By Blake Tommey
If the wealth of an average African-American family continues to grow at the same pace it has over the last three decades, it will take black families 228 years to acquire the amount of wealth that white families have in 2016.
According to the Institute for Policy Studies report, that’s only 17 years shorter than the 245-year span of slavery in the United States. In fact, the wealthiest 100 members of the Forbes list alone own as much wealth as the entire African American population combined.
Kevin Cosby, pastor of St. Stephen Church and president of the historically black Simmons College of Kentucky in Louisville, Ky., and the spearheading voice in the EmpowerWest movement in Louisville, says that if the church desires reconciliation, it must engage in the true work of racial justice — putting power into the hands of the black community for the creation of its own cultural space, wealth and strength.
“Centuries of oppression have created a wealth gap, a power gap between the white and black communities,” Cosby said. “Integration was the process in which white America made very limited space for blacks who would accept space in a white world with positions but with no power. It was the process that said black people needed to be saved from blackness, from their culture — not saved in their culture. It destroyed the collective strength of the black community and the wealth remained in white hands. Our goal is to empower black people in black space.”
With black empowerment at the heart of their mission, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship churches across Louisville, as well as leaders of CBF Kentucky, are forming together with Cosby, St. Stephen Church and Simmons College through EmpowerWest. Through education, community development and economic advocacy, EmpowerWest is partnering to renew the black community of West Louisville and help close the wealth gap between black and white Americans.
Before EmpowerWest became a movement, however, it began late in 2014 as a weekly conversation between Cosby and local CBF pastors, including Chris Caldwell, pastor of Broadway Baptist Church in East Louisville. Despite a strong desire to take action, Caldwell explained, he and other white pastors primarily listened and allowed black leaders to do 80 percent of the talking.
“White guilt doesn’t really get you very far, but white honesty does,” Caldwell said. “You come to the table with plenty of humility and ready to be honest about your perception of the world, about the facts of history. For instance, prior to the Great Recession, the ratio of white wealth to black wealth was 8-to-1; now it stands at 15-to-1. Even though East Louisville, where I live, has roughly the same population as that of West Louisville — 60,000 people — West Louisville has no hotels. I can’t even count the number of hotels in East Louisville.”
After months of conversation and learning, the goal of EmpowerWest was clear. Churches and leaders — white, black or otherwise — would begin efforts to empower the disenfranchised community in West Louisville and work together to develop its economic assets and help unleash its potential.
EmpowerWest began with a business fair at St. Stephen Church, where CBF churches and other congregations across the city gathered to meet and learn about black businesses in West Louisville. Furthermore, EmpowerWest created “Stokely’s List,” a complete database of more than 50 black businesses designed to funnel dollars into the black economy of West Louisville. Whether they needed a caterer, dry cleaner, beauty products or legal representation, churches and individuals could now be part of infusing West Louisville with capital.
In one of the most poignant expressions of EmpowerWest, Caldwell even utilized Stokely’s List to obtain funeral arrangements for his father, who passed away early in 2016, through A.D. Porter and Sons Funeral Home. Kevin Cosby says it is expressions of partnership like this, not charity, that allow white communities and individuals to become part of a black empowerment movement as servant helpers.
“Black power is not about black people having control over white people; it’s about black people having control over themselves,” Cosby said.
“Most civil rights activism and even the Black Lives Matter movement attempt to find justice for black people in white space. I want justice, but I want to do what other ethnic groups have done — to create our own space and then use that space as a foundation and a power base to enter into a pluralistic America, but not to lose sacred black space. Black power is simply black people controlling the economics, the education and the politics that create and determine their lives.”
Alongside ongoing efforts to infuse West Louisville with economic capital, EmpowerWest is also creating educational opportunities for churches, organizations and even students to learn about black empowerment. In January, congregations across Louisville gathered at St. Stephen for worship and dialogue facilitated by renowned Hebrew Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann, who continued the conversation about racial justice and prophetic tradition. In March, Edward Baptist, professor of history at Cornell University, facilitated a similar event on the legacy of capitalism and slavery in the United States at Simmons College.
While Cooperative Baptists partner with Simmons College, undergraduate students are also engaging with EmpowerWest through CBF’s Student.Go missions program. Demetrius Gunn, a sophomore at Simmons, spent the summer of 2016 learning asset-based community development through Student.Go and how a new generation of young leaders can continue the work of empowering black communities like West Louisville.
Gunn was raised by his grandfather in West Louisville and says he knows all too well the conditions that have caused the black community to forget its gifts, strengths and worth. Through identifying the strengths already present in the businesses, churches and individuals in West Louisville, Gunn said he and other leaders can begin to call on a broken-hearted community to claim its assets and fulfill its God-given purpose.
“We need people to help us resurrect those things that have died in our community,” Gunn said.
“West Louisville is a community that is devastated, that is depressed, that is angry, that is frustrated, because we have no opportunities. And we aren’t just divided from white people; we are divided from ourselves, from our own worth. We have to get to the point where we can look in the mirror and say ‘I’m somebody. I’m not ugly; I’m beautiful.’ We need jobs. We need to come together and get our community back.”
As the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship forms together with black leaders and organizations in Louisville and across the state, it will continue to utilize asset-based community development and place economic empowerment at the forefront, noted CBF Kentucky Coordinator Rhonda Blevins. Moving forward, CBF Kentucky plans to proliferate the EmpowerWest model among black and white churches in a four-year partnership commitment designed to help individual congregations empower other black communities beyond West Louisville.
Ultimately, Blevins said, seeking racial justice means upholding the Fellowship’s deep commitment to partnership and to helping the black community create its own power.
“Cooperative Baptist Fellowship values partnership; it’s in our DNA,” Blevins emphasized.
“We founded a Fellowship understanding that we would need to come alongside strong partners in order to do anything worth doing in this world. Cultivating that partnership, that beloved community, is at the heart of what we’re doing with EmpowerWest. If folks on the east end of Louisville really care about the west end, it all boils down to empowerment, not to having all the answers or solving problems. We get to be a part of this work because we understand the importance of having black people, black institutions and black leaders leading the effort of empowering the black community.”