In Louisville, real estate moguls, corporate executives, and career politicians often dominate the discussion of city issues. This is part of a recurring series of interviews with young leaders and activists whose fresh perspectives deserve to be part of the conversation.
Jaison Gardner may not seem entirely “under the radar” if you follow Louisville alternative media. He is co-host of the weekly WFPL radio show “Strange Fruit” and an opinion columnist for LEO Weekly. But he’s not yet a household name, and he doesn’t have the kind of corner office job that might land him on the usual lists of local leaders.
Nevertheless, Gardner, 34, is a busy man. In years past, his work included membership in the Kentucky Alliance youth program, serving on the board of Women in Transition, and opposing the infamous Louisville youth curfew of the late 1990s. Today, in addition to his radio show and his newspaper column, he serves on the boards of both the Fairness Campaign and the Louisville AIDS Walk.
He found some time to sit down with me to discuss his various pursuits and his perspective on Louisville’s media scene.
Gardner’s radio show, which he co-hosts with University of Louisville professor Kaila Story and which originally began as a podcast in September 2012, began airing on NPR affiliate WFPL this August. Laura Ellis produces the weekly broadcast, which airs at 10 p.m. on Saturday nights.
The name, “Strange Fruit,” is both a nod to the notion of gay people being “fruity” and also a reference to the haunting Billie Holliday song about the horrors of lynching in the South:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
The name reflects “the intersection of our blackness and gayness,” said Gardner. In each episode, he and Story interview authors, artists, actors, and other notable individuals who work in fields where race, gender, or sexual orientation are relevant issues.
Fascinating to me was their recent discussion with author Chris Tomlinson, whose book, “Tomlinson Hill,” explores the legacy of his last name from the perspective of two families – one white, one black – whose origins trace back to the same Southern plantation his ancestors once owned. Tomlinson’s book and his “Strange Fruit” interview cover not only his genealogical research and writing process, but also his acknowledgment of the privilege he enjoys as a white man in America because of past injustice.
LEO and the Yarmuth Takeover
In January of this year, then-LEO editor Sara Havens offered Gardner a spot among the alt-weekly’s regular opinion writers. He enthusiastically accepted, and his cantankerous-yet-constructive column, “In Visible Ink,” was born.
His first piece, “Finding Superman,” lamented the invisibility of fellow gay black people, whose lack of open presence made his own childhood more difficult. But his eventual discovery of the existence and contributions of other gay African-Americans was transformative. “Over the years,” he wrote, “I learned that visibility broadens the discussion of social issues and creates its own language of power.” Of all his columns published by LEO, Gardner still believes the first was his best.
Throughout the first half of 2014, Gardner wrote regularly and enjoyed a strong working relationship with Havens, but the environment at LEO suddenly changed. On Aug. 1, Havens was unceremoniously terminated on her 15-year anniversary with the alt-weekly as part of the transition to new ownership under Aaron Yarmuth (son of LEO founder and Congressman John Yarmuth).
Havens’ removal (along with the termination of staff writer April Corbin and the subsequent voluntary departures of editors Joe Sonka and Peter Berkowitz), followed by a clumsy explanation from Yarmuth, caused an intense local controversy.
In response, Gardner penned a column called “Simmer Down Angry Mob,” which criticized how Yarmuth handled Havens’ and Corbin’s terminations. During our conversation, Gardner called Havens’ dismissal “cruel.” However, in his column he also justified it as a symptom of “the ebbs and flows of the business world and the fragility of jobs in journalism.”
Gardner said that despite his initial criticism of LEO’s new ownership, he has since met with Aaron Yarmuth, who Gardner believes is “a cool dude with all the best intentions.”
Insider Louisville and Emerging Leaders
LEO isn’t the only alternative media outlet Gardner has taken to task in his column. He also has criticized Insider Louisville.
On July 21, IL published its “Insider Watch List,” pitched as “The 30 (or so) emerging leaders you should know for 2014.” On Aug. 18, Gardner posed a question to the IL Twitter account: “There weren’t pics w/every name, so how many of your 30 emerging Louisville leaders listed in July are people of color?” After receiving no conclusive response, he posted again on Aug. 24, assuming that silence meant the answer was zero.
On Aug. 27, Gardner published a column called “Dissed, Dismissed, and Dumbstruck,” in which he denounced Insider Louisville for its list and for what he perceived as hypocrisy.
“I find it ironic and laughable that Insider Louisville cared enough about black people to call LEO out for whitewashing the cover, but still refuses to respond to my inquires about its own seemingly lily-white front page story,” Gardner wrote.
On Aug. 28, IL editor Sarah Kelley confirmed what Gardner had suspected: only white people were included on the list of emerging leaders. Kelley, for her part, acknowledged a lack of careful vetting.
The IL list of leaders had other shortcomings, according to Gardner. Of the thirty (or so) people included, more than half were involved in the real estate market. Six were restaurant or distillery owners. Not one member of the list worked in education, or religion, or health care, or philanthropy, or any other field in which you might also expect to find community leadership.
Since he was so critical of IL’s list, I asked Gardner to suggest some alternative choices. Specifically, he recommended Kristen Marie Williams of the urban agriculture organization Louisville Grows, employment activist Bonifacio Aleman of Kentucky Jobs with Justice, Mikal Forbush of the Muhammad Ali Institute for Peace and Justice at the University of Louisville, Eric Kleppe-Montenegro of the Kentucky Dream Coalition, and recent District 9 Metro Council candidate Jonathan Musselwhite. In the business world, he suggested Daniel Cole, Hard Candy party promoter who frequently hosts popular events at Play Dance Bar. Or, Gardner noted, IL could open its selection process to the public. “It’s not hard to say to your readers, ‘hey, nominate somebody,’” Gardner said.
During our conversation, Gardner insisted he wasn’t trying to stoke a war with Insider Louisville or let LEO off the hook. He believes in the role and power of alternative media. “We owe it to ourselves as people who do alt-media to look at media in different ways and be more critical thinkers,” he said.
That dedication to diverse perspectives and critical thinking is what drives Gardner in all his endeavors. Inspired by the late, groundbreaking Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, Gardner vowed to remain “unbought and unbossed” whether he’s on the radio, writing for LEO, or serving on the board of important local organizations. And most importantly, he said he wants to keep “having the time of my life.”