The Inclusion Illusion

A three-part series looking at the experience of people of color in Boulder and efforts to make the city more inclusive

Part 1: Boulder prides itself on being welcoming to all. But its citizens of color tell a different story

Part 2: After Boulder diversity officer's unexplained exit, city seeks outside help on race and equity

Part 3: As pressure increases to confront racism, can Boulder change its story?

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to clarify that while UCAR will offer all its employees workshops and training on diversity, participation is not mandatory for all of the workshops.

"My gut feeling is that no committee or task force will have much effect on everyday racial intolerance in Boulder," wrote Gregory Todd in the Daily Camera's Sunday edition on Oct. 28, 1990. "Not on the convenience store clerk who bristles every time a black walks into the store late at night. Not on the indescribable feeling when someone stares at you like a curio. Not on the person who doesn't tip a black waiter as much as a white waiter.

"Organizations and committees cannot change what's in people's hearts."

Todd was writing about his experiences as a biracial man in Boulder. His words were part of a six-page spread on racism in the area published by the Camera. Written nearly three decades ago, the stories of minority residents — hassled by the cops; subjected to racial slurs by strangers and well-meaning but ignorant statements from friends and co-workers; left out of the civic process — still resonate today.

Fred Davis, owner and head of business operations for Clear Choice Window Tinting & Clearbras, in his company’s facility in Boulder on July 19.
Fred Davis, owner and head of business operations for Clear Choice Window Tinting & Clearbras, in his company's facility in Boulder on July 19. "Nothing has changed" in regards to the treatment of minorities in the 40-plus years he's lived in Boulder, he says. (Paul Aiken / Staff Photographer)

So, too, do the responses of local government. In 1990, there was the Community Task Force on Race Relations and the Minority Issues Coalition; today we have the Human Relations Commission and the Safe and Welcoming Community Work Plan.

"Nothing has changed," said Fred Davis, a black small-business owner who has lived in Boulder for 40-plus years. "It's a shame that hasn't even begun to diminish."

Meanwhile, in the wider world, the conversation about race moves on. Some fear that Boulder, however progressive the city might be on other issues, has fallen behind.

We are stuck "in the middle of the 20th century," said Courtney Prusmack, Boulder County's diversity and inclusivity manager.

The national dialogue around race should not be muted here as the chorus of voices calling the city out grows louder, said the Rev. Pedro Silva, an associate minister at Boulder's First Congregational Church.

"It's putting Boulder in a position to really walk the talk," Silva said.

Racism 'perpetuated by all of us'

Silva has seen what it looks like when somebody's eyes are opened to racism. He has organized many events dedicated to moving forward the conversation about race.

The most successful was the Blind Cafe, in which participants partake in a meal in complete and total darkness. The events are held to give a glimpse into the sightless experience, but Silva added another layer, following food with a discussion on racism.

Being blind, even temporarily, creates a vulnerability in people, he said, that leaves them more open to embodying another's experience. They are more willing to share their fears and to listen to others — something he's found that Boulderites in particular struggle with.

It can be hard, Silva said, for people to let go of "the stories we tell ourselves" about who we are. "There are therapists everywhere, yoga everywhere, meditation, so people can convince themselves they achieve a certain level of awareness or wokeness," Silva said. "Anything that disrupts that, they have a fit."

People are often more than willing to talk about racism, as long as it stays abstract, he said. The second they get called out on something specific, "they've already got their 'I'm a good person narrative' they're waiting to use."

Kemba Douglas on the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder on July 9. Douglas, who moved to Boulder from Georgia last year, says something as simple as a friendly
Kemba Douglas on the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder on July 9. Douglas, who moved to Boulder from Georgia last year, says something as simple as a friendly smile can be a step in the right direction. (Paul Aiken / Staff Photographer)

Part of it is a cultural failure to separate the individual and the behavior, said Carolyn Brinkworth, chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer at Boulder's University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. Racism is rightly stigmatized, but that leads to people avoiding the racist label at all costs, even as they perform racist behavior or beliefs.

"This dichotomy that we have is that if you're a good person you can't possibly be racist," she said. "We've got to get over this idea that racism is only perpetuated by bad people. It's perpetuated by all of us."

If you have a brain, you're biased

At UCAR, the first step in making change was convincing scientists that they, too, could be racist.

"Scientists are very convinced they're objective," Brinkworth said. But based on a wealth of scientific research, "what we know is if you have a brain, you're biased. You're not doing this intentionally."

Brinkworth began in her role 18 months ago. When it came to making changes, everything was on the table. Hiring practices were overhauled, promotion and salary processes transformed. Every department — 27 in total — took a culture survey and was tasked with creating a strategic plan based on the results. Mangers report to Brinkworth, with a strict deadline for reaching goals: 2021. The entire workforce will be offered a series of trainings on identity, privilege, power and bystander intervention.

It's a mix of quantifiable metrics and "fluffier" culture work. And it's changing things, she said.

Boulder could replicate these measures, with some effort and resources. But even so, that change would be limited to the city government. It may be harder to convince the wider community, which is intensely engaged in the civic process.

What if the consultant group tapped by the city — the Government Alliance for Race and Equity — finds in its analysis that Boulder's planning policies are resulting in racist outcomes, as critics have alleged? What will the response be? Slow-growth factions have resisted bending for seniors, for teachers — why would they bend for minorities?

If more housing can't be built at attainable levels, it's unlikely the racial makeup of the population will change. Boulder is too expensive for most everyone, but particularly for the people of color who missed out on the mass wealth generation wrought from home ownership, due to discriminatory lending practices and local zoning.

"At some point there's going to be a juncture," Prusmack said. "We're either going to go all in or say we're not going to do this at all, we're racist, (expletive) it. This middle-fence post sitting is really dangerous because it covers up the holes," the many places where work is needed.

Changing the story

People of color in this town say they have varying degrees of faith as to whether or not Boulder can change. In lieu of that, they'd take a little more honesty about the extent of the problem here.

"Boulder has to be willing to change their story," Silva said. "They either have to be willing to say, 'We're a community that thought we're more progressive than we are, but we're working on it.' Or they have to keep telling themselves they're something they have not yet achieved."

To move a community will take the commitment of many individuals, the changing of many minds and hearts.

None of the people interviewed for this series had given up. All said they still are actively engaging in conversations with their white peers, and each had suggestions for what it would take to make Boulder a truly welcoming and inclusive community.

Among their ideas:

It will take understanding the experiences of others. Reading is a good place to start: Prusmack recommends Robin DiAngelo's "White Fragility" and "The Color of Law" by Richard Rothstein; Peter Salas, Prusmack's predecessor in the Boulder County diversity job, is partial to an essay by John Metta, "I, Racist," and one of its inspirations, " Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race," by Reni Eddo-Lodge.

It will take learning about Boulder's own history, from the native people who inhabited these lands, to the Ku Klux Klan's presence here in the early part of the 20th century, or the city's only black mayor, Penfield Tate, who served for one term before being ousted over his support of gay rights. Or it could be helping to write a more complete history, one that includes all residents, through forums like the Boulder County Latino History Project.

It will take teaching these things to our children, the histories of people of color. The pride and the shame.

It will take voting for candidates of color and supporting them at every level of power. It will take long, hard looks at what policies we support and why, and what role those laws play in inequality. It will take making room for the voices and power of others.

It will take calling out racism where we see it, no matter how awkward or uncomfortable. That means not only to the person on the street using racial slurs, but to friends and relatives and loved ones.

It will take having those conversations with ourselves.

Not everything it will take to make change is hard.

Sometimes it's as simple as a smile, said Kemba Douglas, a black Naropa University student who moved to Boulder last year.

Be friendly, say hi, she said, and then move on. Go about your day, and allow her to do the same and be just another face in the crowd.

Shay Castle: 303-473-1626, castles@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/shayshinecastle