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'We need to do more listening than talking': Churchill Downs, partners launch Derby Equity Initiative

Churchill Downs, Kentucky Derby Festival and Humana have a new equity initiative to create programs and events that make everyone feel included.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — A year of racial injustice protests and calls for inclusion has given Churchill Downs and its partners time to reflect and bring some change. Churchill along with Kentucky Derby Festival (KDF) and Humana have a new equity initiative to create and fund programs, events that make everyone feel included. 

The "Derby Equity and Community Initiative," is a five-year commitment to fund and create events that serve that goal. 

"When you traditionally bring about 1.5 million people together over two weeks with programming that feedback is very important to us so that we can continue to do this right and be economic impact generators," president and CEO of KDF, Matt Gibson said.  

KDF said the conversations about inclusion in their events started before the marches in 2020.

"This doesn't have an easy solution so we need to do more listening than talking so we engaged with leaders throughout the community," vice president of corporate communications at Churchill Downs, Tonya Abeln said. "I will say each conversation opened up a new opportunity for this initiative."

The three-pillars of the multi-year initiative look to support, restore and create during Derby season.

"That is identifying events that already exist in this city that might need a little lift whether that's financial support, marketing support, management support," Abeln said. 

Churchill Downs, KDF and Humana have hosted listening sessions with community members and leaders within the last eight to nine months. The goal is to continue the discussions to get feedback. A big point that was raised was historically underserved-communities did not feel represented or included in the KDF events. 

The initiative's goal is to create events that incorporate equitable programming into Derby season with the intention of directing economic impact and a sense of belonging to Louisville communities that have encountered a lack of access to those opportunities.

 "It's just another testament to this city and its business leaders holding each other accountable, supporting each other and really fostering this type of work across the community," population health strategy leader at Humana, Dior Cotten said. 

The first phase of the initiative in 2021 includes support of the Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) program, Justice Now, a project that brings together students to discuss, research and propose solutions to community-wide issues. 

Justice Now will culminate this year in May with students presenting their solutions to experts, community partners and potential funders at the new KDF's JusticeFest on May 22. 

The event looks to empower students to be the change in their community and seeks answers from the youth on how the Derby and KDF events can be used as a a platform to create social change in the city.

With the 147th race on the horizon, Louisville artist Kacy Jackson recently completed a mural of two colorful horses near Nulu Marketplace that he hopes will show represent inclusion in the city. The artwork took him 10 days to complete.

"It's called the Unified Race because I feel like all the colors and everyone diversify a place like Louisville you know it's coming together," Jackson said. "I hope the future of this mural is just as big as the Statue of Liberty."

Credit: WHAS11 News
'The Unified Race' mural by Louisville artist, Kacy Jackson

KDF will soon publish an online portal for community members to share feedback on their events. 


Contact reporter Senait Gebregiorgis at SGebregior@whas11.com and follow her on Twitter and Facebook. 

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