded by formerly enslaved men and women over 150 years ago. It is a neighborhood that is rich in heritage and culture but suffers from some of the worst health outcomes in the city.

While I was acutely aware of the statistics, I was also aware of a Smoketown that the numbers did not reflect. A Smoketown where my grandmother raised nine children. A Smoketown where my father taught my daughter how to tie her shoes and my sister taught her how to ride a bike. A Smoketown where Muhammad Ali was trained to be a champion. A Smoketown that was home to the Salute To Black Jockeys an event held in the community to educate African-Americans about their rich roots in the Kentucky Derby. The list is endless of the greatness in this neighborhood. Looking around the neighborhood, it did not reflect its worth.

Smoketown was cluttered with billboards that advertised personal injury attorneys, drug-sniffing dogs, and fast food. There were signs on the telephone poles encouraging people to sell their diabetes test strips or their homes for cash. The signs did not match the Smoketown that so many people know and love. As a poet, I thought, “Just change the signs. Change each message on the billboards, one poem at a time.”

Over the course of a year—through arts and culture interventions—IDEAS xLab engaged community members, asking how often they noticed the billboards and signs in their community. The response was overwhelming, with most people always noticing the billboards. When we asked, what words came to mind when looking at the built environment of Smoketown, one person responded, “A community with low self- esteem.” However, that is not who they are. They are people with hopes and dreams and ambitions. They have the power to change the messages that are displayed in their community. When asked what they wanted to say about their community, the response was incredible. They told us words like hope, history, resilience, strength, love, worthiness.

Photo courtesy of IDEAS xLab

It is essential to make sure the images that we see every day within our community are uplifting, encouraging, and inspiring!

We launched One Poem At A Time, an initiative of Project HEAL (Health. Equity. Art. Learning) in April, 2017, bringing the community together through a historical poetry walk with artists and policy makers. We wanted to help people envision what implementing a policy that restricts predatory advertising in communities that are in the process of reviving and rebuilding could look like. Whether it is at the neighborhood, city, or state level, Project HEAL is working to increase civic engagement toward policy change, because once communities have experience flexing their policy muscle, they can focus it on other areas, like coming together to prevent two new liquor stores from opening, which just happened. Working with community residents and stakeholders, along with the Smoketown Neighborhood Association, One Poem At A Time has replaced 19 negative/predatory advertising and billboards with positive images and messages depicting Smoketown residents and lifting up their voices.

What is represented in your community speaks to your community, the importance of your community in relation to the city, and how others view your community. It influences the health of community members. The images that we see daily in our neighborhoods impact our thinking which inevitably impacts our actions. In the Health Impact Assessment recently completed on Project HEAL, the research shows that “changing the density and content of the negative messaging most likely will serve as a health protective factor influencing the emotional well-being of the community as well as the community’s perceived value by outsiders.” It is essential to make sure the images that we see every day within our community are uplifting, encouraging, and inspiring!

One Poem At A Time worked because communities that have been marginalized want to be seen and heard, because seeing me and hearing me means you value me in this space. That I have a voice in this space. That I have influence in this space. That something I say can shift the atmosphere. That I can impact my community.

One of the billboards said, “You are worthy. Worthy of everything.” Smoketown has adopted this mantra. The residents have taken a message on a billboard designed through One Poem At A Time to rebuild and reclaim its strength, determination, and resilience. That is the power of positive messaging. We have the power to change our communities, One Poem At A Time.

Hannah L. Drake

IDEAS xLab

Poet and artist-advocate Hannah Drake is a cultural producer and strategist for Project HEAL (Health. Equity. Art. Learning.), which uses arts and culture engagement to help communities discover creative new ways to identify their health priorities and to develop a health equity action plan for maximum impact.