Uplifting Black Louisville with business mentoring, fresh produce and domestic needs
By Sarah Levitch
Photos by Andrea Hutchinson
It all started when the Kroger in the West End closed. Fueled by a passion to help and a bit of rage, Demi Gardner, a West End native, and Katie Lee Jones joined forces to begin collecting dry goods and donations to provide food to the neighborhoods in need of resources. Without setting intentions to, their grassroots efforts evolved in June from Gardner and her boyfriend hauling food from Sam’s Club and distributing directly to approximately 100 volunteers. The volunteers met every Monday to pick up fresh produce bought with donations from Rainbow Blossom, to organize the produce into bundles at the Please & Thank You in Portland and then distribute the bundles at various locations in the West End.
After I volunteered one Monday and expressed interest in writing an article, Jones buoyantly expressed to me that there was much more to the Grow West movement than providing fresh produce. Gardner and Jones have also been collecting clothes. Partnering with the Laundry Basket to launder the clothes before distribution, Jones spoke of their plans. “We’ll do a back to school event with the YMCA. After that, we’ll take monthly donations and have events around wardrobe sharing instead of drop-offs.”
Lastly, Jones described her relationship with five local Black-owned businesses. Working for 18 years as a multi-faceted stylist, producer and artist, Jones is “helping build structural integrity, gathering the moving pieces and helping them make a plan for the future.” Whether mentoring professionally or personally, Jones insisted I speak to the following five business owners as their missions and efforts were just as important, if not more, than her own.
Demi Gardner is a recent graduate of Western Kentucky University. Growing up in the West End, Gardner developed a love for her neighborhood, as well as documentaries and films. After making short documentaries on the West End when in high school, Gardner pursued a degree in film. She graduated in May and established her production company Shinobi Pictures, a homage to her granny, in June. “It’s always been my dream, and I thought I would do it when I’m 40. One of my film professors said just do it, which sounds like a Nike commercial, and it’s the silliest thing but it’s true,” Gardner said. With a mission “to uplift and cultivate a creative voice to those who have been silenced,” and a go-getter attitude, Shinobi Pictures is headed towards a bright, expansive future.
DeAnna Coles is a one woman show behind Melodic Elements, a natural beauty and body products line “to help everyone embrace their natural life flow.” Coles remarked that the business “fell into her lap” six years ago after creating her own natural deodorant and sharing a Facebook post about it. With enough success to keep going and a great passion for making natural products, Melodic Elements evolved from deodorant to sugar scrubs, soaps, body butters, body and hair oils and a men’s beard grooming line. Coles desires to expand even further by first getting her products “shelf-ready” to put in local salons and boutiques. After solidifying a presence in Louisville, Coles will relocate and possibly procure a space for storage and manufacturing. An advocate for networking and open-mindedness, Coles hopes her business can help educate other small businesses.
Soul, as she prefers to be called, or formally, Kisha Lea, is a Milwaukee native, who entered the Louisville scene with her one-of-a-kind, funky and colorful designs and a passion for clothes and energies that lead her to create SoulDoll. Despite 20 years of experience, Soul said that in moving to Louisville, “I felt more courageous. I took risks that I wasn’t taking before, and that was due to peace.” Soul draws inspiration from her overall outlook on life and her philosophy is simply, “more is more.” Operating out of her apartment, her designs are mainly online, with occasional pop-up shops and fashion shows. Possessing a “go with the flow” attitude, Soul has visions of her business’ future but doesn’t hold onto them too tightly. “I’m an Aquarius, so I don’t know if there is such a thing as expansion. It’s ever-changing. When my bills are paid, I’m perfectly fine, but the creativity doesn’t stop.”
Stephen West earned his undergraduate degree in philosophy and graduate degree from Tennessee State University. After moving to Louisville several years ago, West noticed gaps in the city’s agriculture. This inspired him to start Ag in the City in 2018 as a Facebook page to keep his gardening and agricultural photos, as well as a farmer’s market at French Plaza in June of 2019. West also maintains a five-acre community garden and a greenhouse with a hydroponic system. His vision is to “unite people and inspire healthy communities by encouraging, supporting and developing programs to increase the availability of healthy produce and food throughout Louisville and beyond.” West’s most recent efforts are boxes with 15 to 18 items of fresh produce worth $40 for $25, and optional products from his vendors at the farmer’s market. Moving towards the future, Ag in the City strives to “cultivate a philosophy of togetherness, cooperative economics and economic empowerment.”
Al Shumake, who has always had an immense passion for music, “from my parents playing classical music for me while in utero, to me beating on the desks to entertain my friends in elementary school.” After discovering his love for turntables, Shumake started DJ Always and, “dedicated much of my musical attention to the art of weaving songs together to unlock the healing power of music. As a DJ, I have discovered that I am both an artist and a scientist. Similar to a chemist, it is my job to create interactions and combine forces that allow people to come together to share their common experience.” As a member of the DJ collective For The People, creator of hand-sewn apparel for his brand Love Always and Executive Director of The River City Drum Corp Cultural Arts Institute, Inc., Shumake moves into the future with his musical career “to create an environment of inclusivity and unity.”
Moving forward, the produce portion of the Grow West movement started by Demi Gardner and Katie Lee Jones will partner with Stephen West of Ag in the City. Gardner and Jones are confident that passing the leadership to West, an expert in all things agriculture, will be the most efficient and effective way to follow through with their original mission to not only provide food but also to inspire and grow Black businesses and leadership.