FRANKFORT, Ky. — Kentucky’s new Commission on Race and Access to Opportunity kicked off its work in Frankfort this week with members seeking to have tough —but respectful—conversations on disparities across the state.
Lawmakers created the commission during the 2021 General Assembly with Senate Bill 10. The 13-member panel will conduct studies and research on issues such as educational equity, child welfare, health, economic opportunity, juvenile justice and criminal justice, among others. It will also issue an annual report on its findings.
The bi-partisan group includes two chairs – Senate President Pro-tem David P. Givens, R-Greensburg, and Rep. Samara Heavrin, R-Leitchfield – along with members from each legislative chamber and citizen members.
Lawmakers on the commission include Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Crofton; Rep. George Brown Jr., D-Lexington; Rep. Nima Kulkarni, D-Louisville; and Rep. Killian Timoney, R-Lexington. Sen. Karen Berg, D-Louisville is also set to join the commission.
Citizen members include Dr. OJ Oleka, president of the Association of Independent Kentucky Colleges and Universities and a co-founder of AntiRacismKY; Erwin Roberts, first assistant commonwealth’s attorney in Jefferson County; and Dr. Ricky Jones, a professor and chair of the University of Louisville’s Pan-African Studies department.
Givens was a primary sponsor of SB 10. During the group’s first meeting Tuesday, he shared two “lightbulb” moments for him. One dealt with policy; the other came last summer following the deaths of George Floyd and Louisville’s Breonna Taylor.
“The lightbulb moment for me was policy impacts outcomes, which can impact our fellow Kentuckians,” Givens said. “The second lightbulb moment for me was the summer of last year…We had fellow Kentuckians suffering and it frightened us to talk about it. And our legislative body is charged to do hard things, and so here we are.”
Each member of the committee shared the unique perspectives they bring to the table. Berg shared she is a Jewish woman. Westerfield shared he is the father of two biracial children. Timoney is a former teacher and principal.
Brown Jr., who is a Black man, reminded the commission during his introduction that the U.S. has a 400-year history of disparity.
“It is very important for people who call themselves the majority to address their issues and their concerns and understand that where we are is a part of what has happened in our society and everybody has to look in the mirror and be serious about making substantial change…” Brown Jr. said.
As for Heavrin, who is the youngest woman elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives, she shared why she wanted to be part of the commission.
“I do this for the children of Kentucky…” Heavrin said. “I do it for everyone because it’s important that we all understand, that we’re all able to empathize and to stick our feet in someone else’s shoes.”
Givens and Heavrin hope the commission can have tough conversations surrounding race and inequity in a respectful way that inspires policy to improve the lives of all Kentuckians.
The next meeting on the Commission on Race and Access to Opportunity is scheduled for 3 p.m., Aug. 18, 2021.