Author Archives: Margaret Lea

The Acute Meets The Chronic: The Work of Our Collaborative in 2020

Our Program Update, July 2020:

COVID-19 has acutely demonstrated that everyone needs to live in safe and healthy communities – communities that advance economic opportunity, prevent residential, commercial and cultural displacement, build on local assets, promote mobility and connectivity, and enable equitable access to planning, development, and decision-making. Our work now is to collaboratively navigate escalating risks while continuing to lay the foundation for a new system paradigm – one that we have been working for all along. 

Mile High Connects is taking a stand for an equitable, resilient Metro Denver where community-driven solutions are at the center of transformative change. In order to increase equitable investment into community-centered solutions, we are committing to:

  1. strengthen community leadership and development with financial resources and technical assistance,
  2. institutionalize equitable development through advocacy and practice, and
  3. activate and deploy equitable capital for catalytic projects that will influence and leverage public investments while preserving place

Based on years of deep engagement in community, and the continued generous support of The Denver Foundation, the Piton Foundation, the Colorado Health Foundation, Gates Family Foundation, Colorado Housing and Finance Authority, Wells Fargo and US Bank, we have recommitted our program work to three local geographies that experience persistent trauma, inequitable allocation of resources, and are most at risk of displacement pressures – Southwest Adams County, West Denver, and East Denver. Leveraging continued support from the Strong, Prosperous, and Resilient Communities Challenge (SPARCC), a multi-city national cohort of regional collaboratives, our goal is to increase equitable investment into community-driven solutions by 2023.  

Community ownership is a critical opportunity in this moment and its success will rely upon connected, informed and organized communities with strong leadership. Work across our target geographies will focus on building community development infrastructure and leadership development. In West Denver, for example, we will support the growth of their Community Connector program established to get folks connected to resources in response to the health and financial crises. In Southwest Adams County, we will support the design and development of a community organizing institute. We will also explore Community Investment Trust (CIT) models and identify local opportunities to implement a pilot.

Critically, in our effort to institutionalize equitable development, we will identify policy gaps and opportunities brought to light by COVID-19 and recent social unrest, and advocate for local, state and national policies that reduce displacement of residents and businesses. We plan to influence local and regional planning efforts to support the application of an equity lens in every decision made. We will also sponsor and promote existing Community Benefits Agreement (CBAs) efforts across our region.

Capital is a crucial piece of the community ownership puzzle, and we are committed to the equitable deployment of it. Mile High Connects will continue to support pre-development efforts in West Denver along Morrison Road to support BuCu West in creating a business corridor that preserves culture and place. We will also support the development of Montbello’s grocery-store-anchored cultural hub that includes affordable rental housing. Over in East Denver, with compounded displacement pressures at play, we will align resources and partners to create and preserve affordable housing units.

As our community partners focus both on recovery efforts and the long-term root cause remedies to systemic oppression, we stand where the acute meets the chronic. We have an opportunity to reimagine the way forward, one that unlocks community power, promotes racial equity, rebalances our economic structures, and ensures housing for all.

The Power of an Organized Community

Community has a central stake and role to play in its own wellbeing, from community participation in climate action to addressing socio-economic distress, and now, to mitigating the multi-dimensional consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. As communities tackle the challenges brought forth by the health crisis, there is much to be gained from unlocking the democratic and transformational potential of engaged & organized communities.

The diverse Montbello neighborhood in northeast Denver stands as a living testament to the benefits of an organized community, and how it is an essential ingredient to addressing response solutions. Fueled by support from the Kresge Foundation to develop innovative approaches to economic development, cultural expression and health through food-oriented development, Montbello Organizing Committee (MOC) has been working with local community partners over the past three years on the FreshLo initiative, a community center and housing project anchored in a community vision for fresh, healthy food and rooted by community partnerships. When COVID-19 struck the neighborhood comprised of Latino and Black residents, many of which are less likely to work from home and face higher health disparities, MOC’s community partnership pivoted to act quickly to address new, acute community needs in the face of chronic issues. This collaborative work proved to be foundational in positioning the community to respond immediately and effectively to the consequences of COVID-19. 

As schools closed, people lost their jobs and others became sick, some of the existing local food programs had to shut down operations since many of their volunteers were considered “high risk” and were encouraged to stay at home. As Donna Garnett, Executive Director of MOC, got word that schools and the municipal building that served food twice a week were closing, she notes that within 24 hours, MOC sprang into action in partnership with the Struggle of Love Foundation (SOLF) and Academy 360 (A360) to engage a more robust distribution system of food and essential goods. Within three weeks, they went from serving 100 people per day to serving over 700!

The coordinated response efforts of MOC and its partners reveals how this community has, over time, developed the infrastructure and trust to create a sense of place and connection. The strength of this neighborhood is essential in how community can weather hardship, recover, and sustain through democratic processes, strong community leaders, and integrated food, art, and culture initiatives.  Beyond the emergency response, this well connected, mobilized community is looking to the future of further food insecurity and shortages to create a sustained approach to fresh food access by working with their partners to support more backyard farming.

As Donna reflects the last few months, she notes Montbello is not alone. “There are pockets of networks all around Denver metro. We must find them and coordinate with them. Competition will be the death of us. We need to find a way to reach across the gaps of communication and work together. We are only successful when every link in the chain is successful.” Further, she highlights the importance of the work of MHC, as it is “all about making these vital connections to make every community viable, where people can live healthily and vitally.”

For more information about MOC and its collective response efforts in community, check out their latest Montbello Urban Spectrum Edition (MUSE), especially the article “Montbello During COVID-19, Feeding the Community Through Partnerships.”

Equity Is Action

To the Mile High Connects Community,


Like Deya, I too have struggled to find words to express my feelings over the last three months. They started in fear and frustration at the outset of COVID-19, and turned to grief, anger, and sadness in the wake of the murders of Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and most recently George Floyd at the hands of the police. Both the pandemic and the protests exposed two things: deep structural inequities and systemic racism that black and brown communities have experienced for years. Neither is a new issue; they’re why Mile High Connects exists – to combat these issues in the Denver Metro Region. However, what is hopefully different in this moment, is that both issues are simultaneously on display, drawing attention and support from Americans across the country, capturing our collective attention.

Could it be that this pandemic has provided an opening, through which we can all move and reimagine our recovery together? My deepest hope is yes, and that Mile High Connects has a key role to play here as a steward of that process, to listen and support, which makes it truly exciting to be a part of this collaborative effort. 

Since our beginnings as an organization in 2011, we have been committed to examining and increasing equity through many lenses: economic, health, racial and environmental. While this focus is not new to us, the events in the recent months serve as an important reminder that in order to truly move the needle towards a more equitable region, we must lead with racial equity and be much more explicit in that. We need to be able to recognize, name, and understand our role in perpetuating historical inequities in our communities as an important first step. 

Up to now, I think we’ve shown that we can talk the talk, but as many leaders have pointed out, it’s time to get beyond talking. Equity is action. Can we also walk the walk? I would say yes, and the contents of this newsletter demonstrate that both our partners and our staff strive to walk with the communities we serve. With Deya’s leadership, we are definitely moving in the right direction. However, the current governing body (me included) is over 60% white, which means we still have work to do. The next step is being willing to ask some tough questions of ourselves: Are we structured in a way that truly represents the communities we serve? How can we continue to uphold racial equity and center black and brown communities in our work?  What does a just recovery truly look like? Are we best positioned to take the organization and the Denver metro region from where it is currently, to justice, and eventually resilience? 

I’d like to end with our Inspiration to Action, which is present in all the updates that follow and serves as a guiding force behind all we do. Let’s truly take advantage of this moment, and walk forward together.

Our Inspiration to Action:

A racially equitable, resilient Denver Region where community driven solutions are at the center of transformative systems change.

Lauren Hornett

Chair of MHC Steering Committee

VP, Community Development Officer, Wells Fargo Foundation