P.G. Peeples joined the Urban League of Lexington-Fayette County in 1969 as the organization’s director of education. He became its executive director in 1971.
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Now, as president and CEO, Peeples is leading a celebration of the Urban League's 50th year in Lexington.
Question: Fifty years, that's a long time and a lot has happened over those 50 years. You have noted that it actually all began in 1963 when the Rev. James W. Angel of Second Presbyterian Church wrote a letter to the National Urban League about the possibility of forming an affiliate here. Can you give us the highlights of his appeal?
Answer: Sure. There was a group of concerned citizens, business people, clergy who saw the need primarily based on the fact that the Urban League had been known across the country as a bridge builder, as an organization that thrives on getting jobs and getting economic development opportunities. It was high time that Lexington consider doing that.
The climate that created that need was a target population here in Lexington that at the time was experiencing high unemployment rates, substandard housing, and low graduation rates. Those were the things that were of concern to caring people like the reverend and others.
Q: Looking back to those times, 2018 must have seemed far off in the future. Yet here we are. It's 2018. Would you say that those goals of equity and equal access have been achieved or is there still a lot more work to do?
A: By no means achieved. Progress has been made. If I can use your terms, there is plenty of work to be done. That's why we have, across this nation, a network of more than 90 Urban Leagues and social service organizations like the NAACP and others who kept beating the drum and trying to bring about change that would be for the betterment of individuals, of organizations or groups and of the country.
Q: A number of years ago, you and I were talking and you remarked that sometimes it seems as though Main Street is like a Mason-Dixon line.
A: In Lexington, yes.
Q: That was because of the concentration of white affluence in the south part of the city as opposed to minority poverty and lack of access to opportunity on the Northside, housing issues and so forth. How far have we come from those days?
A: I think we were making some progress and are still making some progress in that direction. The Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council has convened a task force to look at the issue of gentrification on the Northside of the town. We've got a lot of development going on. But there is a concern about development that's created displacement.
In order to adjust that, the community has to come together, has to acknowledge the displacement that's taken place as a result of some of the development. Let me make crystal clear that I am not speaking against development, I am not speaking against progress. But I am concerned about low income people who may be displaced.
Q: The formation of this task force which is chaired by Councilman James Brown would seem to be an expression of that concern. I've heard it said around town that there is concern about becoming another Asheville, another Boulder — cities that have become unaffordable to their own populations.
A: I remember when the Chamber of Commerce took us to Boulder. We found out that there are professional black people who worked in Boulder but could not afford to live there. They had to live over in Denver. That was shocking for us to hear. It frightened me back then and it frightens me even more now. That's why I am so pleased that this task force was put in place and that we try to be proactive.
It's pretty obvious as you drive around the area of Limestone and Sixth and Seventh Street, you see realtor's signs now that five years ago would never have been seen on the north side of Main Street. Look at the property transfers. Some show pricing that is far beyond the reach of people who live in the area.
I'm concerned about the elderly on fixed incomes who have lived there all their adult lives with their families and could possibly be faced with changes in the tax base that would make it impossible for them to retain their properties. Those are the kinds of gentrification elements that create real problems in cities.
Q: There has been concern expressed about a high proportion of renters.
A: Renters who can afford new developments. We have been talking for several years about the need to focus more on affordable housing which is one of the strong suits of what we do at the Urban League. We started to address that issue about 35 years ago when we created the Fayette County Local Development Corporation. The primary purpose was to be able to contribute to the supply of affordable units.
Since that time, we have put in place about $26 million worth of affordable housing in various categories. About $11 million of that has been in home ownership, about $6 million has been with single-family affordable rental units and $8 million in multiple-family of affordable units. We've got to stay focused on doing that. Otherwise, we will have people who will have to live someplace else and come into the city to work. Not good.
Q: Do you think staying on the track that you just described is how Lexington avoids becoming another Asheville or Boulder?
A: That's one of the steps.
Q: What are some other things that come to mind?
A: Let's go back to what I just talked about in terms of the people being able to afford to pay their taxes on their properties. We've got to figure out a way to put a ceiling on the escalation of the taxes because a $300,000, $400,000 unit — and we have seen a lot of those coming up in those neighborhoods — could impact everybody's taxes.
That's the purpose of the task force: to study best practices across this country. Gentrification is not new. Some say they have addressed it and some have not. What we want to do is look at the ones who have addressed it, get the best practices and put those in place to make sure that we don't have those kinds of issues in Lexington.
Q: From your leadership perspective at the Urban League, how would you say Lexington is doing these days in the way of supporting economic equality and equal opportunity in the city?
A: We're making progress. The intentions are there and we're really trying. But my life experiences have been that you make a few steps forward in terms of progress and then something happens where it looks like the wagon rolls back down the hill a little bit. That's where organizations like ours have to be persistent and continue to keep the focus on the issues. Otherwise, things do go backwards.
Q: You were once the director of education for the Urban League. I know it means a lot to you. Can you tell us about the League's efforts to promote and support educational achievement?
A: We've always been active with Fayette County School's Equity Council. In fact, we chaired that for about the first eight years. A major emphasis of the Council is to close the achievement gap. That's one of the things that we have really focused on. I think that now as a community, we've got to be mindful of all of the new discussions about charter schools. I'm not here to debate the merits but I know there are good schools and there are bad charter schools. But I can't hide my true feelings about that. I'm not much of a charter school fan.
Q: What about them troubles you?
A: They have been known to drain the resources that should be set aside to make our public schools better. A second step has been to go to vouchers. Vouchers re-segregate school districts. Both of those things are enough to concern me.
Q: Have you seen evidence that the corporate community is recognizing the value of diversity and the diverse workforce?
A: I'd like to think so. I think the leadership that we have in our organizations here in Lexington has started to focus more on enhancement and business opportunities. Those are good first steps.
Q: Some might argue that this next topic is not appropriate for a conversation about business or economics. I wonder if it is. The recent removal of confederate statues from downtown Lexington. From your perspective, what sort of economic impact might that have?
A: It sends a message. It's the messaging that's important. Hypothetically, if I'm a business that's looking to potentially move into Lexington and I am concerned about diversity, I'm concerned about my minority employees. I think that that statue could create a problem.
Q: Is the Lexington of 2018 a better place to live, better place work, to go to school, to have a life than it was when you started with the Urban League in the late '60s?
A: Yes. Still plenty of work to be done. I am concerned that we have slid backwards with some of our racial issues under the new administration that's in Washington. Its sensitivity to bringing people together that I think we have seen over the last 10 or 15 years. And through those initiatives of those past years, I thought we grew as a country and we grew closer. Tom, I'm not so sure that that's happening right now.
Q: What are the big issues that need to be addressed?
A: Adequate education for everybody. And affordable housing. We should be using our resources to remove impediments so that everybody who has the desire can become a home owner. As time goes on, some things are constant and those two are definitely constant.
Tom Martin's Q and A appears every two weeks in the Herald-Leader's Business Monday section. This is an edited version of the interview To listen to the interview, find the podcast on Kentucky.com. The interview also will air on WEKU-FM 88.9FM on Mondays at 7:35 a.m. during Morning Edition and at 5:45 p.m. during All Things Considered.