Emma and I had the honor to meet with Dr. Campbell, an inspiring humanitarian born in Colorado Springs, Colorado, but a native of Adairville, KY. Dr. Renee Campbell earned an undergraduate degree from Kentucky State University, a Master’s Degree from the University of Louisville, along with a Doctorate degree in Education from Spalding University. Campbell is the President/CEO of Wesley House Community Services, President of the Board of the Phoenix Global Humanitarian Foundation, and board member of both the Mary Byron Project and the Metropolitan Housing Coalition. Dr. Campbell is also the proud recipient of the “Center for Women and Families – 2013 Women of Distinction Award.” Outside of her job at Wesley House, she is Adjunct Faculty at the University of Louisville, works for social justice in Ghana, West Africa, and is a founding member of the Louisville Clothesline Project, a program that helps give women a voice about abuse they have experienced. She is an advocate for those who are affected by discrimination and violence and is committed to education and services that promote healthy families and justice for all.
Dr. Renee Campbell invited us into her Kentucky home, a sweet and humble brick house etched with culture and memory. Campbell greeted us with a warm, firm handshake and asked us to call her “Ms. Renee” during our visit. Ms. Renee’s house, where she raised her three children, mirrored her life; beautiful African paintings and decor at every corner, picture frames of her family and all her journeying, moments she is proud of, clearly represented for everyone to see. We headed straight for the couch, sat down and simply asked Ms. Renee to tell us her story–from the beginning. I began to jot down key parts in my journal, and realized it’d be smarter to record our conversation in total on my phone. “Begin,” I pressed the big red button, and on Ms. Renee went.
“We lived in Adairville for a while, but because it was during the 50’s and 60’s and the way that racial things were during that time; segregation…and all of that…mama and daddy went to Western Kentucky University. She went for Secretarial Science and daddy went for Shoe Repair, so they weren’t able to find a job in their field because of that [racial segregation]. Mama ended up working at the hosiery mill, and daddy took any type of job that he could get… in construction, you know. He did some shoe repair but whatever type of job that he could get, is what he did. We lived in a two-room house. It was right across the street from the Adairville Training school because Adairville Training School was the school that black people went to. So, when I went to school everyday, all I had to do was go across the street. I was there until I was in the 6th grade, and that’s when integration happened. The school, Adairville, was a mixed school then. I have to say, my family wasn’t really a family that dwelled on things about race necessarily, but we knew that there were certain places we couldn’t go… like *pause* riding the bus. My mother and I, we sat at the back of the bus. And the bus station, the Greyhound station, had the ‘White’ water fountain and the ‘Color’ water fountain. My mother let me know when I was thirsty, that I couldn’t go over there [to the white fountain] I couldn’t drink out of it.
I didn’t think much of it as a child–it was like, ok…that’s just the way things are.”
Imagine being static with the reality of racism, having grown up in its belly that it’s a normalcy, it’s like brushing your teeth, or eating supper, it was all around, everyday, everywhere, just existing like breath in your lungs. Ms. Renee’s words cut me, “…that’s just the way things are.” As a person of color, having parents that immigrated from Mexico at a young age, with their families, to better their lives, I understand to an extent of what it feels like to be the minority. I hear the racial slurs, the stereotypes, and the stigmas attached–loud and clear. It hurts. I am angry. I want to so badly prove them wrong. But my hurt is different from Ms. Renee’s hurt. Harriet Tubman’s hurt. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s hurt. Their hurt stems from a century of slavery. A century of having to sit on the back of a bus because they didn’t have white skin. A century of having to attend a whole different school just for people of their skin color. A century of getting beaten and ridiculed by policeman because they expressed their pain. A century of fighting for basic, human civil rights. We read about it in our school history books. We watched the videos. Our teachers taught us about racial segregation, suffrage, and we thought it was behind us, we thought it was just history. We’d let out a small sigh if we had any compassion in our heart and then…moved on. Because the fight was over. Racism was no more.
And then you read, “KKK leader threatens to burn black Latina journalist and calls her a ‘n—–‘ during interview” in 2017 headlines.
I’m sorry, what?!
How is this even an issue TODAY? How is racism even allowed? Tolerated? But especially, how is it not addressed by our own president? I can go into my own spiel about how I feel about our government, but this is about Dr. Renee Campbell’s journey. And I have to say, it is one that is a sliver of hope in this damaged world.
Dr. Renee in her Sub-Chief dress for “100 Fascinating Louisville Women.
Ms. Renee’s pain and struggle of being the outsider, seeing both her parents settle for entry level jobs because they couldn’t use their degrees, being a victim of molestation, and being told that she’d never make it as an African-American woman all followed her throughout her teen years. “I was very, very shy. I had a distorted perception of myself because during the 50’s and 60’s, it wasn’t popular to be black and proud. I was thinking, ‘black is being ugly’. So, I always felt that way and I had very low self-esteem.” But her mother and father were always for higher learning, and they pushed Ms. Renee and her siblings to pursue an education. Ms. Renee graduated with her bachelors, masters, and later doctorates degree. It wasn’t all an uphill battle, as she found herself continuing to struggle with insecurity of self image and perception, but having teachers and leaders around that actively influenced her to rise above, to use her voice, and her story as a platform rather than something that could paralyze her. She went on achieving and accomplishing more than 3rd grader Renee Campbell could ever imagine.
Dr. Renee Campbell travels in and out of Ghana, Africa where she is a sub-chief in Tolon Village, known for her social work and fight for justice. She advocates for women of all color and race who are in and out of abusive relationships. She works closely with the latino population in the greater Louisville area helping families. She is a president, a CEO, a board member, and a renowned humanitarian. Dr. Renee Campbell has faced just about every cultural and social prejudice, but has lived ferociously and intentionally in spite all of it. She has a heart for people’s stories. She uses her struggles to help other’s struggles. She walks with the fearful, the despaired, and the broken where she uses her background to resonate and inspire. In a world where one leader can evoke so much hate, so much discrimination, so much sadness, Dr. Renee is helping dismantle the very enigma of cultural and societal racism, sexism, and classism.
Emma asked Ms. Renee a few questions in conclusion to our interview, below is the conversation –
Emma: As a white American, I don’t really know how to move forward.. like having an appropriate response…you know, to be helpful, and be aggressive towards change, as opposed to regressing back. My question is, if you could give any constructive advice, maybe advice is not the right word. But any thoughts on how we [white americans] can positively move forward?
Dr. Campbell: Arm yourself with information. It’s very important that you know your history and exactly what happened. It needs to come from very competent sources; I would read ‘Chains and Images of Psychological Slavery’ by NE’IM AKBAR because that will tell you about how the slaves were systematically brainwashed…to be slaves. It will help you understand that this stuff is passed on from generation to generation. Many times, black people are nervous and always on guard because it’s in their DNA. We’re just waiting for something bad to happen; our brains were trained this way. There’s muscle memory, we can’t help it. Groups of people just need to arm themselves with what happened post slavery, and if you’re responding to someone that is white, who is making comments because they don’t understand… What I urge you and my students to do is just armyourself with information. Because when you do that, you can have an intellectual conversation of the topic. You have to stray from saying, “Black people should get over it. It’s black people’s fault, they’re always angry.” You can’t say that.
Emma: ..or comments like, “I don’t see color.”
Dr. Campbell: Right. Right. That is a total insult. Because I’m Black.
Emma: It’s disregarding someone’s history.
Dr. Campbell: A lot of white people have guilt. When I was talking to my lead instructor [about current racial issues] she kept saying, “I feel so guilty, I feel so bad.“ And I said, I understand it, but the shame is not yours. It’s okay to feel the shame, the embarrassment, feel it. But you have to get past that, you have to get educated because it’s not about you.
I wish I could share the actual recording of our entire conversation because there are so many points and topics discussed that truly just open your mind and educate all the gray areas. But please embrace this summery with an open heart and acknowledge that even though we may have had a black president, even though we may have integrated cultures and races– we still have so much work to do. Dr. Renee Campbell talks about this very thing. I asked her about the juxtaposition from 1950 to 2017, and she said she still fears, she is still afraid for her children and grand babies lives. But Dr. Renee has done a beautiful, graceful job of picking up the pieces. And continues to do so.
In closing, Emma and I were incredibly humbled and blessed to have had the opportunity to share a room with Ms. Renee. She is an outstanding force of nature who completely and irrevocably transcends all stereotype and stigma. We encourage our readers to do the research, do the work, and if you happen to be someone who doesn’t know where you fit in all of this, just listen and show compassion–It’s the very least we can do.