In his 1963 commencement address at American University, the late President John F. Kennedy famously said, “If we cannot now end our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.”
Here in Somerset — thanks to the tumultuous summer of 2020 — local people are working on making this community at least, if not the world itself, safer for its own diversity to flourish.
Born out of conversations between three prominent local African-American women — the hospitality industry’s JaKaye Garth, Rikiyah Pryor of the Somerset-Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce, and the City of Somerset’s Kathy Perkins Townsend — the Lake Cumberland Diversity Council is making an impact by prompting conversations about the issues facing individuals of different demographics in the area — not just race, but diversity of many types.
“We were just talking one day; JaKaye was talking about doing mentorships for youth in Somerset, and we were talking about trying to make sure everybody was included in different events in Somerset,” said Townsend, Healthy Somerset Director for the city government. “A lot of times, I’m out (at community functions) and I don’t see a lot of people who look like me. We’re not seeing a lot of Latino people, or people of different cultures out. The main thing we’re trying to do is make Somerset more inclusive.”
In June of last year, the City of Somerset partnered with Garth as a community organizer to host a Juneteenth event — one termed a “charette,” a term used to describe an opportunity to discuss problems and their possible solutions. Juneteenth, of course, is the occasion celebrating the end of slavery in the United States. The period leading up to Somerset’s event had been one of unrest however; with headline-making deaths like those of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police officers and protests that followed in the streets with tragic ramifications, there was a lot to talk about at the charette.
Somerset’s event was a peaceful one, and a productive one as well — not the least because it helped give birth to the Lake Cumberland Diversity Council.
“One of promises we made to the community was to continue the conversation about diversity and highlight that in community,” said Garth, Regional Sales Director with Thoroughbred Hospitality Group and the council’s founding president. “The diversity council emerged from (that). It was something we wanted to do to make sure we’re having conversations about diversity in community and also to have a safe space for people who experience discrimination, racial profiling or anything like that in the workplace or community to be able to come to and express that as well.”
The impact of the Juneteenth gathering was the “light bulb moment” for Pryor, Administrative Assistant and Finance Director for the Somerset-Pulaski County Chamber of Commerce, watching a large crowd come to the downtown square despite pouring weather.
“Bowing their heads in a moment of silence. Hearing the rain crash around us. There was such beauty in that moment of calm chaos,” said Pryor. “That’s when I knew that this is something a lot of people not only wanted but needed.”
So together the three women launched the Diversity Council last year, starting at first with a private Facebook group that quickly attracted a lot of interest. They’re now finalizing their application to become a non-profit organization and have formed a board that will soon start meeting regularly, with seats that rotate every two years. Garth noted that community members have already taken part, volunteering with the council’s projects; she added that they’d like to get even more people involved, with as wide a demographic swath on the council as possible — male and female, older and younger, different racial and ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations.
Visit the Lake Cumberland Diversity Council’s Facebook page (@lakecumberlanddiversitycouncil) and you’ll be able to read their mission statement: “to embrace diversity and encourage unity in the Lake Cumberland region by educating and creating inclusive community programs that encourage diverse representation and involvement in business, education and leadership positions.”
The council has been able to make good use of their social media presence, with the Facebook page serving as a platform for informational videos and presentations. Garth observed the transformative effect the council had on Somerset’s annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day functions. With some regular events like the Sunday community celebration and Monday Unity Breakfast impacted by COVID-19 concerns, the council stepped in and filled the gap — first, with a gathering after the Monday March at the downtown Farmers Market facility, then a virtual panel discussion for National Day of Racial Healing the next day, and recorded virtual storytelling the rest of the week.
In February, which is Black History Month, the council highlighted local Black artists on the Facebook page and held a winter clothes drive, with items given to the Over My Head homeless shelter. In March, or Women’s History Month, the council focused on women in the community and did a feminine hygiene product drive for Bethany House and the SKYHope Recovery Program. In May, the council is celebrating Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and is trying to put together a panel of local members of that community to talk about their experiences here as well as national issues. Different business owners who represent the community’s diversity are highlighted on social media, to help, as Townsend said, “lift people up” and “empower” local individuals.
“(The council) has definitely opened the doors to some conversations (regarding) different things that have happened. People have been able to express experiences that they’d had,” said Garth. “We’ve been able to highlight different diverse communities within our community.”
She added that the group is putting together an event calendar, planning another Juneteenth festival, and looking at working with the local Rotary Club’s International Dinner to highlight some of the cultures who participate in it; Garth noted that the annual banquet is one of “the only times we get to see the different diverse communities in Somerset, so we want to encourage more of those communities to come out and be involved by having more multicultural events.”
Pryor noted that every diversity or unity group that exists is different, and while they might work toward common goals, knowing how your group is catering to your area’s specific needs and not generalizing is a vitally important part of being successful in one’s mission.
“One of the best parts of being a part of this group is that it is a safe space to ask questions and get those answers!” said Pryor. “We are not an all knowing group by any means, but we do have a lot of well-educated people who are plugged into the community in many different areas. We have the want and the resources to educate one another on our experiences and are non-judgmental enough to have open conversations. Not just about what needs to be changed but to simply celebrate what our community is already doing right! I love that we are not a group that is always looking to bring up issues. We are a group that wants to celebrate our communities successes as well!
Having a diverse community can only be good for the health and wealth of the community, as Pryor well knows thanks to her position within the Chamber. Pryor noted that despite the effects of COVID-19 restrictions, the Chamber’s staff did not miss a single day of work and continued to provide aid and resources during uncertain times.
“These efforts were made regardless of what diversity background the businesses came from. That same type of dedication is shown to our new businesses and it is quite remarkable how positive the feedback has been,” she said. “Businesses and start-ups from all over the county are looking at Somerset. If you would like to see how diverse groups can work together to build each other up, look at our Chamber Membership. We have people and businesses of all kinds who come together at our monthly luncheons, training programs and events. Seeing that is a major highlight in our community for new businesses who would like to call Somerset home.”
Of course, the presence of the Diversity Council — like anything born out of hot-button topics — has drawn “mixed opinions” within the community, as Pryor put it. That’s not because people are against it necessarily, but rather, they’re curious to see how such a group differs from some of the more controversial elements seen in social media and on the news, she observed.
“My hope is that we can be a council that caters to the needs of our area while still being educated on what is happening in the nation and using that knowledge to bring understanding and change to our local area,” she said.
Indeed, Somerset is a community that’s been largely free of issues of racial unrest. Townsend praised Somerset Police Chief William Hunt as a “wonderful” law enforcement resource, someone they can go to with questions. Townsend’s father, noted former postmaster John L. Perkins, has often referred to Somerset as “Heaven on Earth,” she recalled; in her own words, people here live in a bit of a “bubble,” isolated from some of the issues that other communities face.
“I love Somerset,” she said. “At one point, I didn’t think I’d ever come back, but there’s no place I’d rather be.”
But that doesn’t mean it’s perfect, she said.
“It’s better than it has been in the past,” said Townsend. “We’ve got more people wanting to be involved, more people wanting to be out, more people trying to help other people. Before with past (local government) administrations, a lot of people didn’t have that voice. They were scared to voice their opinions and scared to talk about what’s going on out in world, afraid people would chastise them them. … But we do have racial issues here (even if) some of our racial issues are not as prominent as what’s going in Lexington or Louisville.”
Getting the support of the government she works for has been an extremely positive step, noted Townsend. For the Juneteenth event, she noted that they went to Mayor Alan Keck and asked him to help, as “we needed to do something.” She added that “I didn’t want to protest — demonstrations can fall on deaf ears — I wanted to bring the community together and focus on being together as a community, and also educate people and have these uncomfortable conversations.” Keck made it happen, with the City of Somerset backing the June charette.
Added Pryor, who is originally from the Chicago area, “Just like any growing community, there will be growing pains. These growing pains are necessary. They teach lessons and draw attention to areas of the community body that are in need of more attention. In comparison to other major cities, Somerset, in my opinion, has done well in keeping the peace between many demographics of people.
“The question then becomes, ‘Is it peaceful because it is right or is it peaceful because issues are not being voiced?’ I cannot speak for the native-born Somerset / Pulaski County residents, but from a transplant’s perspective, I have been accepted and treated well for the most part,” she added. “There have been moments that made me question that. It has not been all sunshine and rainbows. But as a council we are addressing these concerns and actively trying to work towards change.”