A chance decision to stop by the post office one night this summer led Whitney Leeds to the Arvadans for Social Justice. She was driving along Ralston Road toward Arvada City Hall when a small but very noticeable group grabbed her attention — people standing side by side with vivid masks and a string of homemade signs.
Leeds pulled over and walked up to the protesters, weaving past one sign that read “Justice, Not Justification,” and another that said “Justice for George Floyd + Breonna Taylor.” A member of the National Lawyers Guild, Leeds wanted to make sure the demonstrators were aware of the guild, a resource that she thought could benefit the group. That’s when she ran into an old friend from the University of Colorado Law School, fellow Arvada resident Amy Travin.
As their conversation unfolded, Leeds learned that Amy Travin was more than just one of the protesters: She and her husband, PJ, were two of the event’s organizers.
“We started talking about what was going on, and I signed my name up to be involved and stuck with it ever since,” recalls Leeds. She’s now a member of the steering team for Arvadans for Social Justice, or ASJ, which brings awareness to racial inequality in Arvada and demonstrates against social injustice in that city and around the country.
Since the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, social justice groups like ASJ have been popping up across the Denver suburbs. Many got their start in June, when protests were making headlines around the country. But almost five months later, their work has just begun.
For ASJ and similar groups in Golden, Greenwood Village, Lakewood, Wheat Ridge and other towns, much of the work so far has focused on reaching community members who might otherwise be unaware that protests are happening outside of Denver. October marked another month of speaking at city council meetings, posting on social media and, sometimes, gaining a new member when the right person drives to the post office at the right time. Daniel Mondragon was also headed to the post office when he discovered ASJ holding a protest there; today he’s a member of the steering committee.
The movement looks different in the suburbs than it does in Denver, where demonstrations never fail to attract crowds numbering in the hundreds, sometimes thousands. Growing the group in Arvada has been up to the ASJ founders, their families and other sympathetic residents.
And regular gatherings outside the post office.
Starting a social justice movement
The first time residents held a social justice protest outside of Arvada City Hall was June 1. That night, it was just the Travins, their children and some close family friends.
“We wanted to protest, but we were nervous about taking our children [to Denver] because at the time, the police were still pretty aggressive with the protesters,” Amy Travin recalls. “We just started protesting here, every day for a few weeks, and the group started organically forming. From there, we became the people who wanted to take the lead.”
The weeks that followed set off a snowball effect as the Travins tackled the DIY project of organizing their city’s social justice movement. They soon connected with Alisha Fleming, who was using Facebook to start her own local racial-equality effort. Together they created a Facebook page for ASJ.
“We’ve never started a group specifically like this before,” PJ Travin explains. “We took the reins with a couple of others trying to figure out, ‘How are we going to control this?’ And we intentionally took what we thought was a pretty slow approach.”
That step-by-step approach built a membership through an organic and surprisingly uncomplicated effort: continual protesting (the nightly protests soon moved to a weekly schedule), designing and mailing postcards, spreading the word to friends and neighbors. ASJ steadily collected Facebook likes before methodically reaching out to each of the group’s original Facebook fans — around 200 people or so — to gauge potential members’ goals and abilities. After compiling a list of those interested in becoming full-fledged members, ASJ held several workshops and created teams to research what was going on behind the scenes in Arvada’s schools, police department and community.
Part of the research process involved simply talking to that community and collecting the stories of fellow ASJ members or other Arvada residents. Some stories came from Black residents who said that their neighbors had called the police when they saw them walking through the neighborhood; some came from Black business owners who live in Arvada but do not do business there because they feel unwelcome in the city.
Many of the stories Leeds heard reflect an Arvada that is “deeply unwelcoming,” she says, particularly for people who are part of minority populations.
ASJ believes the numbers help to back that up. Of the 810 listings in the state’s Colorado Minority Business Directory, only four businesses cite Arvada as their base. Meanwhile, according to a 2019 estimate from the U.S. Census Bureau, 91.5 percent of Arvada’s roughly 121,000 residents are white — and that percentage has barely budged in decades. In 2010, 89.8 percent of Arvada’s residents were white; in 2000, 91.1 percent were white; in 1990, 94.3 percent.
The most recent Census Bureau estimate puts Denver’s population as 76.5 percent white. Meanwhile, for several of the suburbs near Denver — Englewood, Lakewood, Wheat Ridge and Westminster — that percentage sits between 85 and 90 percent, in line with Arvada’s number.
“It’s a problem that every day, Arvadans are not seeing people of color in their neighborhoods. Arvada should be a place where people of color don’t feel attacked when they come here,” Leeds says. “There are changes that we would like to see for this city.”
Members of ASJ aren’t the only ones. “There’s all sorts of things we need to look at in order to address why populations are being isolated from these communities,” says Apryl Alexander, community organizer with Denver’s Black Lives Matter chapter, BLM 5280, which got its start in 2015 and has been very active this year.
“When I’m reading [about the price of] the average home in the Denver metro region, that might isolate certain communities, especially since we know there’s a pay gap between communities of color and white communities. Thinking about how are we systemically keeping people out, what kind of resources do they have out there for diverse communities? Where communities do feel safe is around people who are supportive, people who wouldn’t call the police on them.”
Through the years with BLM 5280, and through decades of personal experience, Alexander recognizes that it’s not always the obvious statements or moments of blatant racism that lead to that feeling of unacceptance.
“There are so many incidents,” she says. “I was at a restaurant in the Stapleton area — I went there a couple times for their happy hour — and I’d sit at the bar, and each time I went there, a white person would ask if I live in the area. That is something that speaks to ‘You don’t belong here’ or ‘How could you belong here?’”
While BLM 5280 is not actively working with any of the suburban groups, Alexander says the chapter is aware of their actions — and she thinks the fact that many of these groups are operating on their own, apart from Black-led organizations, is a good sign.
“They’re being mindful that we place unfair labor on Black communities,” she explains. “We’re often asking Black women to educate others. This is a lot of these white-led organizations trying to get together and educate themselves, seeing how they could be better allies and taking ownership on trying to do that work internally, because they’re the ones who need to change the system of racism.”
Getting vocal locally
ASJ has some ideas for changes that could be made in Arvada. PJ Travin points to housing in the city, comparing recent and ongoing residential developments to projects that would promote diversity — particularly developments with more attainable-housing units.
“Arvada is a booming city,” he says. “One thing we would love to see is a lens of what is being developed and who it’s bringing.”
In order to focus that lens, ASJ is working to forge the right partnerships, particularly a partnership with the City of Arvada itself.
When the city hosted two community conversations this fall to promote inclusivity, ASJ was there — in fact, the majority of residents who spoke at the meeting Leeds attended were fellow members of ASJ, she recalls.
Through continued comments at meetings and through emails, Mondragon says, ASJ members have made it clear that they want a partnership with the city that collects real input and makes real efforts to effect change. Those efforts might include highlighting the stories of BIPOC business owners, or incentivizing others to bring their businesses to Arvada.
ASJ’s work with the city has already yielded several tangible results, according to Arvada communications manager Ben Irwin. Those two community conversations were in part a direct response to ASJ’s feedback, he says. Now city officials are distilling what they’ve heard from ASJ and other community members, with plans to use their findings to shape Arvada’s future equity efforts.
Arvada has already taken several steps forward in encouraging equity, Irwin says. The city has joined the Government Alliance on Race and Equity, a national network providing resources and support to help governments advance equity in their communities. This year, Arvada has also continued pushing the attainable-housing strategy it’s had in place for decades and has directed additional attention to its Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee.
“It’s a good start. As a city team, we know there’s a journey ahead of us, and we are well aware that it has to be a sustained commitment to exploring these issues and having these dialogues with the community,” Irwin adds.
“We expect and hope that the relationship [with ASJ] will grow, and that there will be opportunities for more involvement. But any specifics, it’s premature; we’re still working through the results of those conversations.”
And ASJ members say they’re still working to get a significant seat at the table. Allowing ASJ to co-host city events instead of just attend them would be a step in the right direction, Mondragon suggests. “From what we see on the city website, they have taken on serious work,” he says. “But we’re still on the outside, waiting for them to let us in.”
As of mid-October, ASJ had 375 members on its Facebook page and about 60 subscribers to its email list. To expand its reach, it’s linked up with other suburban organizations in a sort of informal alliance, sending emails back and forth with Wheat Ridge for Equity and Lakewood for Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (Lakewood JEDI). Both groups have action items in mind for their own communities, promoting informed voting and the election of local officials who will ensure the well-being of minority populations, for example. They’ve also organized their own protests and encouraged residents to attend community forums.
A common goal of all these groups has been to communicate to their neighbors that racism exists in America — and that it exists in their own communities.
“Once you see it, you can’t unsee it”
Leeds, who moved to Arvada just over a year ago, says she grew up in a community in Florida that also lacked diversity, then left to pursue an undergraduate degree at the City College of New York.
“I moved to Harlem before I even knew what the word ‘gentrification’ meant,” she remembers. “When I lived there, I saw people being roughed up by police officers. I saw young men being frisked for walking while Black. There was an ICE agent who was pulling my neighbor from the arms of his children at four o’clock in the morning. I learned very quickly that the America I grew up in was not the America in which everyone lives.”
Other ASJ members have similar stories.
“I wanted to be a criminal defense attorney, and I don’t think I saw it [systemic racism] before that,” says Amy Travin, who grew up in Nebraska and moved to Colorado about fifteen years ago. “I didn’t see the vastness of it or the systemic structural impacts it makes every day. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.”
It’s because of such memories that on Monday, November 2, the night before the election, the Travins, Leeds and Mondragon will be back on Ralston Road, with homemade signs and Mondragon’s signature American flag. The line of protesters could include a dozen people, maybe more, maybe less, but it’s certain to spark reactions from the Arvadans driving by — 95 percent of which will be positive, if past responses are any indication. The group’s members will hold their signs higher as the sun starts to set, will shout to be heard over the sound of cars rushing by on the aging asphalt, and will try to communicate their past experiences with signs that fit only a handful of words.
It’s been almost five months since the murder of George Floyd and the group’s first protest. But for ASJ’s organizers, every Monday night has been more important than the last.
“The real change happens not in the immediate aftermath of these events,” Leeds says. “It happens in the months and years that follow. Senate Bill 217 would never have been possible in 2020 were there not a Black Lives Matter movement in 2015,” she adds, referring to the groundbreaking police-reform bill that passed through the Colorado Legislature in June and quickly became law.
“This is a really special moment, because people are open and awake. Now is the time.”
Know of other suburban social-justice groups? Send information to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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