December 10, 2019

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer on building a culture of compassion and inclusion for all residents

In Louisville, community leaders aren't afraid to address a history of inequality to inform a future where everyone can prosper.

Mayor Greg Fischer at The Big Table, an annual event that brings together nearly 2,000 Louisville residents from all backgrounds and beliefs who gather for fellowship and good food. Photo courtesy of City of Louisville

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer has been building high performance teams his entire career. As a young entrepreneur in the 1980s, he helped build a global manufacturing business from the ground up. As mayor of the largest city in Kentucky—now a year into his third term—he’s helping to build a culture of compassion and inclusion where all residents can access the opportunities that thriving economies can offer.

One of those opportunities came to Louisville recently in the form of a new Microsoft hub for artificial intelligence, data science, and the Internet of things. The mayor said one of his goals is to quintuple the amount of workers trained in tech jobs. The new Microsoft partnership will help the city reach this goal. “We have an opportunity to leap ahead of other cities in terms of next technologies,” he said.

We spoke with the mayor recently on how communities are challenged with “upskilling” their workforces for the future. We also spoke of the past—how a legacy of institutional racism effects communities today. And the mayor even offered his insight as a former CEO—he told us the two qualities he looked for in strong leaders.

Read our conversation, edited for length and clarity, below. And read all of the conversations in our mayors series here!

You’re the vice president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. As you’ve talked with mayors across the country, what are the important themes that are emerging that will be important to address in 2020 and beyond?

For every city, and rural area for that matter, the big issue is economic opportunity. The folks at the top are doing really well in terms of income and wealth, but middle-income folks are struggling to stay even, and low-income folks are falling further behind.

So the question is, how does everybody feel like they’re participating in an economy that, overall numbers are doing good, but not everybody’s participating in it? Upskilling workforces and creating more economic opportunity are things that we’re focused on.

And then on the other side of it, when you’re in cities in particular where you’re having gentrification taking place, what are your strategies to make sure that you can regenerate neighborhoods without displacing people that provide the soul of those neighborhoods?

Speaking of neighborhoods and revitalizing, I’ve been reading about the Redlining Louisville project. In a city like Louisville that has to reckon with its past and the link between racism and real estate, what did you learn from participating in the Redlining project?

We underwrote it. What I was looking for was a way to explain the historic legacy of racism to the city—and almost every city in America has a legacy of redlining associated with it. But the majority population, by that I mean the white populations of America, really do not have the historical understanding of a lot of the roots of racism that impact and still leech on our cities today.

By having placed-based history where people in my city who are familiar with certain neighborhoods, but they may not have been familiar with what the impact was of redlining or urban renewal, to be able to demonstrate that through maps and neighborhoods gave people a historical understanding of how institutionalized policies can work to discriminate against groups of people.

It’s not a question of, everybody just needs to work harder, it’s a question of, where did you start? Some people started way ahead of other folks based on skin color.

When Mayors talk to me about how to deal with issues around race and how to talk about issues of privilege, I encourage them to understand the history of their city and start telling the history of that city in a broader forum.

We’ve worked with IDEAS Xlab, which is a local Louisville nonprofit. They wrote a wonderful essay for The Renewal Project about the Smoketown neighborhood and a poetry program that they launched there. It’s been one of our most popular stories.

[They’re a] very innovative arts space, social justice group. They’re great contributors to our city.

Now let’s talk about your role in the city. As mayor, what’s your next big goal for Louisville?

Well, it’s related to what I just talked about. We’re trying to quintuple the amount of people who are trained every year in technology so that we can upskill folks so they can get to a living wage and family-supporting wages and beyond.

We just recently were named a regional hub working with Microsoft for artificial intelligence, data science, and the Internet of things. We have an opportunity to leap ahead of other cities in terms of next technologies.

Good leaders are confident, but humble. You have to embrace [this] duality to be a good leader. It's that combination of confidence and humility.

We also have intentional programs going on in our low-income neighborhoods. This is a grant with JPMorgan Chase to upskill folks so that they can get into entry-level technology work, if not beyond that into coding and some of these other issues around artificial intelligence.

One, that’s about upskilling broadly so that everybody can get to a living wage job. The other is making sure that as we grow as a city people are able to stay in the neighborhoods that they live in, they’ve grown up in. Those are two big things that keep us busy.

You’re an entrepreneur yourself, what’s a roll of small, medium, and large businesses in helping to move Louisville forward?

We have a vibrant small- and medium-sized business presence in Louisville. They provide the retail and the restaurant soul of our city. Then we’ve got some nice Fortune 500 companies as well. They all fit in together in helping us develop our workforce, particularly the medium and larger companies.

Louisville's Waterfront Park overlooks the mighty Ohio River. Mayor Fischer called it one of his city's best assets.

[They work] with our high schools, career academies, and our summer jobs program to make sure that we’re providing the kind of talent that our employers need. They’re integrated into our whole city strategy and take ownership for the success of the city as well.

What’s the job that prepared you to be mayor?

I co-founded a company in the early 1980s and almost went bankrupt a couple times, but I ended up building that into a global business. That’s where I learned how to build high performance work teams and really identify business as a vehicle for human potential and flourish.

I was always fascinated with a city as a platform for human potential to flourish because that was always the purpose of my businesses.

There’s that kind of business aspect of it—big goals, noble values, planning and continuous improvement work, innovation work—that’s half of it. The other half would be I just have always been very involved with civic activity in terms of volunteering and board work. You put the two of those together.

I was always fascinated with a city as a platform for human potential to flourish because that was always the purpose of my businesses. That’s what the city should be. And that’s how we define one of our city values, the value of compassion. Compassion means respect for each and every citizen so their human potential is flourishing.

So it’s that formative experience, building that company over 18 years that really prepared me best to me mayor.

You spoke about building high performance teams. What were some of the soft qualities that you looked for in potential employees?

Good leaders are confident, but humble. You have to embrace [this] duality to be a good leader. It’s that combination of confidence and humility.

Do you have a favorite spot in town you like to visit when you’re not performing official duties?

It’s hard when you’re mayor to be anywhere in town and just be alone. So my best spot is to be on my bike with a helmet and sunglasses on so I can cruise around the city. Usually I’m not noticed. It’s a great way to see different parts of the city more up close and personal. I love being outdoors as well and getting exercise, it accomplishes all of that.

OK now for the lightning round. What was your first job?

Other than cutting grass. I’d say my most influential job was an industrial roofer, which was a great way to learn but then it also inspired me to go to work somewhere cooler. So I worked for three summers in Kodiak, Alaska, as a crane operator unloading salmon boats.

Quite a change. What was your favorite subject in school?

Not one in particular, but I love numbers, so math. But I also like to write, so English was a favorite, and then I also love to look at the world, so geography.

Truly Renaissance! Lastly, what’s a great book you’ve read recently?

I’m reading it right now, The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu.

That’s very inspiring! We truly appreciate you talking with us today. Thank you so much mayor.

Margaret Myers

The Renewal Project, made possible by Allstate, tells the stories of individuals and organizations who are solving problems in their communities.