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New & Next: Five Things Denverites Should Be Talking About




All In Denver co-founder Jami Duffy lays out the five conversations the city's residents should be starting, right now,  about our city's future.
Several weeks ago, I found myself reading 5280's "Your Newcomers Guide to Denver." As a Colorado native and Denver resident for the better portion of my adult life, I was genuinely curious about what the magazine thought newcomers ought to know about this home we call Denver. As I scrolled through the pages, trying to keep an open mind, I read about the "five topics new Denverites love to discuss."

The topics? Elevation, weather, driving, alcohol and weed.

I was puzzled.

Why would population who is considered one of the most educated in the nation, and one of the most progressive, be filling their time with such vapid points of conversation? We can do better, Denver.

In fact, I think you are doing better than this, and deserve a bit more credit.

So, without further delay, I bring you the five topics new and old Denverites should be -- and often are -- talking about.

Denver's housing crisis



Recently, at an open housing forum at North High School, Mayor Hancock reported that 87,000 Denver residents are at risk of not being able to afford their current living situation, and that Denver is, in fact, facing a housing crisis.

87,000 people. That's enough of our neighbors, our friends and our co-workers to fill Mile High Stadium, and all of the brewpubs in Denver. 87,000 people experiencing housing scarcity is not the makings for a "Sunday Fun Day."

As a result, Denver City Councilwoman Robin Kniech and Council President Albus Brooks are proposing a plan to create Denver's first permanent dedicated fund for affordable housing, with at least $150 million to be leveraged in the first 10 years to build 6,000 more affordable homes.

Let's be clear. This is a good thing. And we need this to pass without delay.

Let's also be clear. It's not enough. Not even close.

The city currently has a 20 percent budget surplus, as well as an expected 26 percent increase in tax revenue from marijuana sales predicted for 2017, according to councilmembers and city officials at the August 17 Affordable Housing committee meeting. One would think that these surplus funds should be used for a rainy day. Well, guess what, folks. It's pouring rain when it comes to our housing crisis. Why aren't we making these funds available to build affordable housing?

We're talking about housing for our teachers, our emergency responders, our social workers, our service industry employees, our artists, our nonprofit employees, our nurses and our children and elders. This crisis is far-reaching, and we want to be on the right side of our city's history on this particular issue. The right side means making as much funding available as possible for housing.

Councilman Chris Herndon suggests we look to "BBB" to fund affordable housing, or "Budget, Bonds, and Bud." I'm loving this. In the current plan, funding does not come from the city's budget, and will come from development fees and half a mill levy in property taxes.

Triple B, baby! That's a slogan I can get behind.

Denver's education crisis



Two kids enroll in Denver Public Schools. One has about a 63 percent chance of graduating from her local, public school. The other has about a 30 to 40 percent chance of completing school on time.

The difference? Likely income and ethnicity.

Denver Public Schools has one of the widest achievement gaps in the United States of America. In simple terms, this means that the kids who are doing well are topping the charts; and the kids who aren't are severely at risk of dropping out of high school. The kids at the bottom are primarily low-income students of color.

In some neighborhoods in Denver, the on-time high school graduation rate is less than 20 percent.

Let's talk. Look back at the past 12 months of your life. How much has our public school system come up in your conversations? What have you personally done to learn more about our local schools, and how much have you considered advocating for improvements?

We can point fingers, and blame the schools, the school board, and the parents. Let's not do that, just for the sake of argument. What if, instead, we offered to personally help, without any concern for whether we do or don't have kids enrolled in Denver Public Schools? What if educating our entire community of children became a collective responsibility? What if each of us took an interest in our local neighborhood school and made it a neighborhood priority to ensure that our local school was one of the top in the district?

Once Denver's children enter adulthood, they become our employees, our customers, our homeless neighbors, our investors, and our future leaders and visionaries.

Aren't they at least worth discussing?

Mobilizing local talent

Perhaps most evident in the local music and art scene, Denver is overflowing with local talent and vision. Yet, when it comes to crafting the larger vision for the future of our city, leadership cohorts and city officials spend much of their time looking to outside models for guidance and bold ideas.

As a global society, of course we ought to be learning from one another. But Denver's preference for the "other" is discrediting and disenfranchising local visionaries who might just have some bold and groundbreaking ideas of their own. Elected and appointed officials are seeking ideas about development strategies, workforce development, arts education, and city planning from cities far and wide, while often overlooking the creative and bold Denver residents who could offer as much -- if not more -- insight into the solutions that we need to build an equitable, visionary, and healthy city for all residents.

Despite some efforts to include local talent in broader conversations about the direction of our city, many still feel that their input is not making its way into actual planning and policy. How can we do a better and making sure that the people do, in fact, have a voice?

Discuss.



Public investments

Denver has some large-scale projects in our future, from the I-70 expansion to the National Western Complex to the complete overhaul of the Denver Performing Arts Complex, not to mention the global "Aerotropolis."

We are told that investments like these will put our growing city on the global map, and will make Denver "world-class."

Time for a chat. We need to talk about how we can justify these kinds of public investments in the face of a housing and education crisis. In the end, we may decide that these large-scale investments are not just nice, but also necessary. Still, conversations about where our money is going should be right up there with talk about the NFL Draft and the latest microbrew.

Hey, why not have the conversation about public investments over a local, craft beer while watching a football game? Triple win!

Weed

I get it. Weed is legal. It's everywhere. And it's a big deal.

I'll give you this one. We absolutely should be talking about weed. But let's start talking about where the marijuana money is going. Is it actually getting to the schools? And if it is, how is this investment making an impact in our communities? We are expecting a 26 percent surplus in tax revenue in 2017. Let's talk about putting that money to work for those who are being hurt by growth and development.

Oh, and while we're at it, maybe we ought to talk about how a crime that once disproportionately penalized communities of color is now considered "entrepreneurial" by the largely white community that now stands to make a sizable profit off the industry.

Again, these are just conversations. And they're worth having.

Jami Duffy is the co-founder of All In Denver. She's been a champion and thought leader around advancing equity in Colorado since she held her first sit-in in the fifth grade.

Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described Denver Public Schools as having the widest achievement gap in the U.S. We regret the error.
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