Louisville poet Hannah Drake will never forget her first trip to Dakar, Senegal. Besides the life-changing experiences and people she met, she noticed the billboards all around town. It was the first time she saw black people in advertisements doing everyday things.
“It was the first time I had felt there was a place in this world where I belonged,” says Drake. “I will never forget my friend and fellow artist Kiara Watts said, ‘The world is so much better when you can see yourself in it.’ I finally saw myself in the world.”
Drake took photos of many of the billboards and felt energized by the concept. But that’s also when she began to notice the negative advertisements and signs strewn throughout the Smoketown neighborhood — signs encouraging people to sell their homes for cash, wanting people to sell their diabetes test strips, billboards for lawyers, drug-sniffing dogs, fast food, etc.
Drake looked around and wondered what would happen if the messages on the billboards were transformed into positive ones. So she partnered with IDEAS xLab and Creative Agents of Change Foundation and found organizational allies who not only backed the idea but helped bring it to fruition.
“One Poem at a Time” is an initiative created with Project HEAL (Health. Equity. Art. Learning.), and it will replace negative and predatory advertising and billboards in Smoketown with positive photos and poetry depicting the neighborhood.
A launch party will be held Saturday, April 1, and will include guided tours, monologues and conversations between residents and city officials.
All in all, 12 billboards were either purchased with grant money or donated to the cause. Before Drake and the organizers began, they conducted surveys and conversations with residents about the idea and received supportive feedback.
“It was something that immediately resonated with the community, because it was their images and their words in their community,” Drake tells Insider. “They were visible and they had a voice, and visibility and voice often equals validation — everyone wants to be validated.”
She believes the positive images will positively impact the neighborhood.
“The images we see daily in our neighborhoods impact our thinking, which inevitably impacts our actions,” she says. “Since placing the billboards in Smoketown, the response has been overwhelming.”
Theo Edmonds, CEO and co-founder of IDEAS xLab, tells Insider the initiative further proves that artists can become catalysts that spark collective action.
“(It was) designed to further engage Smoketown residents in a conversation around policy changes that could be put in place to remove the social toxins created by the negative messages and billboards in their community,” he says. “This starts by changing what people believe is possible and reframing how they view their collective power.”
Edmonds says they received no pushback on the initiative, but instead were asked “What’s next?” Ten of the billboards were purchased by Health Impact Project grant funds and a contribution by New Directions Housing Corporation, and the other two were donated by Outfront Media and Maloney Outdoor Advertising.
The “One Poem at a Time” billboards will be on display through the month of April, which coincides with National Poetry Month.
“We hope Smoketown residents can envision a neighborhood where people who look like them are on billboards about hope and triumph, not just billboards related to debt collection, fast food and car accidents,” says Edmonds.
State Representative Attica Scott (D-41) says in a press release that the initiative is a good example of positive change beginning at an organic level.
“If we are to heal our communities across Kentucky — from rural to urban — we must focus on health, equity and justice at the grassroots,” says Scott. “I know blight exists across our state, and Smoketown, just like every other neighborhood, is worthy of policies that respect neighborhood beautification and economic development.”
The “One Poem at a Time” launch party runs from 10 a.m.-3:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 1, near the Smoketown Unity Monument at Hancock and Lampton streets. It is free and open to all.
Below is a community-sourced poem that includes many of the phrases used on the billboards. It’s titled “Smoketown — One Poem at a Time.”
Muhammad Ali once said, “If your dreams don’t scare you, they aren’t big enough.”
In Smoketown, we stand on the shoulders of dreamers like Ali.
Where we are building generations of greatness and rebuilding but never forgetting our history.
Lifelong friendships begin in Smoketown. We are not just neighbors, we are family.
We have faced disappointments and challenges,
Some in our community have fallen too soon.
However, we know that healing a community is a process and that healing begins one step at a time.
It won’t happen overnight and many great things don’t
But anything is possible with hope.
We are committed to doing the work
In Smoketown, we have never been worried about getting our hands dirty and rolling up our sleeves to get the job done.
We come from freed slaves that built a community among smokestacks and shotgun houses—we know that we thrive when we work together.
We are setting the foundation for the generation that will come after us because investing in our youth today yields promise for our future tomorrow.
We are planting seeds of promise among the smokestacks and concrete cracks because we know even a rose will fight to grow through the concrete.
Here we fight for excellence.
We won’t settle for anything less than greatness because we are worthy. Worthy of everything.
We deserve the right to live, to breathe, to simply be!
We deserve the chance for our souls to dance and for us to move to the rhythm of resilience. When you hear the drumbeats know that majestic magnificent music is for everyone in Smoketown.
Together we are better. Together we stand and together we will rise.
After 150 years we are still here.
We rise from the smoke and ashes like the phoenix.
This is Smoketown
This is Smoketown Remembering, Reclaiming, Rising …
One Poem At A Time.