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Michael Washburn: Conversation with Community

By Remy Sisk • Photos by Matt Johnson 


“The way that I approached everything in my life was really about creating the conditions that foster individual and community flourishing,” says Michael Washburn, a Louisville native and writer with a multifaceted cultural and academic background, currently serving as the executive director of Kentucky Waterways Alliance (KWA). 

Washburn grew up in the Highlands of Louisville but spent a great deal of time in New York with his wife. There, he worked as director of programs for Humanities New York, “an organization that dealt with using literature and film as sort of lenses through which to view a series of social tensions,” Washburn relates. “It was a civic engagement organization – I used to say that my job was about getting people in rooms together who were never in rooms together to talk about things they didn’t normally talk about.” 

In 2015, Washburn and his wife had their son, and the couple soon realized that “living on a nonprofit salary in New York with a kid was crazy, so we moved back where we had a support system in Louisville,” Washburn shares. 

Although they relocated to Louisville, they both kept their New York jobs, leading to always one of them being in the city while the other stayed in Louisville solo parenting. “And then the pandemic stopped travel,” Washburn recounts. “And across the board, the pandemic provoked a lot of reflection in people. Once that thawed and it was time to start traveling again, we both realized that we really wanted to be working in the community we lived in and I also wanted to be working in a different sector, something that was a little bit more directly engaged in the world.” 

And so Washburn arrived at KWA in December 2022 as its executive director. The organization has been around for 31 years; it’s an environmental nonprofit that is dedicated to protecting, restoring and celebrating the waterways of Kentucky. “We do that through a variety of things,” Washburn describes, “everything from a grants program to septic work in Eastern Kentucky to advocacy, lobbying and sometimes some litigation. So widely speaking, we just seek to preserve the water resources of the state. My job is to set the organizational direction and help facilitate resources so my staff can be out there and doing the real work.” 

This very active and hands-on style of KWA’s operation and Washburn’s continued leadership of it was partially motivated by his work at Humanities New York. While that organization was finding innovative ways to make real community impact, Washburn was hungry for something more immediate, more direct, more concretely connected to the community. “I felt like that was what was right for the next phase of KWA,” he says, “not to move away from the scientific and the hardcore technical work that we’ve been doing but to expand also into an organization that really foregrounded individuals and communities and not necessarily aquatic wildlife.” 

Simultaneous to his work at KWA and in New York, Washburn has enjoyed a career as a writer. Washburn has written a great deal about books, politics, and travel for such outlets as The Boston Globe, The New York Times, The Washington Post and more. 

In 2019, he published an entry in Bloomsbury’s “33 1/3” collection, a music-focused series that dives deep into a single album at a time. Washburn’s contribution covers Tom Petty’s 1985 album “Southern Accents” and is an in-depth look not only at the album but its context and the state of the American South. 

As Washburn continues to move forward, both with KWA and his writing, he remains grateful to be able to do it all right here in Louisville, a city where he can not only foster environmental and community engagement, awareness and empowerment, but also build a life with his family. “There’s often a debate over whether Louisville is Midwestern or Southern,’” he says. “And the way that I tend to think about it is that Louisville at its best exemplifies some great things that get attributed to Southern graciousness, such as friendliness, community and a frequently forgiving pace of life. Which isn’t to say that Louisville doesn’t also fall victim to many of the most vicious characteristics of the American South.”


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