Dear Denver: ‘I’m a Black educator, and I think you’re too late’

“To the white allies who risked exposure to COVID-19 and faced down police officers, I feel compelled to ask: Where have you been?”

Terri Ruffennach fields questions from second-graders at Carson Elementary, March 13, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Terri Ruffennach fields questions from second-graders at Carson Elementary, March 13, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

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By Portia White

 

I’m a Black educator, and I think you’re too late. 

My inspiration for this letter came when I saw that Denver Public Schools took the necessary steps to cut ties with the Denver Police Department. I’ve spent the last 10 years working for DPS and other nonprofits throughout the city. I felt so much relief when I read the headlines about DPS severing ties with DPD. But I also felt so much grief.

I grieved because I remembered a recent time when Black and brown students in Denver dealt with intimidation from police officers at school and then went home to parents and guardians who were being displaced by developers. I need the white allies in Denver to understand that police brutality is not the only way to show a lack of consideration for the lives of Black people. 

I arrived in Denver to intern at a homeless shelter in 2010. In October of 2011, I started a job at a school in Five Points. I moved into a studio in Cap Hill for $575 a month (yes, that included utilities!). I worked with students of varying racial and ethnic backgrounds, but the majority of them were Black, like me. I loved my years spent working in the Harlem of the West, a place that boasts a rich history of Black inhabitants that dates back to the 1920s. Black people in Denver were redlined and resigned to the area, prohibited from living anywhere else in the Denver area, and they made it their own. It had lost some of its original luster by the time I arrived, but it remained a welcoming place for people of color. 

 I could relate directly to my students. I grew up in a low-income neighborhood that was much more bleak and devoid of resources than Five Points. My neighborhood presented very few role models. I knew what it was like to go to school and not have a Black or brown teacher to learn from. My understanding was that teachers, the smart adults who seemingly had all of the answers, were white. I wanted the kids I worked with to see that Black people teach and want to support them. 

I would show up early for work and sometimes grab a latte from Coffee at the Point. I could see from the cafe’s windows more families unloading their Subarus and zipping up their North Face jackets. I was told that the project housing adjacent to school would be razed. I’d run into parents on the bus who each told me the same thing: They were moving. They were moving to Aurora or Montbello or out of state altogether. Their rent had doubled, or their landlord sold the house they lived in. 

I found all this to be upsetting, but I too was struggling with the same issue. I took additional training to level up as an educator, but my paycheck did not rise as quickly as my rent. 

Five Points was rapidly overtaken by the RiNo Art District, and white people no longer talked about the area in hushed tones. They were now excited and eager to buy beautiful, historic homes for “cheap” prices. I went back a couple of years ago for Jazz Fest and witnessed just how much Denver cared about preserving the Black community. The Blair Caldwell African American Research Library and Coffee at the Point were still there, but nearly everything else had transformed dramatically. Instead of after-school clubs, there were yoga or cycling studios, and instead of Black barber shops, there were beer halls. The children who once lived there had been dumped into communities that lacked resources.

 I was sent outside of the Denver metro area to work at a school that was 90 percent Hispanic. Despite the student population, I only saw one teacher of color, the Spanish teacher. As opposed to schools in white neighborhoods, this one crawled with mice, didn’t have proper drinking water, and was incredibly overcrowded. I supervised sixth grade lunch on my first day. I recognized a student from Five Points. He was taller and had a slim face, but his eyes hadn’t changed much since the days I had seen him walking the halls as a kindergartner. I asked him if he remembered me and how he came to live this far outside of Denver. He told me that old familiar story: that his family moved because they needed to find a cheaper place to live. Denver had essentially turned a historic community into a playground for wealthy millennials.

I still tried to remain connected to the DPS community, and I joined a committee for African-American educators/community members through DPS, while working with brown kids outside of the city. I quickly noticed that the people who had the ability to initiate change within the district at a policy level were eager to invite Black people to sit on panels and pose for website photos, but they were not eager to listen. I was a representative rather than a point of reference. The erasure of brown and Black faces became more and more obvious to me as a Black person the longer I lived in Cap Hill. 

 I left Denver in January 2020. After years of low pay, rising housing cost, and countless racist microaggressions I had had enough!

 I have seen all of the hard work that citizens of Denver have done in the name of justice and in solidarity. However, I’ve seen some of the reports for Denver’s 2040 plans, and my fears and concerns are only confirmed by what I read. The Black people of Denver that white allies strive to protect have largely been ignored and pushed out, unfortunately, and it looks as though the problem will continue. The majority of the schools in Denver County aren’t serving many Black kids, and that is by design. I know that witnessing gentrification is not as horrifying as bearing witness to an unarmed black man gasping for his last breath, however, I will tell you that it is quite brutal. It impacts Black and brown people on a generational level. 

This past week, I’ve watched as corporations and government officials pledged funds to support Black communities. It makes me cautiously optimistic. I hope that the corporate dollars are distributed fairly. To the board members, CEOs, grant writers, and fundraisers in Denver, I need you to be honest about your level of support for the Black community. To the city planners, I ask that you consider the remaining Black and brown families of the city in the 2040 action plan.

To the white allies who risked exposure to COVID-19 and faced down police officers, I feel compelled to ask: Where have you been?

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