2023 African American Who Make A Difference
Gene Fashaw, Sr.
The “husband and father first” is best known as a coach, tutor, and teacher who is active in the far northeast Denver community. Gene Fashaw, who was nominated for Colorado Teacher of the Year in 2022, led a rally at Denver Public Schools centered on change, the “Know Justice, Know Peace” trademark lawsuit, and lifting the ban on Brandon Pryor, co-founder of STEAM Academy.
“Being able to shape the minds of children and contribute to the wellbeing of the same community I grew up in is a true blessing,” says Fashaw, a true community advocate. “I am proud of the work I have done hosting forums on issues in our community, bringing our communities together in festivals, and doing other selfless work constantly.”
As a Morehouse Man, Fashaw says “I am not living my purpose if I do not give back to the community that I came up in. Contributing to the strengthening and growth in my community is one of my life’s purposes.”
According to Fashaw, the biggest challenges in the African American community surround group economics, youth violence, education and opportunity. He says these challenges can be resolved “at the macro level, it involves us all to come together in collaboration. From there we can come up with plans to help our dollars circulate more within our community, and create support, opportunities and experiences for our children that change trajectories.”
Moving forward, his focus is on growing “the Denver STEAM Initiative to create opportunity and improve outcomes for our children. Future opportunity is deeply rooted in STEM and the arts allow us to embrace creativity especially when solving problems. The Denver STEAM Initiative will help our children learn, grow, and succeed.” When asked how he would like to be remembered, he says, “I want to be remembered as a good husband, father, and person that gave himself selflessly for the betterment of us all.”
Janet R. Damon
The “librarian, naturalist, and wellness organizer” integrates healing with literacy events for the community with activities that range from yoga and meditation to hiking, ziplining, canoeing, and kayaking while enjoying book talks. Janet R. Damon, in the past year, hosted 14 nature and literacy inspired events.
Damon, who co-founded Afros and Books with three Black and biracial librarians, has distributed more than 1,000 books that represent the culture, heritage and history of our community. “We have cultivated a literary community of readers, creatives, healers and learners across the Denver community. Our Black to Nature Book Club offers African American community members ways to create joyful memories of the outdoors as a collective.”
She was raised in nature, spending her “childhood fishing on docks and boats in Texas, Louisiana, and even Panama. We can heal ourselves by retaining our connection to nature’s wisdom, our stories and our histories. African Americans love knowledge and learning; our souls crave it.”
As a teacher and librarian of 25 years, Damon points to education as the biggest challenge facing the African American community. “My students thrive when they see their culture, history and stories in the curriculum. As a history teacher I know that it is transformative for us to understand our place in the world, and when we do not know our history, our children suffer.”
Moving forward, her goal is to “see the Afros and Books community grow and expand our events to serve the community’s thirst for intellectual expansion, joy and healing. I dream of seeing every child thriving with the knowledge and self-confidence that comes from reading and playing outside in nature.”
Damon would like to be remembered as “the librarian who gave away thousands of good books and took families hiking and fishing. I want children to remember when we read Langston Hughes aloud in the meadow and the trees swayed and danced, as the ancestor himself came to listen.”
Jendayi Harris-Williams, LPC
This past year Jendayi Harris-Williams used her coaching expertise in the areas of physical, emotional and mental health teaching to support several conferences and events. Namely, she used her therapy tool, “My Mental Well-Ness Action Guide,” at a mental health event organized by Adam’s Purpose organization serving more than 200 individuals.
Over the past five years she has released two books dedicated to supporting healthy living under her book series, “The Chubby Church.” She has developed a multicultural women’s conference (Whole & Free) that brought more than 55 churches together and helped bridge the gap between the Black church and others in the faith community.
The licensed professional counselor feels “very called to be a change agent in terms of supporting others to heal areas of mental, emotional, health, and financial bondage in their lives. I want to inspire wholeness and freedom.”
She shared that her father “was murdered when I was 12 years old and prior to that he struggled with drugs, alcoholism and domestic violence. My mother was a pain pill addict for over 20 years of my life, and I saw God do miracles for me and my family.”
She adds, “All God needs is one person in a family unit willing to do the hard work of healing past trauma and becoming their best person, and that will inspire others to do theirs, too.”
She sees lack of economic policy and business/entrepreneurship and ownership as one of the biggest challenges facing the African-American community. “I’d like to see more support and education for helping Black corporate people as well as business owners to make a bigger impact on real estate ownership and business ownership in our community... While programming and education is important, nothing moves the dial in our communities more than money.”
Moving forward, she plans to earn her doctoral degree, and research and write more books to benefit the African American community. She’d “love to be remembered as someone who was genuine and cared about the wellbeing of others. I love people and I love to see the impact of growth. I truly labor in research to create quality content that impacts change.”
Jill D. Dorancy
She is committed to the legal profession, supporting the endeavors of small businesses across the socio-economic, racial, ethnic, and cultural spectrum, and working to make sure that every person has access to justice.
Jill D. Dorancy, who was appointed as one of 20 African American district court judges in the State of Colorado, explains, “There are several hundred state court judges in the State of Colorado, of which less than 10 are African American women.”
She chooses to take an active role because “I want to represent the community where I live and have a lasting and positive impact on it,” says Dorancy, who mentors young legal minds and encourages young African Americans who wish to enter the legal profession. “I also believe that it is important to show young children that they can become whatever they choose to and make a difference in the lives of others.”
She believes the biggest challenges facing the African American community “is the failure to ensure that our children are prepared for adulthood. Often, children receive their introduction to social and emotional learning, self-awareness, self-respect and self-confidence through school.“
She adds, “The current educational system produces children who lack empathy and compassion, knowledge of their history, and have untapped abilities. Our first and most critical task is to find and support teachers who understand how to teach African American children in a holistic way about their mental health, their potential for the future and their history.”
Moving forward, she would like to “continue to pursue my greatest self in the judicial branch, to get the most out of the opportunities I’ve been given, to become the best version of myself and maximize my potential and my capabilities as far as possible whether professionally or personally.”
She would like to be “remembered as a woman who was kind, compassionate and who cared deeply for her family, friends and community, and tried to make the world a better place. I also want to be remembered as a person of integrity who was fair, balanced and just.”
Joy Braud Sims
Her Creole and Cajun cuisine has been served at many Denver galas and meetings over the past year, and that included pushing through the COVID-19 pandemic to bring it directly to homes.
Joy Braud Sims shares, “During COVID-19, when many restaurants were closed, I was able to keep feeding our community with my weekly delivery specials. As a result, our community continued to enjoy delicious authentic Creole/Cajun food that I delivered to their doorstep with no-touch protocols.”
Over the past five years the owner-chef served the unhoused population by providing food, clothing, blankets and toiletries. She also worked with the Sims-Fayola Foundation to provide social-emotional skills and mentoring to young men and boys of color, and equity training to those who serve them.
She chooses to take an active role because “I was taught growing up that you must help others. No matter what you have, someone has less and wants what you have. Therefore, in order for society to change as a whole, everyone must do their part to change what they can so that life is better for the next person coming behind.”
Sims points to several challenges facing the African American community from the “breakdown of the family unit, racism becoming more in your face than I’ve ever seen in my lifetime, the lack of care for military veterans with PTSD, the lack of services provided for those facing mental health challenges, and the economy forcing people to live on the streets.”
She says the answer lies in the focus of elected officials. They “need to stop focusing on their own agendas, listen to the people who elected them, and make real policy changes to better our country. ...If the people we elect can live comfortable lives, so should those who elect them.”
Moving forward, she’d like to continue her philanthropic work, and expand Mama Joy’s Creole Catering presence in the community through a food truck. She’d like to be remembered as a “loving and giving person. So I make it a point to focus on others and find ways to lighten someone else’s life.”
LaToya Petty, MNM
LaToya Petty, who holds a master’s degree in nonprofit management, is an established community organizer, known for her community engagement and knowledge about the nonprofit sector.
Through her service to the community and a 10-year journey to save lives – she has focused on those “impacted by gang violence, unexpected death, trauma and the generational impact of active, collective trauma in communities of color. This year’s climax was the ACT Summit in which I co-chaired as a member of the Public Health for Public Safety Leadership Team.”
The summit was a collaborative effort to change the narrative of victimization by highlighting the voices of Black and Brown individuals who have experienced revictimization by the systems that were established to help and support them.
Through her consulting firm, The Donation Broker, she supports start-up nonprofits with infrastructure and formalities like building a board of directors, applying for 501(c)3 status, and establishing marketing campaigns.
“This work has been extremely impactful in the community,” says Petty. “We currently have 35 active clients that have benefitted from consulting services – many are organizations founded by African Americans. We also support with grant writing services, bringing funds into the community for programs that positively support the African American community.”
She chooses to take an active role in service because “the life I live is completely in service to the individuals I share this world with and the generations to come. If we truly want change. We must first be the change, which leads to transformation.”
She says the “biggest challenge is upholding and celebrating the value of love. We are still fighting an untrue and damaging narrative instilled in us through institutionalized slavery. And until we start finding value in ourselves and truly loving who and what we are, everything else will fall short. We are a community that needs healing.”
Moving forward, she “would like to continue on the path of healing I’m currently on. Addressing mental health and wellbeing in my community along with bringing resources into the community by supporting nonprofits with their missions.”
She would like to be remembered as a community member who took an active role.
Les Franklin works with and supports children and young people, helping them stay alive and reach their goals.
Through the foundation, he delivers speeches in the community sharing facts and resources on mental health and suicide prevention and intervention. He enjoys talking with students about little known contributions African Americans have made to society.
Through the COVID pandemic, The Shaka Franklin Foundation stayed afloat continuing to serve the African American community. The foundation offers scholarships at University of Colorado Denver, University of Northern Colorado, Colorado State University, and University of Denver that are giving African American students a chance to succeed. Scholarships are also made available to other Colorado universities as well as institutions outside the state.
Franklin says one of the biggest challenges facing the African American community is education: “affective education, knowledge, developing healthy relationships with law enforcement.” He adds, “Build and maintain strong systems that help us hold on to our communities in the light of gentrification where we are losing ground. Review school curricula to insure appropriate learning and success. Adding learning sessions and tutoring outside of public school systems.”
Moving forward, Franklin would like to make sure “everything I know and have learned in my life including my experience of working 25 years for IBM, is passed on to future generations in hopes their lives can be easier. I shall give all my knowledge to all who can learn from my experiences.”
He would like to be remembered “as a person who loves everyone and that I have made a positive and lasting difference in the lives of children and families.”
Peter Lubembela works to unite Black men throughout Colorado and empower young people.
The most notable contribution this past year to the African American community was “my service as the African American Outreach Director for U.S. Senator Michael Bennet’s reelection campaign. …I met with African American leaders and organized events for the senator and African American leaders geared towards issues close to home.”
Through his nonprofit 10for10, he has “united over 300 Black men in Colorado to feed over 1,500 people in Denver. The summer of 2020, following the murder of George Floyd, 10for10 brought together a group of young people and we organized 12 events in six weeks, all geared towards youth empowerment.”
The organization also awarded two students with the Davarie Armstrong Scholarship, established to honor the South High School athlete and college-bound 17-year-old killed in his Denver neighborhood.
Lubembela chooses to take an active role in his community “because I was lonely growing up. I strive to be a friend, an advocate and a public servant to the community and young people, so no one grows up feeling like I did.”
The biggest challenge facing the African American community is a lack of collaboration and lack of knowledge on how to best utilize the three levels of government to support our communities. “I see organizations and individuals all working to achieve the same mission working in silos. There are so many people who want to serve the community but try to take on the community issues all on their shoulders instead of leaning on other people. There is an African proverb that says if you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together. If we work together, we could accomplish so much for the community we cherish.”
In the future, he would like to represent the community as a city councilmember.
He would like to be remembered “standing tall and proud with my community with a smile on my face.”
Sylvia Waller serves as Mrs. Colorado and advocates for the Alzheimer’s Association.
As a volunteer community educator, she helps to bring awareness to the importance of a healthy lifestyle, diet, exercise and the connection to brain health and dementia-related diseases. “I enjoy working with young women on embracing their own beautiful uniqueness, not fearing the process of maturity and aging gracefully.”
“African Americans are twice as likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, women make up two-thirds of the Alzheimer’s population and if you have a parent with the disease, you are at risk. Hypertension, heart disease and diabetes are prevalent in our community, and these three are directly related to Alzheimer’s. My personal connection to Alzheimer’s is due to my family history. My dad passed away in 2017 from dementia and I have aunts and uncles currently living with the disease.”
As a young dark-skinned girl growing up in the ‘60s, she saw little to no images of herself in the beauty industry. “My parents helped me to embrace my beautiful uniqueness with confidence. I have never felt insecure,” says Waller, but she felt fear when considering competing for Mrs. Colorado at the age of 59. Her husband encouraged her.
“In my journey I showed women, young and seasoned, to never restrict themselves in a glass box or allow obstacles to discourage them,” adds Waller, who went
on to compete for Mrs. America in August 2022, placing in the top 15.
The biggest challenges facing the African American community include mental and physical health, food deserts and healthcare insecurities. “It’s important to have African Americans in decision-making spaces to ensure our community has the same opportunities as the majority to access adequate health care, mental health care and healthy foods within our community,” she says.
In the future, she plans to write a book on queen-agers and aging gracefully and a children’s princess etiquette book.
She would like to be remembered as Mrs. Colorado who advocated for the Alzheimer’s Association and for women of all ages to maintain a healthy lifestyle, diet and exercise to maintain a healthy brain and age gracefully.
Tonoa L. Manuel
Tonoa L. Manuel’s most notable contributions come from her time with the Leadership Connect Program, organized by the Urban Leadership Foundation of Colorado.
“In my 10 months of active participation in this program I led fellow team members in a service project around mental health and young people, where our youth had an opportunity to share with peers, parents and community members their stories around mental health and overcoming challenges during and after a global pandemic,” says Manuel, who was honored by peers with the distinguished graduate award as well as the Richard Lewis Rising Star Award for outstanding leadership and service.
Manuel, who has worked with young people and organizations focused on mental health and mentorship, chooses to take an “active role in my community around this work because I understand the importance of understanding our ‘why’ and the impact that it has when we take time to embrace that.”
The biggest challenges in African American communities, according to Manuel, is social determinants such as health care, finances and mental health. “We have for many generations swept these issues under the rug or avoided the conversations because of a lack of vulnerability or courage because of what we’ve been taught generationally.”
“We can change these things by merely deciding differently and having access to the resources without guilt or judgment. I’m a huge advocate of restorative justice/practice in the art of how we break generational trauma and curses. We have to educate ourselves and others in our communities and get back to the root of ‘it takes a village.’”
Manuel works in an executive accelerator program for leaders focusing on mindset, purpose, strategy, culture, alignment and vision. “I really want to help Black and Brown leaders impact the world with a shift in mindset around what it looks like to lead and change the culture along with how we connect with our teams and remain sustainable and connected,” she says.
Manuel wants to be remembered “for my service in leadership and organizational change strategy, led from a place of owning my vulnerability and experience alongside integrity and dignity for people.”