Working Hope

Working Hope

A common theme woven throughout the African diaspora is the emphasis on Ubuntu—a Zulu expression that roughly translates to “I am because you are.” This concept teaches that individuals are inherently connected to and part of their community from birth, and embraces the idea of prioritizing humanity over the individual. It emphasizes the highest honor being an individual’s impact on the community. While it may be known by different names, this principle resonates throughout many communities.

Zuleika Johnson has worked as a fundraiser in Colorado Springs for nearly a decade. However, her influence over the last few years has been a tour de force. A first-generation Dominican American and Bronx native, she leveraged her social capital to recruit seven community leaders and the Pikes Peak Community Foundation to create a more inclusive philanthropic community in the region. In 2021, they launched the Pikes Peak Fund for Racial Equity, a giving circle powered by BIPOC donors and allies to support organizations serving BIPOC communities. 

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Zuleika glowed as she spoke candidly about growing philanthropy in communities of color, stating “There’s a place for everyone at the Fund for Racial Equity. The person who could give $25 and the person who could give $25,000 all came together and made it happen. That’s how we were able to do this collectively.”

The “this” she refers to is the incredible feat of raising more than twice the amount initially sought, enabling the distribution of $84,000 in grants to 11 non-profit organizations across the Pikes Peak Region.

Meeting with Zuleika and two other members of the fund’s advisory board, Amber Coté and Jonathan Liebert, all three community leaders deflect attempts to applaud their achievements, redirecting the focus back to the collective efforts of the entire community. Amber states “By pooling our money together we were able to have so much more impact. That’s one of the appeals of this fund. People saw the opportunity to participate in something where their gift, no matter the size, had an impact.”

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Amber has more than 28 years of experience working with nonprofits. She’s also co-chair of the Asian Pacific Islander Advisory Council within El Pomar Foundation’s Elevating Leadership Development (ELD) program. “I’ve seen the toxicity of the nonprofit industrial complex and how it can be harmful in the name of being helpful. So when Zuleika had this brilliant idea and invited me to walk alongside her, I was all in.” 

“I was born and raised in Colorado Springs,” she elaborated. “I have a loyalty to this community that runs deep. My kid was born and raised here. I have friends who have little kids that are growing up here. And I just want to keep making this community better and more welcoming for everyone.”

This sentiment is echoed by Zuleika. “Colorado Springs has given me this opportunity. There is a very warm, welcoming feeling here. I just want to live in a place that reflects me and my family. I want to continue to feel like this is home.”

Their humility and reverence for community pour out during the conversation, making it clear why they’ve been so effective. Their work serves as a testament to the impact that can be harnessed by the growing diversity within Colorado Springs. In a city known for its numerous nonprofit enterprises, the Fund for Racial Equity occupies its own lane by acknowledging the often-overlooked needs of nonprofits dedicated to overcoming racial disparities. 

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Race consistently influences life outcomes in the United States. A report conducted in 2020 by Echoing Green and The Bridgespan Group highlights the ongoing injustice experienced by Black-led nonprofits in particular. Their research found that while talent is equally distributed among races, opportunity is not. 

In short, donors who prioritize social change need to actively consider racial equity to make a substantial impact. Supporting leaders of color is essential, as they possess direct insights into the challenges faced by their communities. This support is lacking in a significant way. The Racial Equity Fund’s innovative approach to addressing this disparity is key. 

Acknowledging the importance of efforts that are “for us, by us,”  Jonathan explains, “Philosophically, it’s just important. This is kind of a statement in and of itself. It’s about lifting the community. This is important to a lot of people, and it hasn’t been an option in the past here.” 

Jonathan’s passion for social enterprises and purpose-driven businesses is clear. He feels privileged to seize this opportunity to impact the lives of fellow Hispanic leaders and the larger BIPOC community. “This town has given me opportunities, great opportunities. The right people at the right time have listened and provided support and help. That’s important. You can’t just do it on your own. It takes a village. It takes community.”

Another significant difference in the fund is its commitment to providing flexible funding, a concept that distinguishes it from most traditional grants. In addition to receiving $6500 grants for their organizations, leaders received an additional $1000 grant that must be directed toward personal use. 

This approach stems from a profound cultural competency; an understanding that, without this separate requirement, the grantees would have resources towards community needs but not their own. As Amber points out, “A lot of CEOs are founders, and they saw a need in their community. And they rose to the occasion. So we wanted to make sure they had the flexibility to take care of themselves.” 

As the Racial Equity Fund continues to grow, it remains a symbol of hope. They are demonstrating that collective action can pave the way for transformative progress. 

Zuleika sums up the vision, stating “I would love to see us, through the Fund for Racial Equity, change the culture of philanthropy here.”

As they embark on their next season, the Fund for Racial Equity welcomes all donors, irrespective of their financial capacity, to join this movement; recognizing that everyone has a role to play in shaping a more equitable future.