When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit Denver, LaKeshia Hodge’s human services organization dedicated almost a dozen volunteers to deliver food to older adults and people with disabilities, who had no access to transportation.
Hodge remembers an older couple who needed food. The man has prosthetic legs and the woman uses a wheelchair. Yet, one day the couple, both veterans, took a bus to Hodge’s organization, Struggle of Love. The man pushed the woman in her wheelchair from the bus stop to Hodge’s facility in northwest Denver, she said.
“That really touched my heart, because they were the perfect example of a family we would deliver to, but they were so humble they didn’t want us to deliver,” Hodge said. “They came and got it themselves, and it was really a challenge for them to come and pick up some food. … They shouldn’t have to struggle like that after serving for our country.”
Struggle of Love still provides food to that veteran couple. A $15,000 grant from a Denver Foundation fund that launched in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests two summers ago is helping Hodge continue to offer year-round services to mostly metro Denver residents who need better access to food, school supplies, mental health services, mentorship and competitive sports opportunities.
The Black Resilience in Colorado Fund, or BRiC, is funding more than 100 Black-led and Black-serving metro Denver organizations while also keeping racial justice issues top of mind.
Struggle of Love is led solely by Black people who have, in many cases, experienced the same challenges their clients are wrestling with.
“When I met my husband, we were both homeless,” Hodge said. “We made a vow to help get each other out of that situation and once we did, we said, ‘We want to give back.’”
Hodge and her husband have run Struggle of Love for 17 years. Without the BRiC funding, she said, the organization would have had to scale back on services and staff salaries.
It’s been two years since the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers on May 25, 2020, sparked protests spanning the nation, drawing widespread attention to police brutality and causing a racial reckoning on professional sports teams, on public monuments, and in almost every American sector. Since then, local organizations have fought to keep attention on racial inequities in their communities and have worked to help close many gaps.
The Black Resilience in Colorado fund, launched shortly after Floyd’s death, provides funding to Black-led and Black-serving nonprofits. Leaders of the fund are trying to maintain awareness on the racial justice issues still present in metro Denver’s Black communities. But in an instant, virtual world, where news cycles move swiftly and people’s attention spans are short, it can be challenging to keep the focus on the many pressing issues that still need to be addressed, said LaDawn Sullivan, director of the Black Resilience in Colorado fund, at the Denver Foundation.
She started the fund to help nonprofits on the frontlines of addressing racial inequality that are still reeling and recovering from the negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“One of the things that we said from the very beginning is that we wanted to help Black-led-and-serving nonprofits move from surviving to thriving,” Sullivan said. “We are not there yet. If we’re actually focusing on creating equitable communities, then we need funds or resources like BRiC, and others that are focused specifically in communities of color.”
Sullivan launched the fund on Juneteenth in 2020, a month after Floyd was murdered, and while local nonprofit leaders of color were repeatedly reaching out to her in need of financial support to help run their businesses. Many of those organizations pivoted during the pandemic to offer needed services that were outside of their mission and took a financial hit to fill many of those gaps, Sullivan said.
The organizations are still reporting troubling trends, such as an increase in the number of local families who are unable to afford rent amid rising inflation; a lack of access to homeownership to help close the racial wealth gap; and food insecurity among young families, especially during the summer. But a glimmer of hope has come through, Sullivan said. She’s noticing an increase in the number of new Black entrepreneurs, who want assistance from BRiC to help start their own organizations to support other people of color.
Since the fund launched, BRiC has raised more than $3 million and it has granted more than $2 million to more than 130 organizations in metro Denver. During the most-recent round of grants, BRiC leaders gave $330,000 to 38 eligible organizations.
“We recognize Colorado’s Black population is fairly small, in relation to other demographics here,” Sullivan said. “But we also recognize the inconsistency of resources and access, even in that small number.”
In 2021, for example, Black women entrepreneurs received just 0.34% of the $147 billion in venture capital invested in U.S. startups.
“We have to keep the issue at the forefront, so that we can constantly recognize it’s still present, and to encourage folks to find ways to partner and work with us, to support us,” Sullivan said.
Many of the nonprofits that have received funding through BRiC are started by people who have experienced the same issues they’re addressing through their nonprofit. There’s often a relationship of history and culture that makes them able to uniquely meet the needs of the communities they’re serving, Sullivan said.
Tanaka Shipp runs QueenShipp, an organization empowering young women, including queer and transgender girls and nonbinary youth, through mentorship, leadership development and community engagement. The organization offers a 16-week mentoring program, a summer camp to keep kids engaged and in-school electives and enrichment courses where girls in fifth through 12th grade talk about self-love, gender identity and sexual orientation.
During a summer camp, Shipp’s organization gives kids a safe space to learn and have fun, she said. Shipp, who began identifying as bisexual a few years ago, said she hadn’t shared her personal life with her students until recently.
“I just got to a place where I felt it was necessary to bring my full self to my work, to give them a safe place, so they know it’s okay to be queer; it’s okay to be yourself,” she said.
In June, to celebrate Pride Month, Shipp painted her nails the colors of the rainbow, a symbol used to represent members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities. One student who recognized the symbol on Shipp’s nails asked Shipp if she identified as LGBT. When Shipp said she did, one student shared they identify as nonbinary, another said they’re pansexual and another said they identify as bisexual.
“These are teenagers between the ages of 10 and 14,” Shipp said. “My openness with who I am allowed a safe space for them to feel comfortable with talking about who they are.”
Shipp received $15,000 from the BRiC fund to help with organizational operating costs. The money will help her pay for the new office space she acquired in Aurora and will allow her to hire a curriculum developer to help educate students.
“We are all out here trying to serve the community, in our own way, on a dollar and a dream,” she said. “I’ve been running this program for six months. I haven’t paid myself in six months. I’m on food stamps and government assistance (but) I go out every day and do this,” she said, as she began to cry.
To keep QueenShipp sustainable long-term, Shipp said she intentionally keeps the program small.
“In the Black community, we have forever been seeking our liberation: What it means to be truly free, to fully be able to take advantage of the opportunities that are listed in America’s promise, and the constitution,” Sullivan said. “So, the only way we can do that is, we have to keep pushing for it and keep fighting for what was promised. And for me, that is what BRiC is about.”
BRiC leaders have invited Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times journalist, to the Denver Art Museum on Aug. 23 to speak about her book, “The 1619 Project.” Her appearance will help raise money and awareness about the local BRiC fund. Tickets will roll out on July 15 at noon, with limited space for participants, due to the pandemic.