By Regi Worles, Nonprofit Internship Program, The Denver Foundation
In January of 2018, the Executive Directors of Color Institute were introduced to Cindy Chang, the current Executive Director of Groundwork Denver. With a passion for the environment that sprouted in her youth, she was quite excited to take her new position as Executive Director.
Her passions for environmental justice began when she was young, as a teenager she jokingly mentioned that she, “started making her parents recycle, before it was cool.” Her work started when she was able to go to college and expand her notions of the environment to encompass social justice and how people interact with the environment. When her definition evolved from just being about plants, trees, and animals and started to encompass people, the places they live, and the relationships that existed between those two, the work changed. Cindy noted, “When I started to realize that environmental insecurity disproportionately affected the lives of people according to race, class, and gender differences,” there was a shift in what she wanted and could focus in and around.
Figuring out how to be involved was not an easy task and while she organically found her own way through the sector, she began to recognize that her skills were in working alongside the grassroots. She started working with Groundwork Denver as a volunteer, plugging in and contributing where she was needed. Her level of involvement soon grew, as she became a member of the board of directors until there was an opening for the role operations director at the organization. Seeking a way to elevate her leadership and commitment to Groundwork, when there was an opening for Executive Director, she decided that it would be a good move for her to apply for it.
Upon receiving the news of her acceptance into the position, one of the first things she did was apply for the Executive Directors of Color Institute (EDCI), a cohort of Executive Directors from around the Denver Metro area working together to navigate the rewards and challenges of being an organizational leader and participating in professional development to build their capacity as Executive Directors.
EDCI is an initiative of the Leadership and Equity Team at The Denver Foundation whose mission includes addressing issues relating to racial equity for the nonprofit landscape in Denver and the various populations that they serve. Cindy mentioned that the EDCI offers a change of vantage point through which an Executive Director can observe their work as a professional individual, but also as someone with a key role in the growing and evolving nonprofit and social justice landscape of Denver.
Since Groundwork is an organization that, in Cindy’s words, “serves and is made up of black and brown folks it even further makes Groundwork a location that is championing work that will hopefully alter what the sector looks, feels and operates like.” While Groundwork has the capacity to carry out a variety of environmental tasks for the community members that they work with, they never force their ideas on a community as they are dedicated to a grassroots approach. They are a resource, and as such, they help when asked and provide the skills and resources that communities ask them for within their realm.
Yet, when serving at a grassroots level your own body and emotions are not far distanced from the work that you want to accomplish. When you are walking with people on their path to justice, sometimes being present to the uncontrollable and visible changes in communities that you have worked with for years hurts; when there is nothing to do except for continuing the fight sometimes you can lose sight of yourself and your needs.
For an organization that is largely made of people of color, this phenomenon can lead to throwing self-care out the window. Cindy struggles with this as well. “I’m not the best at self-care,” she said when self-care was brought up. This evolved into a conversation about how the EDCI is a space that offers the participants a chance to exercise self-care, in that it facilitates a space for thinking about yourself as a part of your organization and as an individual with unique experience. The ability to have a cohort of people who understand the importance of being your authentic self and bringing everything that you have to offer is an important aspect of an ever-evolving leadership journey. Recognizing that you cannot do the work that needs to be done in the world without connecting with executive peers who are also doing mission-driven work is something that is imperative to success in the sector, especially for folks of color. Building a network of professional and personal relationships that push you to better yourself and your craft, is essential to propelling yourself in the nonprofit sector.
“It is important to see people of color at every level of an organization,” Cindy said when asked what message she has for young folks of color who have an interest in the sector. “Young people of color are necessary because we need them in order to smash the stereotypes that surround them.” When we work with the very students that are being made into caricatures of themselves each day and allow them to effect change relating to the communities that they represent and care about, we not only build leadership capacity in them, but we facilitate opportunities that in Cindy’s words, “mean you have to move past statistics and go further to create real, human stories.” “When the youth are doing the work that no one expects them to do,” it makes you ask questions and interrogate yourself.
To close the interview, Cindy was asked to share her own dreams, passions, and hopes. In the Executive Director position, a great deal of the work revolves around finding, drawing out, and highlighting the work that others are completing in or around the organization. It was important to ask what Cindy wants to see in the nonprofit sector surrounding issues of the environment, racism, and classism. It leaves the conversation about Groundwork, what they are doing, and what we should hope the sector begins to look more like in the future in a clear culmination of thought, “I want to see every town with a Groundwork,” she noted, “[We all need] a community-led organization that listens and works with the people who have survived environments and strives to recognize that the environment plays a [key] role in everything.”
Executive Directors of Color Institute: In the Fall of 2011, The Denver Foundation’s Inclusiveness Project, Community Grants Program, and Strengthening Neighborhoods Program convened focus groups of Executive Directors of Color to discuss their unique strengths/assets, issues, challenges/barriers, and opportunities. Over the past six years, over 70 executive directors of color, facilitated by a dynamic team, have shared their experiences, supported one another, expanded their networks and strengthened their organizations through the Executive Directors of Color Institute (EDCI).
Nonprofit Internship Program: The Nonprofit Internship Program provides mutual learning experiences for interns, supervisors, and nonprofit organizations in order to develop diverse emerging leaders and create opportunities for outstanding nonprofit organizations to deepen their impact. If you have questions about the Nonprofit Internship Program please contact Becky Alberti-Powell firstname.lastname@example.org