‘Rise up. And build!’ rings out in Lexington at annual Nehemiah Action Assembly

by Jamie Lucke, Kentucky Lantern

LEXINGTON — It had nothing to do with horses or basketball, but Kentucky’s second-largest city had what I consider to be one of its best nights of the year Monday as 1,500 people came together to make some demands.

The demands had been researched and discussed and were issued only after negotiations and the laying of groundwork.

Still, two local officials — the police chief and the head of Lextran, the local public transit system — stiffed the attendees rather than respond to their requests for action.

This was Lexington’s 20th Nehemiah Action Assembly, an event that may be unique in turning the tables on who controls the microphone. It’s a rare opportunity for citizens, united in their goals, to publicly hold public officials accountable. That’s why I look forward to these gatherings and why, I suspect, a lot of politicians do not.

Held in a convention hall at the Central Bank Center, the gatherings are organized by BUILD or Building a United Interfaith Lexington through Direct-action which counts 16,000 members representing 26 congregations.

BUILD’s priorities in 2023 echoed concerns the members have voiced for years: Preventing violence. Providing affordable housing. Caring for the sick and vulnerable.

Louisville’s counterpart is CLOUT or Citizens of Louisville Organized and United Together.

Both are part of a self-described “national network of congregation-based community organizations” in 28 metro areas and 10 states. The network is known as DART or Direct Action and Research Training Center. 

The Rev. Nathl Moore of First African Baptist Church explained that the principle of “direct action” is inspired by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. ‘s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in which he explained why in 1963 civil rights protesters had to take to the streets, put their bodies on the line — because going through the courts (and, I would add, other so-called proper channels) was never going to bring change, to end racial injustice and brutality.

BUILD gatherings are not so confrontational, though they are spirited. A speaker at the podium will cry out, “Rise up.” The crowd responds, “And build! “Rise up. And build!”

They also adhere to a tight schedule in which no one has the podium or the opportunity to pontificate for very long, which I also deeply admire. Someone from BUILD literally holds the mic while the public official is held to a two-minute response.

BUILD’s greatest accomplishment has been elevating the need for local government’s involvement in increasing Lexington’s supply of affordable housing. 

Councilmember James Brown.
Photo by Amy Wallot

A seven-year campaign finally bore fruit in 2014 in the creation of a city fund that provides loans and grants to develop affordable housing. The fund was launched with $3 million and, by imposing an ordinance on itself, the council committed to budgeting $2 million a year thereafter.

On June 27, the council will vote on a plan, proposed by BUILD last year, to increase the annual affordable housing appropriation to $4.5 million or 1% of the city’s prior year revenue. 

On Monday night, at-large council member James Brown and a half-dozen other council members repeated their commitment to the increase and also to working to eventually bring the city’s affordable housing commitment to $10 million a year.

At-large council member Chuck Ellinger II also committed to helping inform stakeholders about the potential for a community microtransit system that speakers testified would be a “game changer” for people who have mental illness, are disabled or elderly. 

Councilmember Chuck Ellinger II.
Photo by Amy Wallot

The crowd was told that generous federal grants are available to launch the ride service and that hundreds of cities already are deploying vans and shuttles to provide the convenience of Uber or Lyft at public transit prices.

That does sound like a tall order, which might explain why Lextran general manager Jill Barnett did not show up to respond to BUILD’s request that Lextran start a microtransit pilot program, though she can rest assured this is not the last she’ll hear of it.

Police Chief Lawrence Weathers was also a no-show, which meant he did not hear speakers report that homicides, mostly shootings, in Lexington have risen from 16 in 2015 to 44 last year. 

For years, BUILD has been urging the city to adopt a strategy developed by the National Network for Safe Communities in which community leaders, law enforcement and social service agencies intervene in the lives of people identified as at risk for committing violence and provide them with supports before someone ends up dead or in prison. Former Mayor Jim Gray did bring in the NNSC staff which made some recommendations that the city never adopted.

The hardest part of the annual assemblies is hearing from Lexington residents whose lives have been shattered by gun violence, neighbors who are afraid to sit on their porches or let their grandkids play in the park or even leave home at night, who have buried loved ones and then helped friends bury loved ones. 

BUILD wanted to ask Weathers to take some of his staff to meet with the police departments in New Haven, Connecticut and Miami-Dade, Florida to discuss how the strategy is working there and to meet with BUILD to report on the discussions.

Mayor Linda Gorton and others have said the strategy has a spotty record in other cities, that it veers toward racial profiling and that Lexington is implementing its own anti-violence strategies — none of which has dented BUILD’s persistence. BUILD members were given a phone number that they were told rings the chief’s secretary and told “if the police chief does not show, we must bring the crisis to him.”

Bishop John Stowe of the Catholic Diocese of Lexington pronounced the final amen.

Top photo: Chairs were waiting on stage for two public officials who did not accept the invitation to attend the Nehemiah Action Assembly. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Jamie Lucke)