At the end of 2020, University of Denver Advancement hosted a series of virtual fireside panels with the city of Denver’s movers and shakers, many of whom are DU alumni. The topic: how Denver can thrive during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. In this four-part series, the DU Newsroom chats with alumni from a variety of industries and sectors to examine the community’s strengths, weaknesses and solutions in the years ahead.
Lisa Calderón (MLS ’01) is chief of staff for Denver City Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca. A Denver native, Calderón grew up in poverty and briefly dropped out of high school before returning to school and earning her college degree as a single mother. She has been a college professor, nonprofit director and candidate for mayor. In October 2020, she spoke on a panel on equitable and inclusive development.
What are the greatest challenges that Denver is going to face in the next five years?
I think the biggest challenges are dealing with the aftermath of the triple pandemic of COVID-19, racial uprising and the economic devastation as a result of the pandemic.
Those challenges aren’t necessarily unique to Colorado. What are your thoughts on the way that Denver took them on, compared to other cities struggling with the same issues?
I don’t know if what Denver did was any different. I wanted it to do more. I wanted to see more from the leadership in our government. Even before the pandemic hit, we knew we were headed into an economic downturn; we just didn’t know the severity of it. There were already conversations about the possibilities of furloughs, for example, for city workers and the cutting back of services for city residents. I would have wished that we had tightened our belts much sooner. If you know in a household that somebody might have their hours reduced or become unemployed, you plan for that. I didn’t really see the city being up front with that. I would have liked to see a much more transparent conversation that we are in for some potentially rough economic times.
Denver has been more insulated than other places because of our small business economy. For better or for worse, it has attracted people and innovators to our city. But on the other hand, it left us ill-equipped to deal with the even more rapid movement of gentrification. We are now the second-most gentrified city in the country. There could have been opportunities to put in anti-displacement policies, and I think homelessness is a big symptom of not being prepared. There’s homelessness everywhere, but we could have been a model in dealing with the reality that we have rather than continuing to disappear homeless people into shelters.
There are so many ways to be more creative than we have been.
What are our greatest opportunities?
I think the history of our country and [its] people who have struggled for their survival is that we pull together in very difficult times. We become more innovative because we have to. Even though we are in a very conflicted political time, we have also seen some of the best of people. I think if we develop a framework for that to continue with community efficacy, applying the lessons that we’ve all been forced to learn, that can actually put us in a better place.
When we think about creative solutions and addressing equitable development, who needs to be at the table? And how do we get them there?
I think we need to stop with the hierarchy that if you’re a property owner you have more rights than everybody else and instead come at it from a humanitarian lens. What would it take and who needs to be at the table so that we’re considering all perspectives — not just property owners, not just business owners? People who live on the street have largely been left out of this conversation. I also think that same group of business owners are struggling with some of the same issues as unhoused folks in terms of having an uncertain future, having a lack of resources to survive. We have to find that intersection and say we need everybody at the table to talk about these positions and not just the most well connected. We know if we assist the most marginalized of voices and find solutions for them, everyone benefits from that process.
What’s your advice for the business community on how it can lead with an equity lens and prioritize these issues?
I would hope that the tumultuous summer that we went through with the George Floyd protests opened peoples’ eyes in a way that they haven’t been opened in a long time, to at least recognize that we still live in a society where not everyone feels safe and not everyone finds safety in our public safety system.
We fundamentally all want safety and that comes in many different shapes. So if we’re open to at least that starting point, then we can look at how we get there in an equitable way that takes into consideration people who have not always felt safe in this society. And that would mean we invest in the root causes of inequitable systems to transform them, so people do have the resources to have a home, to have mental health services, to have an adequate education and advanced educational opportunity. Those are all equity issues. And if those are things we all want, we need to figure out how we can get there. Rather than fighting over the crumbs, we need to bake a bigger pie so that we’re not in a scarcity mode and thinking there’s only a limited amount of freedom for all of us.
What role do you see in all of this for the University of Denver and institutions of higher education?
I would like to see the University questioning how academe can come into the community rather than people having to go to the University. I think the pandemic gives us an opportunity to say, “Hey, we know we can reach out to the community in a different way, whether it’s a virtual thing or holding convenings that are accessible to a lot of people who normally wouldn’t walk on our campus.” I think this provides us with a new opportunity to ask those questions about how the university can be a good community partner with nontraditional groups that would never access the DU system otherwise.