Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer on the Role of American Cities in Building a Better Future
Greg Fischer has served as mayor of Louisville — Kentucky’s largest city — for more than a decade. In this role, the former businessman and entrepreneur has earned recognition as “Public Official of the Year” and the “Most Innovative Mayor in America.”
Now in his third term, Fischer’s political priorities include creating jobs with family-supporting wages, improving opportunities through education and cultivating a compassionate community. Like many of his peers across the nation, he is conducting this work in the face of unprecedented challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic, economic instability and longstanding racial disparities. In 2021, Fischer also completed a turn as president of the United States Conference of Mayors, which is a nonpartisan advocacy and leadership network of mayors in 1,400 cities nationwide.
In this episode, the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Lisa Hamilton talks with Fischer about leading during the pandemic and Breonna Taylor’s tragic killing at the hands of Louisville Metro Police. Fischer also shares his thoughts on the role of local government, how cities can contribute to the nation’s economic recovery and why bold policy changes are needed to help all of America’s kids and families succeed.
A big thank you to Fischer for chatting with us!
Stream this CaseyCast episode on building stronger cities and citizens
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In this episode with Fischer, you’ll learn
- How the pandemic has impacted American cities.
- The role of local government in fueling the nation’s economic recovery.
- What Louisville is doing to tackle racism and racial inequity.
- The biggest challenges facing American mayors and their cities.
- How Louisville is supporting young people and their success.
In Greg Fischer’s own words…
“The average Black American is going to live 10 to 12 years shorter than the average white American. That loss of productivity, that loss of joy, that loss of family love that comes with a life span being shorter than your white counterparts — to me, that is a public health crisis.”
“Our job is to make things better, which means our job is to change things and to make sure that the citizen is right at the heart of this work.”
“This is one of America’s problems… We’ve got to say, ‘How do we change the system that we’re in so that we’re investing for greatness up front rather than spending money later to heal young folks who should have never been in that situation in the first place?’ ”
Resources and links
- Lisa Hamilton on Twitter
- Greg Fischer on Twitter
- The United States Conference of Mayors
- KIDS COUNT® Data Book
- Thrive by 25®
- Thrive Fellowship
- Plans for Advancing Racial Equity for Black Louisville
About the Podcast
CaseyCast is a podcast produced by the Casey Foundation and hosted by its President and CEO Lisa Hamilton. Each episode features Hamilton talking with a new expert about how we can build a brighter future for kids, families and communities.
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From the Annie E. Casey Foundation, I'm Lisa Hamilton… and this is CaseyCast.
Joining us today is Greg Fischer, who has served as the mayor of Louisville, Kentucky, since 2010. His work in Louisville has focused on creating jobs with family-supporting wages, improving education and cultivating a compassionate community.
It's a role that has earned him recognition as “Public Official of the Year,” the “Most Innovative Mayor in America” and a term as president of the United States Conference of Mayors. The conference, as it's called, is a non-partisan, leadership, advocacy and networking organization. Its members are elected mayors of cities with at least 30,000 residents, and there are more than 1,400 such cities nationwide.
Welcome Mayor Fischer to CaseyCast. Thank you so much for joining us.
It's great to be with you, Lisa. Thank you.
Well, let's start by having you tell us about Louisville. I hope I pronounced that right because I know residents are particular about how you say that. Tell us about the city's population, economy, what do you love about it?
Yes, it's not Louisville. It's not Louisville, it's Louisville. So, you did a pretty good job there. Now, Louisville is obviously a fantastic city. As the mayor, you better believe I love it. We're not South, we're not North, we're not Midwest, we're just kind of Louisville. It's a great combination of hospitality, innovation; People just want to welcome others to see our city. We're on the Ohio River. We're a city of about 800,000 people or so. Also, we're just full of innovation and compassion. The home of Muhammad Ali. We're very proud of him and, obviously, the Kentucky Derby as well. So, a great growing city.
Well, that's fantastic. Well, you are now in your third term as mayor. Before you stepped into public service, you were a successful businessman and entrepreneur. What led you to public service?
Well, there's a lot of parallels between a good business and a good city. And I always thought the purpose of the business was to create a platform for human potential to flourish. So, it could be through software development, or medical devices, or ice and beverage dispensing innovation and manufacturing. And so, when I had companies, I wanted our employees to do great things and receive the kind of training for human-potential improvement and profit sharing. So, when I exited the business world, I said, "Well, how can I make the biggest difference?" And I thought government is that because so many resources are involved with government. And I define a city as a platform for human potential to flourish, much as I define the purpose of a business. So, imagine a city where everyone's human potential is coming to life. And, we embraced values. Any great organization is value-driven. So, I set the big three values that would lead our city; our city of lifelong learning, and even a healthier city, and even more compassionate city.
In the last year, U.S. cities have been grappling with so many challenges from the pandemic to racial inequity and economic instability. What's it been like to lead a city during this time?
It's been intense. I've got to be honest about that. Normally, a city is dealing, let's say, with one or two major crises at a time and in a mayor's office of any decent-sized city, you know something is going to happen every day. You just don't know what, when or where. And then normally these are challenges that you can take care of in a day or a week or something like that.
But in the past year, starting with the pandemic, of course, none of us were anticipating that. And then the severe economic dislocation that came from that, and then Louisville is a home of Breonna Taylor. So, we had the very unfortunate tragedy with her life being taken. All of America experienced racial justice marches last year. So, figuring out how to coexist with demonstrations, rightful demonstrations, that were taking place in an environment that was publicly safe was a challenge. Almost every American city started seeing an uptick in gun violence about June, last year when you see that around our country. And then some mayors had to deal with climate change, severe climate change taking place as well.
So, you throw all those together and they were just ongoing. It really tested a lot of our systems. It tested the resilience of our city that we had as well. And it also tested the relationships that were pre-existing with people because when you're dealing with crises like this, who do you lean on? Who comes in to help? And so, our city had spent a lot of time over the years creating, what I call, social muscle, and that is working with all aspects of our community, socio-economic aspects, interfaith activities, so that we appreciate our differences, right? So that we're always pursuing this platform for human potential to flourish.
And I'm happy to respond our city came together in these very difficult times. And one of the things that we were determined to do coming out of last year was to create a model for our city on racial equity. How do you move from tragedy to transformation? And so, we've been hard at work on that.
So, I'll tell you the other thing it did, Lisa, was a lot of our programming that we've done in the past, especially for youth that are disconnected. When you work with young folks like that, you find that they're dealing with multiple traumas at the same time. And for most folks, it's manageable. The amount of major challenges that you're working with, but when you've got 10 or 20 major challenges or traumas that you're working with, it just can seem like you're in a hole that you're never going to get out of. And so, you just got to keep working at it one day at a time, and hopefully you have enough support around you to get out. In the case of our city, that support is our citizens.
Well, I want to explore a number of topics you brought up but the… First, I want to talk about this coming together of your community because that is such an important role of a mayor, looking at the bigger picture and figuring out how to bring sectors together to solve problems. In Louisville, what have you seen that's worked well? And what do you think cities can do better in terms of bringing different sectors and communities together to solve problems?
Well, these challenges have kind of different categories, right? So, when you think about the issue that we have to get through in our country right now, it’s the pandemic. So, that's job one is to make sure that we defeat the virus so that we can kind of get back to a new normal if you will. And so, our public health response has been quite focused and efficient. So, people coming together around a common enemy, in this case, that enemy is the virus and making sure that we're all healthy, so that's a lot easier. It's not an easy challenge, but it's easier, let's say, than bringing our city together to combat over 400 years of racism and institutional racism that's been embodied in government practices for way too long because unlike a clear enemy of a virus, a clear enemy of racism is much more complicated, right?
Because you have many people that will say, "Yes, there's obviously been institutional racism. There's obviously been white privilege and white supremacy." And I disagree with those from a moral standpoint or from an economic or public safety standpoint. And then there's others that disagree, that don't even think it exists.
So, that's much more difficult on how you bring people together to, again, come back to this vision of a city being a platform for human potential to flourish regardless of your skin color or ethnicity, whatever it might be. So, that takes a lot more work in terms of culture changing and deconstructing any type of systems that indeed have contributed to racial injustice.
So, it's multi-layered in terms of the challenges, but clearly number one is articulating a clear vision of what you're doing. Really emphasizing the mayor's role as a truth teller. Sometimes people may not like what I have to say, especially if it challenges their view of the way the world is, but my view of the way the world is a... Our city is a beautifully diverse world or beautifully diverse city that needs to come together so that we can be a better city when we appreciate each other in an environment that's sustainable. So, we could talk about this for hours, but there's just various different levels of challenges.
It's a lot. Mayors are… I'm fond of saying these days that mayors are the kind of the essential workers of the political system.
We can't hide in a state capital. We can't hide in a federal Capital. We're on the ground dealing with reality. That's the job of a mayor and taking care of the basics of government each and every day and innovating to get us to a better place.
Looking ahead, what role do you think cities are going to play in the larger recovery process? We're all hoping that millions more Americans can get back to work and provide for their families. What role do you think cities are going to play in that recovery effort?
Obviously, so critical because cities are home to… The metropolitan areas are home to over 90% of the population and over 90% of the GDP, so the federal political environment is so important that it recognizes that cities are at the crux of the recovery. There's been a huge change, obviously, in the federal political environment since January and President Biden coming in versus president Trump's approach towards cities. So, I don't want to be overly political here, but mayors have gone from kind of being on the outs with the federal government and being attacked to now being an essential partner, sitting at the table co-creating strategic planning. So, that's a huge shift and I think a hugely important shift for our country because when you step up and I'm a business guy that just happens to be mayor... I mean, when you step up and think about, "Okay. United States of America, we exist as a country," but where there's other countries that are trying to unseat us and compete with us from an economic standpoint, from an opportunity standpoint.
So, we've got to create a nation that is economically robust, that is full of equity, that's full of innovation, that's full of infrastructure, that allows all of that to take place. That's supportive of our families, our youngest children, in particular, so that we can invest in them early so that they have this wonderful opportunity to be whomever they are. So, cities are where a lot of that comes together. And the density of cities creates most of the innovation that we see in America as well.
We're in the middle of a period right now, that is forcing America to look at herself and say, "What type of country do we want to be?" Do we want to be a country that invests in herself? Do we want a country of haves and have nots? Do we want a country where every child really is born with an opportunity to succeed? And we change our systems so that every child regardless of their income level or associate economic status knows that their mom is going to have good childcare support. We're going to have universal pre-K that's helpful. That we're going to have systems for out of school time and experiences that help that child advance. Programs that eliminate poverty through family supporting wages instead of minimum wages.
I mean, to me that's such an exciting vision and our country's not there right now. And that is a shame. So, the world has changed a lot. American citizens need to look at ourselves and say, "We really have not kept up with the rest of the world in terms of how it's adapted to this new world that we live in a globalization and digital infrastructure, and making sure that everybody's basics are covered." So, all of this is going to be happening in cities. Certainly in rural areas as well, but it's not a city versus rural, urban versus rural, it's an us. And so, whether it's at the federal level, the state level or the city level, people have got to focus on that type of interconnection and interdependence.
In order to move us forward. That is great. I suspect it's important for you to have good data to drive your decision making. Casey produces an annual data book called KIDS COUNT every year that really tries to help leaders understand how kids are faring over time. Can you talk about the kind of data you use to make decisions and how you help people understand what the data is telling you about how things are going in your city?
Yeah. I started a lot of my conversations with two basic questions. How does this issue impact our citizens? So, in a business term, it's how does it impact our customers? And then second is, what's the data, right? So, we live in a country really that's unreliant on data to make decisions oftentimes, and then misinterprets data as well.
As we go through our education process here, we need to train people on basic understanding of what a system is and how to change systems and the underlying processes because until we do that, a lot of people think the way things are, are just the way they are and they're never going to change. That's wrong. Okay. You can look... For instance, let's take income disparity or wealth disparity. America is at its most extreme level since the Great Depression, but you can look at other countries, let's say, Australia, Northern European, Western European countries that do not have this gap that we have.
Well, a curious person would say, "Why not?" And then you look at their underlying systems that produce a different result. They provide childcare assistance for every mom, universal pre-K, universal health care, universal housing, basic food access, et cetera. So, these are at the heart of building healthy children.
So, when you take a look at a stat like children in poverty, you've got to start peeling apart and saying, "Why?" So, the KIDS COUNT data is so fundamentally important to that and what I hope it does for people and I'm hopeful right now when I see these really bold changes being put forth by the Biden administration that people instead of saying, "Oh, my taxes are going to increase. It's bad." Say: Think about how this could change children in poverty.
You may know that earlier this year, the Casey Foundation announced an effort called Thrive by 25, which is really about how we can help focus more resources on youth and young adults and help them succeed. And I've read stories about Louisville having a high number of young people who aren't in work or in school. I know this is an issue that's important to you. How are you helping the city think about how to support young people and their success? And how do you talk with your administration about partnering with young people to help understand their ideas for how that can happen?
Yeah. This is a Louisville challenge and a challenge all over our country where, again, we've got young people that either don't have a job, don't have high school degree, oftentimes both. And they're our citizens. They're part of our team. They're our family, right? So, how do you get together to help families in distress? So, we've recently created a bunch of grant funding opportunities so we could kind of push those solutions and those innovations out into the community to look at one thing a lot of these youth have involved and their systems involved. Could be involved in our law enforcement area or in our public safety issues, health challenges, educational challenges.
One of the programs we have is called the Thrive Fellows. And these are young men that have been court involved, justice involved, but they're out and they're young. They're between 18 and 22. How do they restart their lives in a productive way? We've learned so much from working in that, and this might sound simple, but I don't think most people realize that young folks like these are dealing with a dozen, two dozen different types of major life challenges, and it can be so deep and so challenging that at some point they just say, "I'm going to give up. I just don't see how I can overcome this." And so, that's why these support systems are so important to be in place to say, "No, we're there with you." This program is a 18 month program, and then it keeps going on after that. So, that's one way.
Now my dream, Lisa, is that we're investing upfront in people as I've talked about a couple of times in this program, so that we're not dealing with the impact after the fact.
Yeah. This is one of America's problems, right? Where we've got to say, "How do we change the system that we're in, so that we're investing for greatness up front rather than spending money later to heal young folks who should have never been in that situation in the first place?" So, that's where our office of youth development. We do that. It can be through our summer jobs program. The academies of Louisville is through our high school system here of creating career tracks, but we're trying to discover young people's joy and how can they experience that joy in the workplace, which a lot of people never have. So, your mind totally shifts to say, "Wow, I can get paid for something that I love to do? And I've had experiences in the community to help me select that?" That's very powerful and that brings in our business community as part of the solution on that as well.
That's great. That is wonderful to hear that. One of my favorite quotes is, it's easier to build strong men than to repair broken ones. And I love how that value is really guiding the way you think about investments in your community because you're so right. The amount of costs on the back end when we don't invest in the greatness of young people is so much more expensive and so it's great to hear the way you're trying to work on the frontend to help young people find their joy. That's fantastic.
And I think, Lisa, it points out another issue. It's like, where does the money come from to build these programs? And at the city level, we have some funds, but they're minuscule compared to the federal funds and the state funds. And that's why we have to create a national consciousness around these issues and then a national directive around, "Okay, what are our strategies and systems to put in place to disrupt these types of issues that have impeded a child's greatness from being successful?" And so, I'm not trying to avoid any accountability at the local level, but the type of re-imagining of the systems that we need, need to occur both at the federal and state level for them to be optimized at the local level.
That's important to see that relationship between all those different levels of our government. Several times, you have mentioned issues of racial equity, which I think as a country, we are obviously grappling with to understand not just the root causes and the ways it has infected our systems, but really to understand what the strategies are to move forward. At Casey, we've spent the last several years investing in racial equity and inclusion, both in our operations and strategies and for our organization of just 200 employees, it has been an intense process, but you're doing that across a city of 800,000 people under very different conditions. You mentioned the undeniable impact of Breonna Taylor's death.
Can you talk about the work that's underway to support racial equity in your city and any advice you have for other leaders, both public, private, and nonprofit about how they can go about doing this work?
No, thank you for that question. Obviously, for us to reach our potential as a country, this is at the core of any big challenge.
The issues of social justice and racial equity have been part of who I have been my entire life. And we have spent a lot of investment in that in my first 10 years as mayor. But my recognition, especially after Breonna Taylor's tragedy is, it's not nearly enough and it's not nearly fast enough. And so, I think Louisville can be seen as kind of a microcosm for the entire country. I can remember when Michael Brown in his tragic death in Ferguson. Amongst a bunch of mayors we said, "That could happen in any of our cities." Okay. So, Breonna was a Louisville resident. Unfortunately, there will be more incidents like this in the rest of the country. So, no one is immune from this.
So, some of the critical elements that are involved is re-imagining public safety. My dream is that citizens and police together are creating a safe environment in their city. In order for that to happen, the community has to trust the police and they have to view them as legitimate. So, policing is at a tremendous crossroads in America right now, redefining itself. Police cannot be seen as a legitimacy through force or a warrior mentality. It only can happen through a guardian mentality. So, that means a cultural shift needs to take place in many parts of our police forces here in America. And we're working through that here in our city as well, so that police-community relationship is one aspect of it.
Investing in the community is another significant aspect of it. And not just capital investment, which of course is very important, but investment in humans, human infrastructure, workforce development, dealing with trauma issues like that, so people are put in a position where they can succeed. And then probably the biggest multiplier we have, Lisa, would be, can our education system be a vehicle for people to again realize their full human potential?
So, again, it goes back to pre-K, out of school time supports, mentoring, experiential travel, issues like that. But the goal is to… Imagine you live in a city where that city is supporting your young child. Let's say you're a single mom working two low paying jobs, but you know the city has got your back in terms of getting your child through school to some type of post-secondary degree, which number one changer in poverty is a post-secondary degree.
That's great. I've talked to another mayor recently. I think Mayor Strickland in Memphis, and we talked a lot about economic inclusion and the ways they were thinking about using the power of the city to procurement power, et cetera, to include a broader range of citizens in the work. Is that a part of what Louisville thinks about in terms of its racial equity agenda as well?
Absolutely. Throughout America, Black Americans have about 10% of the presence that they should have on a proportionate basis in terms of business ownership. So, Louisville is no different from that. Our population is around 24% black. The percentage of businesses that are owned by African American Louisvillians is 2.4%. And that's normal. Ain't that horrible when we say it's normal for America? So, we got to disrupt that system. So, we're making unprecedented investments in capacity building in our Black and brown communities in many different areas, but business creation is one of those.
And then, of course, the intentionality for people to do business with these organizations. One of the great things that has come out of this last year of racial injustice being highlighted is our business community is like, "We're in. How do we help?" So, it could be our Chamber of Commerce, the work that they're doing to eliminate racism in the city or UPS, one of our great local employers saying, "How can we be part of eliminating racial injustice through procurement?" Our anchor institutions, et cetera. So, absolutely economic empowerment is at the heart of this.
Another one of the unfortunate legacies of our country is the average Black family has one-tenth the wealth of the average white family. Why is that? Again, it goes back to the economic injustice propagated by the systems that have been put in place. So, home ownership is a critical aspect of this. So, we're amping up our assistance in terms of down payment grants. So, people that have full ability to pay rent and have been doing it for decades, but they just don't have down payment assistance, "Here's a grant, so you can now be a homeowner." So, there's a lot of ways to attack this.
That's great. Well, just to close out this conversation, you signed an executive order declaring racism a public health crisis, and released a seven part plan for addressing racial equity. I just wanted to give you an opportunity to really talk about why you made this declaration and how you feel about the plan for putting it into operation.
Well, good data doesn't lie. And throughout America, the... Again, I use the term... There's no such thing as an average person, but statistically, I suppose, there is. The average Black American is going to live 10 to 12 years shorter than the average white American. What's the role of government is for people to live long, productive, happy lives. So, if your life is cut short by social determinants of health or whatever the issues might be, it's government's imperative to go to work on those issues. And so, that loss of productivity, that loss of joy, that loss of family love that comes with a life span being shorter than your white counterparts, to me, that is a public health crisis.
And so, we have to go to work that, and most people didn't even know of maybe the gap or look at it that way. So, during this time again of marches for racial justice, many people's minds are more open than ever to understanding these issues. And I'm talking about white people who've had the benefit of not having to worry about these issues before. Hadn't been part of the life experience. Now they see it as part of their life experience because of the disruptions the demonstrations represented too many people.
And maybe they disrupted the status quo, but disruption can be a good thing. And disruption can be a good thing when it leads to a better tomorrow. And if you've enhanced your consciousness as a person to be part of that better tomorrow. So, that's the opportunity that's in front of us right now. And is part of the work that we've done that with the public health crisis. We have been very specific, right? So, the elements of that include the public safety reordering that I talked about. How do we enhance children and families' wellbeing so they can advance? Specific investments in building Black employment, Black health, Black income, housing, and neighborhood investment because stable housing is so important for a person's ability to succeed, and then public health, obviously, about it, and then fundamentally voting and voting rights. We're seeing in the sense we created this plan many months ago. We're now seeing an assault on voting rights in many states in our country. Fundamental attack on our democracy. That must be stood up against at every opportunity.
That's powerful. Well, you are obviously doing amazing work in the city of Louisville and really positioning your city to be a shining star and exemplar of how one tackles these issues. What are mayors across the country identifying as the biggest challenges they see facing children, youth and families, and what do they see as opportunities?
The pandemic has really put a spotlight on the inequities that are present in America. So, it's about powering through the pandemic. It's about eliminating poverty. It's about many of the things that we've spoken about here this morning.
And working on all of these opportunities we have to restart our economies in a more equitable way is a critical imperative. And then frankly addressing a lot of the gun violence is taking place. 70% of America's top 50 cities saw a material increase in gun violence and homicides last year that coincided with kind of the impact of the pandemic coming into play. So, that's being addressed as a real and urgent issue we have right now.
And then more broadly as I spoke about is the system changes around the education and youth supports so that we can create young people that are brimming with enthusiasm and joy because of a system that's created opportunities for them that are unlimited. So, whether you're a little Black girl from Baltimore or a rural white kid from South Dakota, you look at your future as an American and say, "I'm grateful to be here in America. And that this country believes in me and has created systems to invest in me. And how can I help now as a citizen just to make my city and my country a better place?" So, those are some of the things that we're looking at as mayors of the country right now. And then to use our voice to call out injustice wherever it may be.
Any final thoughts about things that you were really inspired by happening around the country in these cities that you see that are particularly doing interesting things?
There are just incredible mayors everywhere because this is not a job for the faint of heart. I mean, this is not a job if you want to receive loving adoration every day. Let's say if you want that, own a pet store, but we're on the front lines innovating and challenging the status quo. And yes, we do get a lot of support from our communities and our citizens out there, but our job is to make things better, which means our job is to change things and to make sure that the citizen is just right at the heart of that work. And especially those that have not been on the winning side for an awful long time and raise all of our people up so that they can all have the opportunities that each and every person deserves. It shouldn't be based on the lottery of just who you happen to be born to and where you happen to be born to. You're not going to achieve greatness as a city or as a country if those conditions exist.
So, I just come back to these basic human values and have to push us forward, right? Every child is born with compassion, with kindness and love and with greatness, and so our job as adults, older people, is to create the conditions that allow that to flourish. And clearly that's... Some people might think that's naive. Some people call our city value of compassion, weak. I see it as strength that you have to believe in the goodness of people. I see it every day in every city and every mayor that I work with.
Well, I think those values are a sign of hope for me. And I think it's just tremendous to see the way that you're leading the city and the way that you are working with your mayors across the country to get this work done. So, I don't think there's a better note to end on that set of values for your community and for our country. So, Mayor Fischer, I just want to thank you for joining us on CaseyCast and for all of your efforts to build better and fairer systems and communities for the people that you serve.
Well, thank you, Lisa. And thanks to the Annie E. Casey Foundation too for enabling so much of this good work around the country.
It's our pleasure. And to our listeners, we want to thank you for joining us today as well.
You can ask questions and leave us feedback on Twitter by using the CaseyCast hashtag. Also, feel free to follow me @lhamilton_aecf on Twitter.
To learn more about Casey and the work of our guests, you can find our show notes at aecf.org/podcast. Until next time, I wish all of America's kids and all of you a bright future.