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Mindful : October 2016
thoughtful, unassuming executive with curly salt-and-pepper hair and a calm, intently focused presence who’s passionate about pushing toward noble goals. According to his wife, Alex, an accomplished pediatrician, even when he’s off- duty, Greg encourages their four kids to write down their aspirations every year and check with each other reg ularly on their progress. The first two goals Fischer had in mind were no-brainers: 1) making Louisville a center for lifelong learning and 2) dramatically improving the city’s physical, mental, and environmental health. For the third goal, he was searching for a way to connect with Louisville’s long tradition of caring and hospitality, but neither of those words seemed to fit. Then Christy Brown, one of his longtime supporters, suggested using the word “compassion” and suddenly everything fell into place. That concept resonated with Fischer because, as he sees it, compassion “isn’t just about having a sense of empathy. It’s about hav- ing respect for all citizens so that their human potential can flourish and thrive.” Fischer’s political advisors warned him it would make him appear weak, but that didn’t deter him. He was convinced that Louisville, with its long history of interfaith collaboration and proud reputation as a progressive city in a conservative state, would be fertile ground for this kind of thinking. He also believed that, if it were fostered properly, compassion could play a key role in strengthening what he called the city’s “social muscles.” Still, when Fischer delivered his address on a cold January day, even some of his closest allies were bewildered. “I turned to my wife and said, ‘I can’t believe he’s doing this,’ and it wasn’t a compliment,” recalls Dr. Jon Klein, a kidney spe- cialist and longtime friend. “I’d been meditating for years and was in touch with all this stuff, but the political side of me thought he was squan- dering a big opportunity. But I totally missed the boat. When I finally got over my embarrassment, I realized this wasn’t some kind of political flag-waving. It was a transformative act.” Few would disagree. Since taking office, Fischer has done a lot to transform this city that’s often described as “too southern to be part of the North and too northern to part of the South.” He’s helped reduce unemployment, attracting more than 1,900 new businesses, and turning the area into a foodie tourist destina- tion based on what he calls “Bourbonism.” He’s also won kudos for using advanced technology to solve difficult problems. But it’s Fischer’s emphasis on compassion that’s changed the city’s culture and made it a model of innova- tion worldwide. As Dr. Klein describes it, “ You can go into a business setting now and talk about compassion and mindfulness. If I’d done that five years ago, people would have giggled. There’s permission here to discuss things that aren’t typically brought up in mid-sized cities in this part of the country. If that’s drinking the Kool-Aid, so be it.” Fischer’s roots in compassion run deep. His father, George, grew up poor in Louis- ville’s West End and rose to become CEO of a data-processing company and Kentucky’s Secretary of the Cabinet. Once, when they were walking downtown, Fischer noticed his dad stop and chat with a shoeshine guy named Sam, who everybody else seemed to be ignoring. “ I didn’t think anything of it at the time,” says Fischer, “but looking back it had a big impact on me. Without telling me, he was saying, ‘Don’t be too impressed with anyone. We’re all the same.’” His mother, Mary Lee, also inspired Fischer. Even though she was a busy housewife, she made time every Thursday to volunteer for Meals on Wheels and often talked about her experiences with her kid. Her unspoken mes- sage: If you can help somebody, do. Don’t ask for anything in return. Just do it. “ When you grow up around that,” says Fischer, “it becomes who you are.” After graduating from Vanderbilt, Fischer saved enough money working at a salmon pack- ing plant in Alaska to spend nine months trav- eling through Asia and Europe. Shortly after he arrived in Hong Kong, he had an epiphany of his own at a busy noodle shop. “It was hot and humid, and the steam was rising up from → Compassion isn’t just about feeling empathy for others, feeling their pain, Fischer says. It’s about “having respect for all citizens, so their human potential can flourish and thrive.” On facing page: Louisville community members give their time to a number of projects to help citizens in need. Pictured here are volunteers for the Build-a-Bed initiative, which supplies a bed, bedding, a teddy bear, a bedtime book, pajamas, and dental care essentials to children in need. October 2016 mindful 65 society