The year 2020 has been a gut punch to humanity, testing the resilience and shattering the spirit of so many.
2020 is an unprecedented paradox — the extreme contrast between the feeling of togetherness when a mask-wearing neighbor stops 6 ft behind you in line at the grocery store, and the feeling of division when a phalanx of police forces lines up against protesters declaring that the lives of people that look like me actually matter. The American experiment of democracy and diversity is being tested.
We are approaching 200,000 lives lost, with countless others experiencing the trauma of financial ruin, economic angst, and existential uncertainty. The revolution is being live-streamed as we witness the Emmett Tills of our generation murdered. The infected wounds of our racist past threaten the health of the body politic. This is the end of normal, which begs us to ask, “Who do we want to become as a nation?”
What gives me hope is the resonant chorus of voices calling for systemic change, challenging the collective conscience of our nation to not repeat the sins of previous generations.
And so, the time has come for us to re-imagine our city; as Denver grapples with its morphing identity, we should seize this opportunity to repair, restore and rebuild.
When Mayor Michael Hancock appointed me co-chair of the Long Term Recovery Committee with Alan Salazar, he tasked us to bring a practical perspective on equity and resilience as the Mile High City seeks to rebuild from the destruction that COVID-19 brings. We have developed a comprehensive plan with more than 70 tasks, each one tied to an equity component, but it’s important to acknowledge that this virus doesn’t just prey upon the body — it exploits unjust systems that are defined by racism and division (i.e. redlining, zoning, lending practices, etc.). The gaps in generational wealth, income, health, public safety, and education all impact our long-term recovery from this virus, so to ensure that no one is excluded in our recovery we must put on our masks, wash our hands, and get to work dismantling systems of oppression.
We need leadership. We can no longer accept elected leaders, from the White House to Denver City Council, who divide and degrade our community. We need leadership now — the kind that repairs the brokenness in our communities, putting behind the zero-sum politics of faux populism that only breeds division and black-and-white thinking.
Our long-term recovery depends on a shared humanity where we’re socially connected, yet physically distanced. Justice-driven pragmatism must overpower polarized politics, and we must call upon our elected leaders to represent all residents and not just the ones in the comment section who agree with them.
When I re-imagine a great city, here are two areas that need our innovation and collaboration immediately:
For our unhoused neighbors: We need a robust housing-first model, and must pass the upcoming sales tax initiative for homeless housing. Widespread camping in the right-of-way is unhealthy and unsustainable — both for those camping and those living and working nearby; it demonstrates lack of compassion to simply step over the problem, which is why we must utilize rec centers as emergency shelters, support Tiny Homes citywide and locate safe, secure outdoor space in warmer months where it makes sense. We must build more homeless housing citywide, and build as much affordable housing as possible because the lack of affordability threatens to accelerate the homeless crisis. It is not OK for neighborhoods to block low-income housing; this is a form of systemic racism and must be stopped. This form of NIMBY-ism is as selfish as not wearing a mask in public. This should also be treated regionally, with the Metro Mayors Caucus, because homelessness knows no boundary.
For an inclusive economy: Our business community must lead with an equity lens with everything from accountable hiring goals to strategic inclusive initiatives. We should prioritize investment and incubation for entrepreneurs of color, and direct resources to upcoming leaders who will help build an inclusive economy. Small businesses and women/minority-owned businesses have been crushed during this time, and community-based nonprofits have experienced significant challenges as well.
We must redesign the private and civic sector to better meet the needs of the post-recovery economy. This can only happen with a substantial capital fund to support these entities, and could be done by the city and leveraged with our foundation and private-sector partners.
Albus Brooks is the former president of Denver City Council. He serves as vice president of Milender White, a construction/development company operating in Colorado and southern California, and he is a national speaker on urban issues.