Living Legacies

Guest Contributor

This article was originally published in Give Magazine Summer 2018 and written by Elana Ashanti Jefferson

Rooted in Metro Denver, four local leaders of color look back while paying it forward.

"Being a blessing to somebody is philanthropy” could be the rallying cry for generations of philanthropists of color.

Historically, the contributions of time, talent, treasure, and testimony of philanthropists of color, rooted in the historical and cultural traditions of giving back, have often been overlooked by mainstream philanthropic institutions. Giving that originates in communities of color often comes from the lived experiences of those who benefit from the generosity of a loved one or community. 

A desire to share those experiences, those stories of where giving comes from, is the heart of ROOTED, The Denver Foundation’s storytelling series. 

For several years, The Denver Foundation has deepened its work to engage, understand, and support philanthropy in communities of color. That work is known in the broader community as EPIC—Elevating Philanthropy in Communities of Color. And in following cultural tradition, testimony or storytelling is the gift of sharing the impact of giving on both the giver and receiver. 

The following stories share the philanthropic journeys of Denise Burgess, Angela Cobián, Ruben Valdez, and Halisi Vinson, four leaders who give of themselves today to build a better tomorrow. Each in their own way, their stories represent how and where philanthropy is rooted in their lives.

Denise Burgess | Building Generational Momentum

When it comes to getting involved in her community as well as philanthropic efforts within her industry, Denise Burgess says she simply never knew another way. 

From soaking up her grandfather’s Methodist sermons—“to whom much is given, much will be required”—to watching as her father brought fellow small business owners and contractors along as he built up his own family business, Burgess says that giving back is now part of her personal and professional DNA. 

“This is what the African-American community has historically done,” says Burgess, 58, who now heads the company her father founded, as president and CEO of the construction management firm Burgess Services. 

The seeds of such hefty life lessons bore fruit in The Burgess Family Fund, a donor-advised fund that was established through the Denver Foundation in 2013 to further education initiatives for women of color interested in STEM and construction careers.

"The misconception is that you have to have a lot of dollars to be philanthropic, but it's just not true."

Burgess Burgess served on The Denver Foundation Board of Trustees from 2013-2016 and serves as Board Chair of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. She is the first African-American businessperson to serve in that position in the chamber’s 150-year history. 

“Denise is a tenacious leader,” says Kelly Brough, president and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. “You see that in how she leads her family business in the male-dominated construction industry. In the community, she has that same determination, and she invites everyone to the conversation.” 

Burgess says none of her accomplishments in business, leadership, or philanthropy would be possible without lifelong support and mentorship from family and friends. She says, “I make sure that you can stand on my shoulders to get ahead, because I stood on another’s.” 

The Burgesses were a military family who arrived in Aurora when Denise was 12 years old. She started at the bottom in her father’s business, which was then called Burgess Heating and Air Conditioning, by taking on cleanup jobs as a teenager. 

Burgess earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Northern Colorado, and went into broadcast management before returning to the family business. She took over when her father died in 2002. Today, Burgess often leads by example. 

“You can be a one- or two-person shop or a 20-person shop,” she says. “When [staff ] sees you, as the owner and leader, doing those small things to give back, it makes a difference.” 

Businesses with philanthropic agendas also benefit from stronger reputations, Burgess says, and attract a more talented pool of potential employees. 

“As a matter of fact, millennials, more so now than ever, will ask, ‘What do you do when it comes to giving back?’ I get that question quite often,” Burgess says. “The misconception is that you have to have a lot of dollars to be philanthropic, but it’s just not true.” 

For instance, philanthropy might take the form of passing along a business tool or contact to a colleague, calling up a local school and offering to speak on career day, or buying access for a student to attend an enrichment event that she might not have been able to afford otherwise. 

Burgess especially loves the way African-American leaders nationwide bought fistfuls of movie tickets so that young people could soak up the powerful, culturally relevant messages of pride and heroism embodied in the recent Hollywood blockbuster Black Panther. “That,” Burgess says, “is philanthropy at its finest!”

Angela Cobián | Working at the Crossroads of Education and Justice

As the first in her Mexican-American family to graduate from college, Angela Cobián once thought her path would lead to law school.

Then, as a member of The Denver Foundation’s Nonprofit Internship Program, Cobián provided early childhood literacy training for Spanish-speaking parents and families much like her own. 

An encounter she had during that internship shaped the course of her career. During a home visit, she met a Spanish-speaking family in which a grandmother lived with intense daily pain and inhibited mobility because her doctor had broken her leg during a routine surgery. When the grandmother tried to advocate for him to correct the injury, he threatened to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement and have her deported. 

The experience fortified Cobián’s view of education as vital to the fight for equality. 

"One way to reclaim power is to act locally."

“By the end of that summer, I was so motivated through my internship experience, I decided I really needed to be in a classroom,” says Cobián, 29. “It became very clear to me that the powerful people in our democracy are actually teachers.” 

She graduated from Colorado College in 2011, then taught 2nd and 3rd grade literary for Englis Language Acquisition-Spanish students while concurrently earning a master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Colorado Denver. In 2013, Angela was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to teach and study at the National Pedagogical University in Mexico City. 

When she returned home, she observed the nationalist shift in the tone on mainstream American politics and felt driven to take on an even more proactive role as a champion for immigrant families. Cobián ran for office. In November 2017, was elected to the Denver School Board of Education. 

This millennial, Latina leader recognizes that, as a child growing up in southwest Denver, she was the beneficiary of ongoing philanthropic programs. She also looks around at a circle of socially engaged peers and does what she can to bolster the causes they work on, such as climate change and voter engagement. 

“I talk to a lot of people my age, as well as people older than me, and there’s a sense of powerlessness,” she says. “One way to reclaim that power is to act locally.”

Ruben Valdez | Going Back to School to Leave A Legacy

Service came easily and early to former Colorado House Speaker Ruben Valdez. 

Growing up in Trinidad, where his family worked in the nearby coal mines, Valdez often served as an interpreter for other children who could not speak English at school. 

Later, as a teenager, like scores of other Latinos in rural Colorado, Valdez dropped out of school to take a bluecollar job. 

Valdez quickly became a leader among his peers by getting involved in union organizing and political activism. By age 37, Valdez was already serving in the Colorado State Legislature when he earned his bachelor’s degree in political science from Loretto Heights College. 

“I always felt I had more potential,” he recalls. “I just wanted to get as much education as possible.” 

He went on to serve as the state’s first Latino House Speaker, a role where he often worked on behalf of schools and teachers. Denver Public Schools honored Valdez in 2015 by naming a new college preparatory charter campus after him. Now, two schools are located at the Ruben Valdez Achievement Campus in southwest Denver, a predominantly Latino neighborhood where Valdez lived and served constituents for decades.

"It means a lot to me to be able to help kids."

Through a donor-advised fund administered by his family in partnership with The Denver Foundation, Valdez supports campus efforts to reach new heights in student achievement. Valdez started the fund with hopes that kids who study at his namesake campus may get the type of boost that he never had. The fund helps pay for student uniforms, supplies, and extracurricular activities to enhance students’ experiences. 

“It means a lot for me to be able to help kids,” says Valdez, 81. “This gives me a chance to help the young people with education, which I think is so crucial.”

Halisi Vinson | Turning Generosity Into Impact

Philanthropy often has a catalytic effect: A single gift can spark repeated benefits throughout a family or community. 

As Executive Director of the Rocky Mountain Employee Ownership Center, Halisi Vinson converts the generosity of donors, volunteers, and partners into support for employee-owned businesses. These businesses, in turn, have the power to uplift entire neighborhoods. 

“I consider it an honor to be of service,” says Vinson, 53, a Los Angeles native who was raised by civil rights activists. Vinson followed her career to Colorado roughly two decades ago. She held positions in media, finance, and marketing before turning to nonprofits. 

This executive’s passion for economic equity issues brought her to the Rocky Mountain Employee Ownership Center, where she builds strategic partnerships to spur individual wealth-building and community development through employee-owned businesses. “When we look at how wealth is created for the average American,” she says, “it’s either through homeownership or business ownership.” 

The Rocky Mountain Employee Ownership Center is a Denver Foundation grantee and participates in the Nonprofit Internship Program, which helps to build a pipeline of future leaders. Vinson is also a recent graduate of the Foundation’s Executive Directors of Color Institute. 

In her entrepreneurial mentorship work, Vinson wants businesspeople to “understand the link between recycling dollars in the community and how that can actually help their business.” 

Vinson concedes it can be tough to dispel the myth that philanthropy is an activity reserved for the ultra-wealthy. 

“Especially in the African-American community, we need to see the direct impact [of philanthropy] on our communities,” she says, “and we need to see that the folks leading those initiatives look like us.”

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