Colorado is a wonderful state and a beautiful place to live and raise a family… for most. Unfortunately, there are families that are not full participants in this idyllic vision. They are struggling to survive.
The advances made in the Denver metro area for equality and a better life were hard fought by individuals who cared deeply about making a better living for their families. They knew in the end it would strengthen their communities. Blacks live all over the metro area now, but it was not always so. The right to buy and live in housing beyond York Street, then Colorado Boulevard and in Park Hill was hard fought. Equality in the Denver Public Schools (DPS) was fought for in the Keyes case that went before the Supreme Court.
These battles, fought in the 60s and 70s, benefited the community and progressively opened the doors to opportunities. But in February 2013, a Rocky Mountain PBS I-News Team presentation called “Losing Ground” was circulating throughout the city at numerous libraries. The presentation revealed the disparities in Colorado’s Black and Latino communities in the areas of education, economic development, health and wellness, and criminal justice. Dr. Sharon Bailey, director of policy and research for the Office of the Auditor for the City and County of Denver, happened to attend the presentation given at the Blair Caldwell African American Research Library in the historic Five Points Business District.
The data presented was unsettling to her as a community leader, policy maker and former DPS board member (1989-95). The report revealed, according to 2010 data, an 86 percent high school graduation rate for Black students in Colorado compared to 95 percent for whites, and that five percent of African American males were incarcerated. Bailey approached former Colorado lawmakers, Regis Groff and Gloria Tanner and the Colorado Black Roundtable, and they began holding monthly community meetings to reveal and discuss the findings.
The first meeting was in March 2013, but as their audiences grew, they knew a larger conversation was necessary. The Losing Ground Summit was held September 2013 at Manual High School with 500 attendees. Government officials, political leaders and members of the community convened to discuss what had happened to the progress made and what could be done to get back on track.
The conversation continues at the second summit being held this month on Sept. 27 at Manual High School. This time the focus is related to the Losing Ground Rocky Mountain PBS- I-News Team report, “Gaining Ground in the Black Community.” The community meeting is part of a summit weekend of activities that have the support of leading organizations in the African American community.
The CBRT Gaining Ground in the Black Community Summit Weekend is sponsored in conjunction with the Colorado Black Women for Political Action, Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance, Colorado Black Leadership Caucus, NAACP, Urban League, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, and the National Council of Negro Women.
The discussion will revolve around the report authored by Dr. Bailey for the Colorado Black Roundtable after last year’s meeting. “We have the data; we’ve examined the issues now what do we do about it. This is the gaining ground piece,” she says.
A Princeton University graduate with a doctorate in public administration from the University of Colorado, Dr. Bailey believes that by marshalling the collective brain power in the community that resolutions can be developed to address disparity issues.
“We know we have the skills, have the knowledge and the talent,” she says. “But we have not been able to put that to use [in a way] that has been productive for our community.”
Reason for Desperation
“When it comes to some of the most important measures of social progress – income, poverty, education and home ownership — the gaps between minorities and whites in Colorado are worse now than they were before the civil rights movement.” – Losing Ground Report (2013).
Homeownership where many Americans count much of their wealth is just at 40 percent for African Americans, a one percent increase over levels in 1960. While many were victims of predatory lending and the Great Recession in 2008, Dr. Bailey and the group of leaders in their recommendations suggest financial literacy be taught at all different levels in the community, including the schools. The time to be armed with this knowledge is not when you are desperate.
But the I-News report reveals that there may be reason for desperation. The chances of developing a middle class of professionals and leaders are significantly reduced with key members of the community unavailable. For example, one out of 20 African American males was incarcerated in Colorado in 2010. This high incarceration rate is traced back to drug arrests, which have had a tremendous impact on African American communities. With any felony, it is difficult if not impossible to find work, vote and become productive citizens.
So, what has been the response to these disparities? On the criminal justice front Dr. Bailey says policy makers are re-considering sentencing laws for drug offenses. On the economic front representatives from the Small Business Administration, City of Denver, RTD and the State of Colorado have come to the monthly community meetings held at the Hiawatha Davis Jr. Recreation Center to discuss minority-contracting opportunities. In the education arena, she reports there is a continuing dialogue with DPS about tracking achievement and engaging African American students in Science Technology Engineering Math (STEM) education programs.
Dr. Bailey says they have increased the two-way communication with DPS and also focused on tracking minority contracts with the district. The dialogue has produced a change in policies relative to minority contracting. “We even got specific with picky things like asking them to put Black faces on their marketing materials,” she says.
The report, prepared by Dr. Bailey made specific recommendations in disparity areas and focused on what churches and community organizations can do as well as individuals and leaders and elected officials. One of the recommendations under education is to increase the number of minority teachers and professors throughout all levels of education. For health and wellness, a recommendation is to talk to neighbors and organize a healthy living committee; create awareness of the health status of your community, coordinate outdoor activities, start a walking group and demand storeowners stock fresh produce. Under the criminal justice umbrella, she recommends create and strengthening collaborations between civic and faith-based organizations to increase the number of effective community-based after school and weekend youth life skills development. A recommendation under economic opportunity is to expand programs that provide financial literacy for community members of all ages, even making it a requirement for high school graduation.
These daunting issues will require the collaboration of everyone and long-term sustainable solutions. Dr. Bailey says that the goal is to pull organizations together and to “network, communicate and collaborate in a manner that hasn’t been done before.”
Partnering With A Purpose
She has the expectation that higher education and academia will play a larger role in continuing to uncover the problems in the community. She believes it is essential that researchers and administrators on each Colorado campus become acquainted, exchange contact information and that each one knows what the other is doing. Dr. Bailey would also like to see greater visibility of these academics in the community in evaluating problems.
“The process of re-building and re-focusing on these disparities is more effective. We don’t have to guess about them,” she says. She notes that the African American Policy Institute at the University of Denver, developed by Peter Groff, was certainly viable, and that there have been talks with DU about developing that resource again under the Colorado Black Round Table umbrella.
With knowledge of who is on what campus, parents and students will have ready aids to contact as they navigate the education pipeline preparing for college and beyond. “Students shouldn’t get where they are going by accident,” says Dr. Bailey, whose passion is facilitating better engagement and solutions to improve the educational pipeline from pre-school to graduate school.
With school choice and standardized testing, educating your child has become much more complicated, leaving many African Americans left out, because they are not savvy in understanding how to make the best choices for their children. The Colorado Black Round Table is partnering with Metropolitan State University of Denver and the Urban League of Metropolitan on a STEM education program and a website clearinghouse for parents to better navigate the education system more proficiently.
“Our students are capable and that is where our focus should shift. We are not losing ground. We are disconnected,” says Moses Brewer, president and CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan League. After years of working in the community, as a corporate executive in the beverage industry, and through the various iterations of Coors, he understands that collaboration is key. “You create and develop strategy based upon ‘what do we want to accomplish?’ ”
Rocky Mountain PBS I-News films the summits and posts the videos online and Dr. Bailey says that the link has been sent out to about four to five thousand people. This allows people to be engaged even when they are not present. Each member of the Colorado State Legislature has been given a copy and Dr. Bailey commented that it is often used by minority caucuses in shaping arguments and proposing legislation.
The recent shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri is an indicator that much work is required to keep African American communities from being marginalized. This requires the effort of the broader community as well. In the last session of the summit on Saturday political candidates for office from both parties have been invited to address one question…”How will you use your office and influence to assist the Black community in the disparity areas?”
Dr. Bailey says, “The torch is going to need to be passed. Young people are eager for something to do, and we can give that to them as well as learn from them. This cannot be the old folk sitting around talking about the past and wishing for a better future.”
However, she recognizes that past leaders have played an integral role in bringing us to where we are, and this should not be lost. “We have not been able to use the brain power of the folks at our disposal, the wisdom of those who have already put in the time…the Webbs, the Groffs, the Tanners.”
On Friday a reception will be held to honor all former and current Colorado legislators, with a special salute to former state Senator, the Honorable Regis F. Groff.
On Saturday at 9 a.m., the summit begins with a discussion about race in the 21st century, followed by a discussion of educating Black students and strengthening the educational pipeline. After the lunch break, the summit sponsors will be recognized and community service awards will be given to Lu Vason, Syl Morgan-Smith, Wallace Yvonne Toilette, and Norman Harris, Jr. In the afternoon, workgroups will convene to address each of the four disparity areas — education, criminal justice, health, and economic development. The I-News Team will provide a Losing Ground update also later in the afternoon. The Summit community meeting will adjourn at 6 pm.
“There is plenty of work to be done,” Dr. Bailey says. “This is the building capacity piece, and we want the workgroups to develop a direction, collaborating and working beyond the summit.