A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Commentary: New generation set to lead Kentucky as torch is passed and challenges remain


By Ashli Watts and OJ Oleka
Special to KyForward

In 1960, as the American people entered a new year and, notably, a new decade, the electorate chose a new face to serve as its president. As the youngest president ever elected, John F. Kennedy’s historic victory signaled that a new generation of leadership was ready to serve. He would say so himself in his inaugural address: “Let the word go forth … the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.”

In 2020, as Kentuckians enter into a new year and, notably, a new decade, you can see many new faces ready to serve the Commonwealth. With the election of Governor Andy Beshear, 42, and Lieutenant Governor Jacqueline Coleman, 37, the average age of Kentucky’s seven statewide constitutional officers is 40.

Ashli Watts

The torch has been passed to a new generation of Kentuckians.

That generational leadership torch has also been passed in the private sector and is burning just as brightly.  Much like what we see with our statewide elected officials, the two of us are in similar positions, leading under the millennial label and as historic firsts of our organizations.  As the first woman and youngest Kentucky Chamber of Commerce President and the first African-American and youngest President of the Association of Independent Kentucky Colleges and Universities (AIKCU), we were both selected to lead statewide associations following the seasoned tenures of our predecessors.

Our organizations represent business and private, non-profit higher education, respectively. Representing more than 68,000 businesses and 52,000 students, we work across the aisle to advocate for policies that encourage accessibility to a quality education, the development of a highly-skilled workforce, and the creation of a competitive business climate that attracts and retains talent.  We were selected to deal with the mounting challenges that Kentucky faces, and we are eager to tackle some of Kentucky’s toughest problems. For us, these challenges are personal.

We both grew up in the Bluegrass, we were educated in Kentucky schools, and we married and chose to raise our families here. We love Kentucky. We believe the private sector can help foster a diverse environment where every young person and family can have greater opportunities than the generations that preceded us. But Kentucky continues to face troubling challenges that hinder our vision from becoming a reality.

OJ Oleka

Kentucky has systemic poverty, an unhealthy population, and low levels of educational attainment.  Over the last ten years, public spending for higher education has fallen due to the competing and rising costs of pensions, Medicaid, the opioid epidemic, and incarceration.  These are big problems that need big solutions.

As the Kentucky General Assembly convenes to craft a budget with limited resources, our citizens need public policy solutions that reflect Kentucky’s priorities and invest in our future. This includes ensuring that Kentucky lottery dollars continue to go toward their intended purpose: funding education, including scholarships and grants to students in poverty.  Similarly, the road to Kentucky’s success requires decisive action by our legislature to increase funding to rebuild our state’s crumbling infrastructure, which is crucial to ensuring economic development. These investments would help spur economic growth, increase accessibility to postsecondary education, and improve the overall quality of life for all Kentuckians.

Kentucky continues to face the uphill climb that has been its reality for some time. But we believe there is no better time for action than now.

President Kennedy said, “There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long-range risks of comfortable inaction.” Our generation has been entrusted to lead our beloved Commonwealth and to ensure it is a place where every young person has the opportunity to receive a quality education, earn a great job, and raise a family. The private sector stands ready to work with the public sector to make this vision a reality. We are ready to get to work.

Ashli Watts is Kentucky Chamber President and OJ Oleka is President of the Association of Independent Kentucky Colleges and Universities (AIKCU).


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