All across the country people are protesting and organizing. There is a collective feeling of discontent and anxiety about the future of our country. Denver is no different. The narrative of innovation and progress confounds the long-time Denverite as we witness the haphazard growth of a city that is clearly ill-prepared to grow so quickly. Perhaps the most confused by the dominant narrative and the reality are the youth of our city, including and especially youth in underrepresented communities.
For the past 11 years, Project VOYCE has trained, employed, and organized youth across the city. Never in our history as an organization has there been more demand for our work, so much so that an organization we narrowed our focus back to our original region in Near Northeast Denver. The youth living in this area arguably face the most uncertainty and imminent danger than youth in any other community of Denver. In an 84% Latino community with a 50% homeownership rate and 50% of folks who have lived in their homes ten years or more, one would think this would be a community worth protecting or insulating from the many changes occurring.
However, for some of those same reasons, this community is being treated as expendable. With the highest rates of poverty, high rates of undocumented residents, low levels of formal education and some of the largest household sizes, rates of homeownership are easily forgotten. This community is suffering the same fate and threats as it always has; exploitation.
Just last week the Denver Post recognized 80216 as the most polluted zipcode in the entire country, even more polluted than Love Canal yet simultaneously it is one of the hottest housing markets. Buyers are either not being informed about the contamination in the area or they are simply hoping to come in with a fresh coat of paint, flip, and cash out before anyone catches on. Meanwhile, youth and families in these communities have been raising concerns about soil and air pollution for the last few decades without much attention.
In the last year, everyone has began to pay attention to the cries of suffering community, everyone except those with the power or responsibility to address the well documented and valid complaints of the people. The community’s struggles have been elevated to the New York Times, the Guardian, Canadian Broadcast Corporation, Congress for New Urbanism and even Washington Post. Youth and community have become impatient with the continuous string of broken promises and neglect from city officials, state agencies and officials and even congress.
With the growth of the city on top of the existing legacies of injustice, the cultivation component of the Marijuana industry has disproportionately concentrated itself in these neighborhoods putting more drugs into this community than ever before. Located only 3 miles from the city's center the property taxes in the poorest community have seen a 68% rise in one year, no other neighborhood in Denver had a comparable increase. Additionally, the city will embark on a $2billion redevelopment of the National Western Center, an entity that has a history of excluding its surrounding Latino poor neighbors except to work concessions and clean. Perhaps the most destructive force acting upon residents in this area is the proposed expansion of I-70. This expansion will wipe out over 5% of Swansea's residents meaning over 200 people while deepening the wound of its original existence. The width of the structure will be tripled only adding toll capacity, eliminating the York and Steele Street exits while placing Swansea Elementary School’s playground atop the new 40ft deep gash of interstate. While those immediate and direct impacts alone are concerning, the longer-term impacts are riling up most folks including the young people who will pay the consequences of our current sins. Coloradans will pay 50% of our Bridge Enterprise Fund for the next 34 years for this 2 mile stretch of bridge. Residents in 80216 and 80205 will suffer the negative health consequences of a triple-sized freeway in their backyard. Those well documented consequences include 70% higher rates of asthma, cardiovascular death, cardiovascular disease, cancer and learning disabilities due to lead poisoning in the soil that will be disturbed.
Needless to say, there is quite a bit to be “angry” about in Denver. Youth will pay the high costs of poor decision-making today. Youth will be responsible for digging themselves out of a poorly planned city if they choose to stay here. While decisions are being made swiftly with little regard for community or future consequences, youth in these communities are taking the lead from young people across the country who are rising up to ensure their voices are heard. At Project VOYCE, in partnership with other organizations organizing adults, youth are learning about youth’s role in all social movements throughout history and they are critically thinking and actively building a legacy of change themselves. From taking supplies to the front lines at Standing Rock to testifying in City Council on affordable housing needs, to organizing and educating community on the potential for a re-imagined tree-lined 46th Avenue Parkway instead of a tripled I-70--youth are identifying themselves as stakeholders who demand a role in shaping their future. So when you hear about the “angry protesters” know that they are a reflection of irresponsible leadership and be happy that they are angry enough to want something better for themselves and future generations to come.
* Project VOYCE trains, employs and organizes youth to seek justice in education, health, housing, and environment.