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Opinion: Poverty, a pandemic and protests have laid bare Colorado’s deep and persistent inequality

Our country is reeling from the heavy blows of three calamities: a pandemic that has killed over 120,000 Americans, an economic freefall that harkens back to the Great Depression and the most convulsive social unrest in decades. 

Each of these crises expose the fault lines that separate the rich from the poor and the safe from the vulnerable. Together, they’re devastating. Not just to the communities that are being hit directly, but also to our own beliefs about who we are as a nation.

Dr. Jandel Allen-Davis

What’s true for the country is just as damning for Colorado. The coronavirus pandemic is disproportionately impacting our communities of color: though Black Coloradans are 4% of the population, they account for 7% of all COVID-19 cases and deaths. 

That’s nearly twice the rate of non-Hispanic whites. And Hispanic and Latino residents are about 22% of the state’s population but comprise 28% of cases.

Moreover, Colorado has enjoyed incredible prosperity in recent years, with some of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation. Despite that, we know that there are those who have not benefited from that prosperity, namely communities of color. 

Helen Young Hayes

The heaviest job and income losses have also occurred in the Black and Hispanic communities. Black and Hispanic Coloradans are over-represented in service industry jobs and in positions that can’t be done remotely. Hispanic families have lost income at rates 50% higher than non-Hispanic whites. And despite recent gains in overall employment and growth in Colorado, unemployment continues to increase among African Americans and Asian Americans.  

COVID-19 IN COLORADO

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  • MAP: Cases and deaths in Colorado.
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We are reliving the tragic killing of our own Elijah McClain at the hands of those entrusted to serve and protect, while we protest the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. This has thrust massive swaths of the nation to reckon with the injustice and inequity that has been a national stain for nearly four centuries.

In short, poverty, a pandemic and protests have created the perfect storm in which Colorado’s deep and persistent inequality is laid bare. It forces us to witness this injustice. It requires, as moral people, that we address it. And it challenges us to examine who we believe we are, and whether we’re living up to that image.   

A state wherein more people have opportunity means more people are driving the economy forward. Communities wherein inequality is decreased are communities where fear and uncertainty are lessened. A state that invests in its people — all of them — is a state that enjoys the compound interest of that investment.

Do we strive to be that kind of state? Do we believe we are a community that acts with compassion and empathy for the most marginalized among us? Do we believe that we are a society that is truly committed to “liberty and justice for all”? And do we believe — do we know — that justice and equity are in our own self-interest?

If we do believe these things, it is long past time to act with boldness, determination and unity if we are to wake from this three-pronged nightmare. There is nothing passive in the steps ahead and the decisions that must be made. Progress won’t happen on its own. And it will take all of us working together in a significantly different manner to achieve this.  

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

As CEOs and women of color, we have lived through other periods of social unrest that provided inroads for us to live a different reality than many of our brothers and sisters. We want to be able to look back on our lives, during those final breaths, and say, “Well done!”  

Imagine a Colorado where every kid can see their opportunity in the world and comes prepared to seize it at the right time. Organizations where all folks are not only welcomed, but are also encouraged — expected —to identify “that next big thing they want to pursue” and are supported to get it done. A community where talent is abundant, and jobs are easily filled by it.

In that spirit, we are challenging and inviting our fellow business leaders to join with us to rebuild in a way that reflects the diversity of our state and creates an economy that serves all Coloradans. It will be difficult. There will not be cookie-cutter solutions. It will require sustained effort. We will learn as we go. 

But together, we can make significant advances toward a healthy recovery and a thriving community that rewards us all, instead of the incremental and halting progress we’ve made so far, with too many paying an unbelievably heavy price.  

What is involved? 

We must build welcoming and inclusive corporate cultures where diversity of race, ability, thought, gender, socio-economic status and life experience is embraced and nurtured.  

We must transform our recruiting practices to level the hiring field and discard practices that screen out rather than screen in.  

We must create and sustain equitable career pathways of opportunity and advancement that enable ambition to be realized.  

We must nurture and support an entrepreneurial spirit that is currently alive and well in all communities of color, but perhaps invisible to larger bureaucratic and staid institutions.

We must invest in addressing and eliminating the persistent gaps in education and skills. Whether we choose to invest in traditional education, vocational and adult learning, youth internships or workforce training programs, we must build up our current and future workforce with in-demand skills for the 21st century.

There are some things that can happen quickly. But that said, and perhaps most importantly, we must sign-up for the long game, knowing that systemic change requires endurance.  

There is nothing particularly new about any of this. Many have written and spoken about it and tried this work before. But there have been precious few times in American history where a convergence of several devastating issues creates the perfect alchemy for action, focusing all of us on this issue simultaneously, with grit and urgency.  

This is why we are launching Inclusive Economy, a business-led movement of intent, design and action toward building an economy that works for all.  We are committing to doing the work, individually and collectively, and holding each other accountable as we celebrate the big and small milestones towards recovery and beyond. 

We invite our fellow business leaders to join our movement, because this task requires our collective and unflagging effort to build the Colorado we want for our generation and the next.  

We will begin by highlighting best practices for diversity, equity and inclusion. By gathering local case studies and training resources and tools for measurement. By working with community-based organizations that develop and train our workforce. By creating opportunities for CEOs and others in their organizations to meet and discuss progress and leverage and spread innovations. And by reporting our individual and combined results as we co-labor for relentless forward movement.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Thomas Edison said, “Opportunity is missed because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” There is nothing sexy and very little sizzle in the hard work ahead, but the rewards are rich and deeply satisfying. The very thought of being able to see it manifest in a Colorado in which we all benefit is a vision we can spring up in the morning for, dressed in overalls and ready for work.  

If history were to look back on this period and ask us, “Why didn’t you do something, given the rare opportunity that turbulent times such as these create?” we would hate the answer to be, “Because we lacked the courage and the will to address it. We did not really want meaningful and sustained change. We did not believe in bettering ourselves, our state or our world.”  

So we invite you — no, urge you — to join our movement. History is crying out for us to make this change at this moment at a deafening decibel level. Let’s answer that call together.

To learn more about the Inclusive Economy movement visit www.inclusiveeconomy.us.


Jandel Allen-Davis, MD, is President and CEO of Craig Hospital. Helen Young Hayes is CEO of Activate Workforce Solutions and Executive Sponsor of the Inclusive Economy Movement 


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