Racism and Our Responsibility: A letter from Minna Castillo Cohen, director of the CDHS Office of Children, Youth and Families

June 8, 2020

Dear colleagues,

The recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Elijah McClain have acted as catalysts, sparking protests across the globe. These four names are just four among a growing list of Black men, women and children who have died as a result of the use of force by various law enforcement or, in the case of Ahmaud Arbery, by private citizens in their very own community. We have watched on social media, on the news, on TV shows, the internet and in the newspaper how our neighborhoods, communities, state, country and the world have reacted … often with ALL the feelings … anger, frustration, pain, sadness, grief, horror, disgust, hopelessness, fear, sickness and dismay.  While talking about the protesting and rioting, I said to someone, "this horrific murder was the straw that broke the camel's back" and then I rethought that statement.

If you look up the idiom the straw that broke the camel's back, you'll find the description of the seemingly minor or routine action that causes an unpredictably large and sudden reaction, because of the cumulative effect of small actions. So my use of this idiom was wrong and right at the same time. Mr. Floyd's murder was not "seemingly minor." It was no straw. It was 100 tons of bricks. Individual bricks. Individual bodies. Individual lives and experiences. Individual bricks, which, over the course of 400 years, have been intentionally and without care, tossed upon another. The weight is unfathomable for some and, for others, the weight is carried every single moment of every single day. And this was no series of "small actions." No. This was multiple incidents of brutality leading to the death of Black human beings. The "large and sudden reaction" could have easily occurred after any one of these deaths (or the immeasurable deaths of those who came before) and easily could have been predicted, because of the cumulative effect felt by BIPOC as one more human being died in this violent way. Perhaps what could not have easily been predicted, is how allies of all colors across the world came together to say "enough." 

 Within the Office of Children, Youth and Families, many of us have been processing these feelings and sharing our experiences. I want to thank the OCYF team. Thank you for being brave if you took a risk, thank you for even considering sharing if you are not yet ready, and for those of you who listened and reflected as friends, families and coworkers were speaking their truth, thank you. For many of us who have been working either in our personal or professional lives to address the long-standing racialized practices that exist in all of our social and economic structures, we know that we still have so much work to do. We all have a responsibility to continue to look at the policies and institutional barriers that exist in the very systems we all work within in OCYF that create disparities, overrepresentation and often perpetuate and preserve systemic and institutionalized racism (juvenile justice, child welfare, violence prevention, sexual health, relationships, etc.). 

As a Latina with light skin and blue eyes who grew up in the middle-class suburbs of Denver, I acknowledge the privileges I have and know I have an opportunity and responsibility in this work. Marching yesterday with my family alongside the children, youth and families of Denver Public Schools, I wasn't less angry and sad. Rather, I was overcome with the belief that as a collective, with strong leaders young and old alike, we CAN be the change we wish to see. 

As we all strive to improve conversations about race, racism and racial justice, I am encouraging the OCYF team to lean into the CDHS shared values of a people-first approach, holding ourselves accountable, transparent and being ethical (doing what is right, not what is easy). We must also hold our CDHS value that balance creates quality of life. So let's have the hard conversations, let's roll up our sleeves and create action plans, write policies, draft legislation, all the while being sure to find the right balance that works for you so that compassion fatigue does not result in inaction. We must balance the pain, anger and sadness, by seeking support of our families, communities and one another and offering a listening ear, virtual high five, snaps, fist pumps or elbow bumps, because we are still dealing with a different kind of pandemic: COVID-19.

I have started and stopped, revised and rewritten this message several times over the last week as the thoughts and feelings and the messages I want to convey have been all over the map. While this message looks nothing like its first draft, it still shares my feelings and desire for action. I know that there may be some members of our team who are newer to social justice work, some who frankly don't want to talk about or hear about systemic and institutionalized racism and, still, some others whose anger may be directed in a different place than mine. If this is you, please know that I believe while there are parts of the systems that must change, it does not need to be rejected completely. I hope that you're willing to keep an open mind and heart; I will commit to that, too. 

I know that as a team we are dedicated to improving the lives of our young people and their families no matter their race, age, color, ability, faith, religion, national origin, citizenship, sex, sexual orientation, social class, economic class, ethnicity, gender identity, gender expression and all other identities represented, both individually and intersectionally, among our diverse Colorado communities. I am looking forward to working with the OCYF team, our colleagues throughout the Colorado Department of Human Services and our innumerable community partners to share ideas for action and to create a strategy for systemic change. We can do this and we must do this, because Black Lives Matter.


Minna Castillo Cohen
Office of Children, Youth and Families, CDHS

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