Philanthropic Leader Lauren Y. Casteel and Rising Artist Jordan Casteel

Two paths of excellence and community service honor the legacy of civil rights pioneer Whitney M. Young Jr.

By Angelia D. McGowan

America’s civil rights era had a unique impact on the life journey of Lauren Y. Casteel, president and CEO of Women’s Foundation of Colorado. Her experiences lay a foundation for how she fulfills her mission to reach women.

“I’m a vessel that happens to have a legacy upon which I can build,” says Casteel, who spent her teens participating in a more informal version of Take Your Daughter to Work Day when she and her older sister, noted New York educator Dr. Marcia Y. Cantarella, accompanied her father into the community in his role as executive director of the National Urban League. Whitney M. Young Jr. led the organization from 1961 to 1971 and is credited with bringing the League into the limelight in a number of ways.

Under his 10-year tenure the organization experienced pronounced growth, increasing the annual budget from $325,000 to more than $6 million and increasing staffing from three dozen employees to more than a thousand. He also moved the organization to the forefront of the civil rights movement. When Casteel was 10 years old, her father was among the “Bix Six” who helped to organize and speak at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The others are Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Roy Wilkins, James Farmer, John Lewis, and A. Philip Randolph.

“Each brought their own constituents and voices to the march and the movement,” says Casteel.

Her father, who also served as advisor to U.S. Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon, helped bridge the gap between white political and business leaders and poor Black communities and power groups. Under Young’s direction, the League shifted its focus from middle-class concerns to the needs of the urban poor. He was particularly credited with persuading corporate America and major foundations to aid the civil rights movement through financial contributions for programs supporting jobs, housing, education, and family economic mobility in Black America.

“My dad was strategic and pragmatic,” says Casteel who watched how her dad built relationships when visiting the Urban League’s programs and partners including Head Start, Street Academy, the United Negro College Fund, and Freedom National Bank. “At 6’2”, 200 pounds, he was this big gregarious personality that could hone in on an issue quickly. I would watch his ease with everyone, everywhere. He looked folks in the eye.”

She does carry a sadness that her children didn’t get to know him personally. He drowned in a swimming accident in Lagos, Nigeria when she was 17 years old. Casteel is the mother of three beautiful, loving and strong Black children, including two sons. Her youngest son labors in the grocery industry, helping to ensure that Colorado families have food on their tables. Her older son is a commended flight rescue registered nurse who serves the Navajo Nation. While the young men in the family serve the community out of the spotlight of the media, daughter Jordan has created a career as an artist, which is more similar to her mother and grandfather being in the public view.

“All any parent wants for their children is for them to be whole, have purpose, and engage in honest work that sustains them. Every Black mother wants her children to be safe and well,” Casteel says.

Pioneering Inclusive Philanthropy

This month Casteel celebrates six years at the helm of the only statewide community foundation in Colorado focused on the advancement and acceleration of economic opportunity for women and their families. At the Women’s Foundation of Colorado (WFCO), she oversees the finance, development, programs and communications teams. The long-time Denver resident is also responsible for the foundation’s assets, which are valued at more than $25 million.

Her career is well-known to those in the state’s and nation’s philanthropic and nonprofit sectors. She is the only person in Colorado to have led three of the state’s major foundations.

Prior to the WFCO, Casteel served at The Denver Foundation for 16 years, most recently as vice president of philanthropic partnerships. As the first person in that role, she launched the Inclusiveness Project, a program that increased the recruitment and retention of people of color at metro Denver nonprofits. The program changed the face of Colorado’s nonprofit community and garnered national attention when it won the Council on Foundations’ Critical Impact Award in 2011.

She also instituted The Denver Foundation’s Nonprofit Internship Program, inspiring college students to choose a career in the nonprofit sector. Additionally, Casteel sat on the national Executive Alliance for Boys & Men of Color.

As the vice president of donor services at The Denver Foundation, Casteel helped establish the Reisher Family Scholarship and grow the number of donor-advised funds to 400. From 1996 to 1998, she served as the executive director of the Temple Hoyne Buell Foundation. Prior to this she spent six years at the Hunt Alternatives Fund as the executive director, then as the president.

Casteel’s trademark leadership style represents an asset-based approach, in which all parties’ voices and strengths are listened to, respected and projected for outcomes that benefit women and families of every background and identity.

Throughout her career, Casteel has earned numerous accolades, including: the Denver Urban Spectrum’s Timeless Legend Award; The Women of Power and Purpose Award by the Denver Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.; Anti-Defamation League Mountain States Region’s Civil Rights Award; the Colorado Women’s Chamber of Commerce’s 25 Most Powerful Women Award;  American Association of University Women’s Trailblazer Award; the Girl Scouts’ Woman of Distinction Award; the Monte Pascoe Civic Leadership Award; and the Mountain Region Black Economic Summit’s Legacy Award.

In 2014, she was inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame.

Building Opportunities for Women of Color

The Women’s Foundation of Colorado has been working toward a future where Colorado women and girls of every background and identity can prosper since 1987. Then, in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the truth about how women are undervalued still and more negatively impacted when it comes to education, employment and equality.

“I bow to these women. I have so much respect for them, especially those on the frontline who are being hit hard by this pandemic. Many others have lost their jobs. They are having to homeschool their children. Some of them have limited or no internet service. They are making a way out of no way through this crisis,” says Casteel. “I’m grateful for the privilege to work with the Women’s Foundation of Colorado. We are continuing to set initiatives in place to help women meet their core needs.”

This month the foundation is opening up a grant application period for a new program, the Women & Girls of Color Fund. The community-developed, community-led, field-of-interest fund is dedicated to investing in and partnering with women-of-color-led organizations that are working to advance the economic security of Colorado women and girls of color.

In addition to the WFCO’s own seed investment of $50,000 for the first three years, first funders include grants from Colorado Health Foundation, Ford Foundation, Chambers Initiative, and Xcel Energy. Also, gifts from a diverse group of individual donors are helping this fund come to life. Casteel says everyone, even those who want to give $5, can support the fund as the Ford Foundation is offering $50,000 in matching dollars. 

In determining how to move forward with the fund, the WFCO referenced a 2020 study released by the Ms. Foundation for Women, entitled, “Pocket Change: How Women and Girls of Color Do More with Less.”  The landmark study addressed how paltry philanthropic giving is toward women and girls of color in the United States. The report showcases the drastic need to hold philanthropy accountable to communities, movements, and the changes they seek.

The findings reveal that the total philanthropic giving to women and girls of color is just $5.48 per year for each woman or girl of color in the United States, accounting for just 0.5 percent of the total $66.9 billion given by foundations.

This report also offers a much-needed, data-driven description of the funding landscape and provides new tools as well as a mandate for the philanthropic community to give more, better, and with greater transparency to gender and racial justice movements. 

She points out that the study, combined with the inequities revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic, demonstrate that her father’s mission is just as relevant today as it was in the 1960s.

Casteel, who also serves on the board of the Association of Black Foundation Executives, adds, “If I don’t use my privilege on behalf of others, then I would have done a disservice to my family, father and legacy.”

Making an Original Impact: Jordan Casteel

The paintings of Denver native Jordan Casteel have been exhibited from Harlem to the Netherlands and Beirut. She counts several exhibitions and distinctive works in her portfolio, including a 2019 solo exhibit at the Denver Art Museum, September 2020 Vogue magazine cover, and most recently her first solo museum exhibition, “Within Reach,” at the New Museum in New York City. 

While 2020 was a harsh year for many, it was also a year of opportunity. Casteel paints from her own photographs of people she encounters in her community. Her life-size portraits pose her subjects within their natural environments, and offer intimate perspectives of the human experience as it pertains to people of color.

The New Museum was forced to temporarily close during the pandemic while her work was on exhibit, so created a virtual experience that offered viewers a rare opportunity to hear a description of nearly 40 of her large-scale paintings in her own words. The museum also published a fully illustrated catalogue to accompany the exhibit.

In September, Casteel was one of two Black artists commissioned to make paintings for the cover of Vogue magazine. The only requirement was that they choose a dress by one of four Vogue-selected designers for their subject to wear.

She chose to portray Aurora James, creative director of the sustainable luxury brand Brother Vellies. James is also the founder of the 15 Percent Pledge, a nonprofit created in response to the Black Lives Matter protests in June to call on major retailers to dedicate 15 percent of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses.

The very act of choosing someone with such a strong social justice message speaks to Casteel’s commitment to her family’s civil rights legacy, namely her grandfather. It also honored her grandmother, Margaret Young who in the 1980s served on the board of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Lincoln Center and the Dance Theater of Harlem.

“It was totally overwhelming, but what I’ve hoped for is to have my work cross barriers,” says Casteel, who was given complete freedom to decide who would be on the cover, real or imaginary, and how that person would be portrayed. “People were tagging me online from Australia to England.”

An international audience is a long way from her earliest memory of producing art in elementary school when she recalls being particularly invested in getting the shades of a rose just right. “I think it hung in the hallway at school for a week,” she says proudly of what was probably her first public exhibit.

While she regularly took art classes, she never thought it would spearhead her career. Considering herself an artist with a type A personality, she was attracted to stability and a sense of a plan. With that in mind, she bypassed arts school to go to a liberal arts college where she could learn to write and exercise critical thinking skills to navigate the world around her.

She received her bachelor of arts in studio art from all-women’s Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia in 2011 and her Masters of Fine Art in painting and printmaking from Yale School of Art in New Haven, Connecticut in 2014. While at Yale she realized that she could create a sustainable career in the arts, and definitively carved out a space for art in her life.

All the while, it was hard to ignore stories she heard regularly about her family’s civil rights legacy. She had to ask herself what it meant for her, but still set her own intentions for her life as an individual. A year with Teach for America helped integrate her innate passion and capacity for the classroom. Now as a 32-year-old assistant professor of painting in the Department of Arts, Culture and Media at Rutgers University-Newark, she is grateful for the opportunity to combine art and teaching in her career.

She credits her village of friends, family and mentors for believing in her and supporting her on her journey. While in undergraduate school in Atlanta, she spent summers interning at Denver art institutions including PlatteForum where artist Michael Gadlin is the board chair.

“The road of an artist is not easy,” says Gadlin, who serves as television host for Rocky Mountain PBS’ Arts District, an Emmy award-winning, half-hour, arts and culture series that features local and national artists in pursuit of their artistic passions. “It’s hard enough as an artist, then as an artist of color. When you see people of color, you are nothing but happy and excited.” 

When thinking about her Denver support system, Casteel recalls legendary artist Darrell Anderson who wrote her a reference letter for graduate school. “My love for Denver is immense. I would not be who I am without them.”

Casteel, who has had her share of ups and downs in the industry, does not take her journey for granted, and encourages up-and-coming artists “to trust that you are not alone. Just because you are not getting acceptance doesn’t mean that you’re not destined. Always put your hat in the ring. There’s something to come from it, something to learn from it. People will find you. Your commitment will shine through.”

The young girl who worked so diligently to get the shades of a rose just right is now “deeply entrenched in the world trying to find my own way, my own voice. I’m experiencing success I could not have imagined even five years ago.”

In 2011 when she was 22 years old, the Denver Post showcased her among their 12 best Colorado artists 35 and younger. To date, more than 130 articles or podcasts from The New York Times to the Los Angeles Times have highlighted her work.

To further confirm her spot among the newsmakers and cultural influencers of the world, Casteel’s alma mater selected her as its commencement speaker in 2019 and then named her 2021 Outstanding Young Alumni. She is well on her way to honoring the legacies of family, while establishing her own legacy.

*A graduate of Whitney M. Young, Jr. Magnet High School in Chicago, Illinois, former First Lady Michelle Obama, in 2013, introduced a film at the White House about Young entitled “The Powerbroker.” It was in honor of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. In 2017, Casteel interviewed her at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado as part of the 30th anniversary fundraiser for WFCO. It was Mrs. Obama’s first public appearance in Colorado after leaving the White House.