Colorado: State of Paradoxes

IAF – Colorado: Report on First 1,000 Relational Meetings

Organizational leaders from diverse institutions, including Iliff School of Theology, the Brighton Education Associations, Bnai Havurah Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation, St. Luke Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church, a budding women-owned microbrewery, (Lady Justice Brewing), the Professional Black Firefighters Association, First Plymouth United Church of Christ and the Colorado Education Association have passed a significant milestone.  They, along with many others, have held face-to-face conversations with over 1,000 Metro Denver residents over the last year.

Additionally these leaders have:

  • Held 13 Relational Organizing Trainings that equipped over 300 leaders from 11 diverse Colorado institutions in the art and practice of one to one, relational meetings — a foundational organizing practice;
  • Organized ten “Institutes on Public Life” teaching nearly 500 local leaders from over 100 organizations the core principles and practices of broad-based organizing;
  • Brought IAF national leader Rabbi Joel Mossbacher to Colorado to assist local leaders striving to address gun violence in our state. Almost 200 leaders packed Temple Emanuel to learn this innovative approach;
  • Conducted a “university without walls” seminar with Dr. Thomas Andrews, author of Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War to learn how the forces of coal mining have shaped the politics of Colorado. Nearly 100 leaders went to First Plymouth UCC Church in Englewood to hear Professor Andrews.

Considered together, these conversations and training sessions offer insight into the hopes, concerns and interests of institutional leaders across Metropolitan Denver.  They ground our efforts to build a powerful broad-based community organization affiliated with the nations oldest and largest organizing network, the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF).

What follows is our collective reflections on those conversations.

The Contrast and Paradox of Colorado

Colorado is an enigma.

Colorado is progressive, diverse, youthful (particularly in metro Denver), and open to change, reform and experiments in governance and policy.

Colorado is aging, largely run by entrenched powerful industries, and dominated by older white voters hostile to progressive change, labor unions, taxation and “big government.”

Colorado voters passed marijuana reform in 2014, but rejected increased funding for public schools.

Colorado legislators acted on gun violence in the wake of Sandy Hook by passing sensible gun legislation.  Then two of these legislators, including the President of the Senate were recalled and thrown out. (Another legislator, reading the handwriting on the wall, pre-emptively resigned before the election.)

Colorado voters in 2008 swept in a Democratic governor and Democratic majorities in the legislature – the so called Colorado Miracle following the Blueprint – then threw out most of the Democrats in the subsequent election.[1]

Surveys show Coloradans are among the happiest people in the nation while ranking in the top ten for suicides every year.

Coloradans don’t like government and cherish their “independent” status but 37% of the state is owned by the federal government and metro Denver has one of the highest concentrations of federal employees outside of Washington, D.C. [2]

Coloradans love the physical environment of the Rocky Mountains, but often resist efforts to actively protect natural resources.

Colorado attracts educated young people from all over the country, but ranks last in state funding for students at its major public universities

“New immigrants” to the area are made up of two distinct groups. Youthful new immigrants flock by the thousands to the Front Range and Metropolitan Denver where they tend to elect progressive Denver mayors bringing energy and vitality. In sharp contrast, new immigrants in large numbers from places like Mexico and Central and South America also flock to Metro Denver, their presence evident every morning on the street corners of Colfax Avenue in Aurora waiting for a shot at work and a wage to support their families.

Denver is rich in both financial wealth and resources.  The arts district is supported by a special funding district with a sales tax that ensures many aspects of the arts community have a baseline resource for their work.  However, the Tabor Amendment in the state’s constitution limits Coloradans’ investment in their government.

Development is booming in downtown Denver.  Ballparks, skate parks, housing, restaurants, shops, a gleaming convention center with a giant blue bear peering in the window, riverfront trails, the LoDo and Highlands neighborhoods, and the Platte River running through the center of all of it.

But chronic poverty is reflected in the numbers of homeless populating the 16th Street Mall, Colfax Avenue and the surrounding environs.  Colorado consistently ranks among the top ten states with the high levels of homelessness[3].

Disconnection & Isolation in Colorado:

“We never talk to one another.”  Littleton pastor 

Again and again in our conversations, hundreds of times, with a broad range of Metro Denver and Boulder residents, we heard that relationships reaching beyond people’s immediate sphere of influence were rare.   Many of the residents we met had little connection to their community beyond their immediate family, and some didn’t even have that.  Some had connections to a workplace and some to a congregation.  Many of the young people we met were connected to Colorado only through a workplace and couldn’t identify a meaningful community they were part of beyond a small circle of friends.

We were struck by the number of clergy members we met who couldn’t identify strong clergy-to-clergy relationships even within their own denominations or religious affiliations.  One Jefferson County pastor was so taken by this isolation he did research to see if there were data to back up his experiences.  He found higher rates of divorce, suicide and alcoholism in his church community when compared to the rest of Colorado.

His findings and his growing connection to the IAF organizing model are giving him new insights and energy to address this problem.

Our conversations in religious institutions suggest that “none of the above” or “unaffiliated” might be the strongest denomination in Metro Denver.  While a majority of Colorado residents report that religion is important in their lives, the ties of denominational affiliation or to a particular religious tradition aren’t as strong.  This seems particularly true in our visits in the city of Denver.  It is evidence of yet another kind of isolation.

We commonly talked with residents whose extended families lived somewhere other than Colorado and who could not identify any other form of community they participated in, religious or otherwise.  The distance between many Colorado residents and their families was frequently identified as a driver of disconnection and isolation.

How Disconnections Affect Colorado Politics

When conversations turned to politics – making a difference in public life – futility coexisted with some active engagement.

For many, outrage had turned to numbness over repeated incidents of gun violence; confusion surrounded the fractured fights for local school control in places like Douglas and Jefferson counties; frustration manifest over the ping-pong nature of Colorado’s red, now blue, now red, partisan swings.

Many residents described their feelings of helplessness and incompetence in the face of a political reality that just didn’t make sense.

For others, passionate engagement often reflective of personal experience drove efforts to make change.  The crowd that turned out to hear Rabbi Joel Mossbacher of New Jersey discuss gun violence and the “smart gun” initiative he headed up numbered nearly 200 at a local synagogue.   The personal stories about the impact of gun violence on their own lives, many were willing to share, testified to the potential for vital public discernment and action.

The Majesty, the Beauty and the Magnetism of Place

Nearly everyone we met articulated a strong sense of connection to the majesty and beauty of Colorado’s landscape and Metro Denver’s exceptional energy and diversity.  Some residents seemed more connected to place than to one another, while others are clear that for the region to flourish the relationship between the two – connection to place and connection to one another – must be carefully nurtured.

“Im not interested in serving a church; Im interested in serving the world.”

– Iliff School of Theology student

The majesty and the beauty of place helps explain why Denver attracts many educated, healthy young people (and others).   (Denver’s median age is 31 and it’s both the thinnest and most well-educated city in the nation.[4])  The energy this youthful demographic brought to our conversations lifted our spirits along with our hopes.  These so-called new immigrants are changing the face of Colorado one way or another, newly connected or dangerously isolated.

Many of the young people we met, like the student quoted above, didn’t approach their interest in justice and community through the traditional lens of a particular religious belief, denomination or institution.  They shared concerns aimed at fundamental issues of fairness, equality and opportunity for all.

Student debt, employment opportunities, and affordability of housing were basic justice issues for many of the young people we visited.  Having a shot at the American dream (as in equality of opportunity) struck many of the new immigrants we met as out of reach.

We heard consistent skepticism about the potential for equal opportunity for all Coloradans.  (According to Colorado Politics and Policy: Governing a Purple State, in 1990 30% of Colorado residents felt the state was going off-track.  By 2010, it had risen to 50%.  And two-thirds agree with the statement, “there are a few really powerful people in the country who pretty much make all the important decisions about how the country is run.”)

Shared Aspirations, Deep Seated Fears

A decent job, a safe place to live, good schools, access to affordable health care, an occasional vacation and shot at retirement was about the most ambitious dream we heard articulated from most Denverites.  The aspirations of the families and households we visited were often more related to the future they wanted for their children and their grandchildren than they were for their own.

Declarations about a state and country going off the rails with little meaningful citizen opportunity to change things was the recurring theme for nearly all the conversations we had.  While people enjoy living in Colorado and appreciate Denver for all its beauty, there was widespread concern about access to “the good life” and our fraying connections to one another.

In the over 1,000 conversations we initiated, concern for schools and schooling was mentioned repeatedly.  A consensus on the importance of education coupled with fragmented claims of what to do about it regularly surfaced as both a threat and an opportunity.

“Remember when teaching used to be fun?” 

– Brighton teacher

The pitched battle for public education in Colorado and the testing regime occupy a central place of worry for many Colorado families.  The consequences of a 2009 Douglas County vote for a slate of “small government” school board candidates continue to reverberate.  Support for this power grab by the Koch Brothers and other interests well beyond Colorado continues to muddy educational waters and undermine prospects for cohesive community building.

The drama that played out in Douglas County is now occurring in Jefferson County with the same cast of characters.  In our travels in Jefferson County it wasn’t uncommon to hear emotions ranging from outrage to confusion regarding the controversy they see raging in their local community.  Fortunately, thanks to a robust organizing effort of parents, students, the teachers and staff of the Jefferson County Education Association and many others (including the emerging organizing efforts of the IAF in the county) a new board majority was elected in November 2015.

We met with over 100 public school teachers in our visits and their disillusionment with what’s happened to their profession was striking.  One employee of an academically struggling school in Aurora described walking down the hallway and seeing “countdown clocks” in each classroom to ensure all teachers were on task, on time and in sync with their lesson plans.

“Is this a public school or a factory?” she asked.

From curriculum to local school board control to the charter school movement to standardized high stakes testing models, Colorado at times feels like the national petri dish for education reform.  The constant pressures on teachers, parents and local school districts that these reforms create was a consistent theme in our visits.

Realities of Living in “Paradise”

“I have three jobs and haven’t had a day off in 6 weeks.  I moved to Colorado so I could snowboard but it’s hard to get up there with no time off or money.”

– Denver transplant from Iowa City, IA

The rising cost of living in Denver was another pressure identified in nearly all of our visits with younger Denver residents trying to begin careers and manage debt.  One Denver resident told us even the micro housing of the city, conceived to be an affordable alternative, starts at $900 a month for 300 square feet.

Rents for less than $1,500 a month for the tiniest apartments in the most popular Denver neighborhoods are hard to find, and Denver is eclipsing Los Angeles and San Francisco in its rate of housing appreciation.  This is creating tremendous economic pressure on nearly every young person we met.

A waiter at a popular Highlands restaurant reported six straight weeks of work without a day off.  He moved to Colorado for the recreational opportunities, but the cost of living requires him to work three jobs with rare days off to enjoy what brought him to the area in the first place.

It’s one of those Colorado paradoxes.  Coloradans love their mountains, but the average lift ticket hovers at $100 per day and the most precious commodity of all – time – is often in short supply for overworked and underpaid millennials trying to get up there to enjoy them.

That connection to place, identified so strongly in our visits, is also paradoxical in that considerable tensions exist in Colorado over who controls those beautiful places. Skiers or snowboarders?  Mountain bikers?  Snowmobilers?  Hikers?  Hunters?  Developers?  Homeowners?  Tourists? Ski resort operators? Businesses?  Who owns those places Coloradans hold so dear?  The changing weather of the Front Range coupled with an insatiable appetite for development and extraction is creating tensions surrounding these questions in Colorado.

Fracking, mining, water usage, wildfires, droughts, floods, mudslides, endless development, tourism, etc. are putting extreme pressure on the very things that make Colorado, Colorado.  The majesty and the beauty of place in multiple Colorado locales is on life support.  We heard again and again that the absence of a coherent, creative response to persistent threats to environment and health undercuts everything that Coloradans value.

As we were drafting this document, the Animus River was dark orange due to the 540 gallons of water per minute of heavy metals runoff that was spilling into it from an abandoned mine. (emphasis added)[5]

Unfortunately this isn’t an isolated incident but one Coloradans have gotten used to.  “The federal government says 40% of the headwaters of Western waterways have been contaminated from mine runoff.” [6]

Shaping a New Kind of Politics and Deeper Connections

So how does Colorado deal with these paradoxes and contradictions?  What kind of politics is necessary to bring such a diverse, often contrasting place together to make lasting change?  How do those tensions get resolved and who gets to decide?

While we applaud the time, money, energy and effort Coloradans put into their connections with the majesty and beauty of the place, we believe a commensurate effort in relationship-building across lines of difference is long past due.  We are concerned and skeptical that the majesty and beauty of our place can survive many more decades of social and political isolation and fragmentation.

There is an alternative, and we intend to press that alternative forward – drawing existing community institutions together and inventing new ones where necessary.

Nearly 100 new institutional leaders are beginning to emerge from our conversations.  Those leaders are now organizing their institutions to support a “Sponsoring Committee” of Colorado organizations and institutions who will build the IAF presence in the region.

Our intention is to build an organization that would create a more deeply connected Metro Denver region, broken in geographic clusters that allow for both local and regional work. We also intend to build on our momentum and launch a series of new initiatives including, but not limited to:

  • Bringing the West/Southwest IAF leadership training to Denver November 16-20 where 20-30 diverse Colorado leaders will learn core organizing concepts along with 20-30 additional leaders from across the west/southwest.
  • Launching our sponsoring committee at an action on Wednesday, November 18, that will raise both the money and leadership necessary to carry our work forward into 2016.
  • Organizing five “Institutes on Public Life” in each of the emerging clusters that teach Colorado leaders the concepts of relational power, self-interest and one-on-one meetings.
  • Digging into the themes we’ve identified from our first 1,000 relational meetings. That could include research on livable wages and workforce development, affordable housing, mental health care/suicide prevention, gun violence, the threats to public education, wage theft and exploitation of immigrant/refugee workers and other issues that will inevitably surface from our relational meetings.
  • Meeting with Denver power brokers, decision makers and opinion leaders to share our findings and explore mutual interests.

That’s our hope for Colorado and for this effort.  The creation of a diverse, broad-based federation of congregations, civic associations, health clinics, athletic leagues, micro-breweries, small businesses, local chambers of commerce, worker associations, academic institutions, and labor unions.  The birth of a new kind of public life emerging over time capable of moving our shared political culture away from isolation, disconnection, polarizing red vs. blue party lines and resignation to hope, opportunity and a community that works for all.

 

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For information on the Colorado: State of Paradoxes contact Kari Collins: kccollins@iliff.edu or Morgan Caruthers:  mcaruthers@calvarydenver.org

[1] The Blueprint: How the Democrats Won Colorado (and Why Republicans EVERYWHERE Should Care) Adam Schrager and Rob Witwer  Speakers Corner Books

[2] Colorado Politics & Policy: Governing a Purple State Thomas E. Cronin, Robert D. Loevy University of Nebraska Press

[3] ibid

[4] U.S. Census Bureau

[5] “3 adjacent mines still leaking foul water,” The Denver Post, August 12, 1015

[6] “Experts estimate 55,000 sites in West,” The Denver Post, August 10, 2015

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