Reflections from Mile High United Way Board of Trustee Members
As a 132-year-old organization, Mile High United Way knows the importance of history and how it can play a role in the future – from strategies worth repeating and moments worth celebrating to warning signs and cycles that must be broken.
When we moved our office back home to the Curtis Park area within the Five Points neighborhood, we did so with a deep respect for the rich history of the places, people, and stories that these neighborhoods were built on as well as the moments worth celebrating. But we also recognized the role systemic racism has played in the neighborhood’s history and continue to stand united against the cruelty and injustices of systemic racism. Through it all, it is the community stories that help us understand and honor the rich history of this special place we are proud to call home.
“I was there when Mile High United Way made the decision to move to the Curtis Park neighborhood. Driven by nothing more than the notion that ‘we should be closer to the populations we seek to serve,’ Mile High United Way launched an ambitious multi-million-dollar effort to move its massive office, its staff and infrastructure to a part of town most endeavored to avoid,” said Rich Lewis, President and CEO of RTL Networks and Mile High United Way Board Trustee.
“Mile High United Way represents a wellspring of hope, support and resources for the community, including the Five Points neighborhood. I take great pride knowing that the organization helps save people from homelessness every day and offers them a chance at a better life. I am reminded of my own humble beginnings. I grew up in a disadvantaged neighborhood where kids often face a slew of difficulties in childhood. While I too faced a lot of challenges, I fondly remember my mentors and supporters along the way. For example, a lady who lived near us recognized a spark in me early on. She would say I was a smart kid with a bright future. That stuck with me,” writes Vernon Irvin, former Board of Trustees Chair for Mile High United Way and Chief Revenue Officer and Executive Vice President at Everbridge.
As we celebrate the close of Black History Month, we recognize this historic shining star in Metro Denver. Five Points has been a backbone of the Black experience in Denver for generations, and we know that while February may come to an end, there is a bustling community that continues to inspire pride in the neighborhood culture and an invitation for long-term community partnerships that does not end when the calendar flips to March.
The historic Five Points neighborhood is one of Denver’s oldest. In the face of segregationist policies and the insidious practice of redlining, Denver’s Black population created a haven for their culture here. The resilience and dedication to keeping Black culture alive led to Five Points’ reputation as the “Harlem of the West,” and created a thriving jazz scene that offered a home away from home to many of the greats including Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Count Baisie, and many more.
“Something very special happened in our Five Points neighborhood. In the face of constant and ubiquitous persecution, a people managed to not only survive; but to thrive. In spite of systematic oppression, the inhabitants of Five Points created their own businesses and commerce, worshiped and built neighborhoods, fought oppression, attracted some of the world’s best entertainers and well-known celebrities, held jazz festivals and functioned as a womb to many of Colorado’s finest doctors, lawyers, athletes, thinkers and politicians. For me, I experience a deep sense of awe when I consider what the people of this neighborhood endured and achieved in spite of their extreme circumstances. The story of Five Points Colorado should be an inspiration to all Coloradans (and Americans), that all Coloradans should want to preserve and teach others what happened here,” said Rich Lewis.
However, even as Five Points thrived, Denver became something of the epicenter for Klu Klux Klan activity, with its mayor, police chief, and other key city leaders being KKK members. While this holds no place in the celebration of Five Points’ character, it is important to note just how much neighborhoods like this were fighting against and navigating in order to continue existing.
“I know many successful African-American cities and neighborhoods, such as Five Points, were burned to the ground and their citizens murdered during horrific hate crimes. Those cities that remain, such as Five Points, face gradual extinction due to the long-term impacts of systematically imposed, race-based restrictions, such as redlining and deed covenants, lack of education, unfair hiring practices and other methods of oppression,” Rich Lewis said.
And yet, the heart and soul of Five Points prevailed. One of the most resilient cornerstones of the foundation of this neighborhood is that it was built from the ground up by people with dreams, people with heart, and people with stories to tell. These stories built an environment that makes for warm memories and unforgettable experiences with the residents of Five Points to this day.
“My family and I moved to this area in large part because of its rich African American heritage, and because we had great memories there. My wife and I wanted our kids to be exposed to this history. We love the culture, the food, and the environment,” said Vernon Irvin.
“Working in downtown Denver for over 30 years and representing this community on the school board for eight of those years, I have so many memories of Five Points neighborhoods. But the one I will pick is when I was walking neighborhoods in 1990 dropping literature for this really nice lady who was in the Colorado legislature. I was new in Colorado at the time, and I learned so much from her and her really tall husband (Wilma and Wellington Webb). Little did I know how much the Five Points community would become such an important part of my professional experience,” said Kevin Patterson, CEO at Connect for Health Colorado and Mile High United Way Board Trustee.
Though Five Points’ culture has sustained through generations, it is not immune to the “gradual extinction” of which Rich Lewis spoke. When gentrification and suburban sprawl threaten a neighborhood as rich and important to not only Black culture in Denver, but to Denver’s history itself, one of the most heartening things to experience is the way local champions rally together to protect and reinvigorate.
“Everywhere you look in Five Points you see the impact of gentrification throughout the neighborhood. My hope for the Black community and leaders is that we can preserve the multicultural richness and history that makes Five Points so unique, and that the new development revitalizes the community in a way that celebrates the past and welcomes the future. There are so many treasures in Five Points – the Black American West Museum, Zion Baptist Church, and all of the small businesses on Welton Street just to name a few – that makes the neighborhood what it is today. My hope is that the Black community can lead the revitalization of the neighborhood and thrive for generations to come as a result of it,” said Patrina Pettry, Consumer and Business Banking Market Leader for Denver Market at U.S. Bank and Mile High United Way Board Trustee.
“It is critical in these times that those wishing to preserve these special places, channel the strength of those that made these neighborhoods special in the first place and speak out and get involved… and this is happening! People like, Carl Bourgeois, Norman Harris, Haroun Cowans, Matt and Priya Burkett, just to name a few, and those that support them, are having a transformative impact on our Five Points. It is my hope that others, will see the Five Points neighborhood as their history also, and join in the effort to maintain the identity and history of this neighborhood as an inspiration to all Coloradans and to all of America,” reflected Rich Lewis.
The past, present, and future of Five Points all serve as a poignant reminder that our communities depend on us to work together to create greater access, greater equity, and greater appreciation for and support of cultural diversity.
“Recently, there is a network of Denverites that have an opportunity to breathe new life by re-investing in this neighborhood, that has been stagnant for over 5 decades”, says Priya Burkett, of The Burkett Family Foundation and Investor in the Five Points Community.
When Mile High United Way moved home to the Five Points area, we opened doors that were incredibly important for us as an organization – doors that connected us more directly to the members of the community we serve.
“United Way’s location in Curtis Park Five Points area is important because the programs that are priorities for the organization are impacted in those areas. Whether we are talking about early education, education, connections to services for the housing needs, or foster children, the United Way being in these impacted neighborhoods means those connections are close to those who need them. With the current climate of addressing systemic racism, I also think it is important to have an investment in a historically African American neighborhood to help tell the story of the vibrancy of African Americans to the fabric of Denver,” said Kevin Patterson.
We appreciate our Board of Trustees for reminding us and others of the importance of this crown jewel within our city. These reminders give us incredible hope for a flourishing future as this neighborhood revitalizes while remaining rooted in that rich culture.
“My hopes for Black community leaders is to have Five Points continue to be a place of gathering and celebration. NE Denver had always been the traditional Black neighborhood in Denver. But with more available housing options, we have also moved to suburbs with other middle-class families. Creating arts and culturally significant events and gathering places into this part of Denver gives more reason for us to come back, whether it is over the weekend or for more housing options for younger families looking for the urban experience,” Kevin Patterson continued.
“Mile High United Way understands what inequity means, they understand what challenges can do to a life and how it can inhibit growth… organizations such as United Way should also partner with the community to help support and uplift this neighborhood that has been left behind,” Priya Burkett wrote.
We are proud to share the hope and vision that our Board Members so beautifully expressed here and are grateful to call these neighborhoods home. And while we know there is much work to be done, that the journey toward sustainable equity may never really end, we cannot imagine better partners to work toward such a heartfelt goal alongside. Thank you to everyone who has stood with us as we continue to learn, grow, and adapt to the needs of our neighbors.
We invite you to support our neighbors in Five Points, especially these Black-led small businesses. And if you’re interested in joining us to invest in nonprofit leaders of color, learn more and contribute to our Social Justice Fund.