Tell us about yourself. What brought you to Fort Collins and
to leading the Cultural Enrichment Center (CEC)?

I was born and raised in Long Island, New York, the baby of 9 children. I grew up in a community that is very similar to Fort Collins, based on the demographics of race or ethnicity. I lived in an all Black neighborhood but was surrounded by a predominantly white community. As a result, from kindergarten through 12th grade, I was often the only Black student in my class.

There was a community center in the neighborhood I grew up in that provided after-school programming. The main focus was tutoring and extra help with homework, but it was also a hangout spot. For many, it was a place where kids could go and be safe. For me, it was a place to connect with being a student and be the best student I could be. I’ve always been intrigued by books and the stories in books. I had a great relationship with the director of the program, and he started lending books out to me from the little library. I found myself immersed in the study of Black history. By 8th grade, I was taking the bus to a Black history study class after school, about an hour away. My teacher there really started me on my focus journey of learning my history and my culture – from Africa to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and post that.

As a result, it’s always been a part of me, and I think that’s why I wanted to create what I created here. It’s an extension of that.

I moved to Fort Collins in the Fall of 1997 and have lived in this community for 18 years out of the 24 years I’ve been out of New York. I know Fort Collins well.

The week before George Floyd’s murder was the anniversary of my mom’s passing.

Within that same week, one of my closest friend’s mother passed. My mother was like his second mother, and his was like my second mother. When she passed, I went down to Colorado Springs to help him move his mom’s things, and the drive back to Fort Collins was emotional. In my head, it was literally like our moms were in my ears. They were just telling me, “Jamal, you need to do something. You need to do more than what you’re doing.” That day, when I got back to Fort Collins, I decided to open a space for young Black kids to have in this community even if I have to do it myself financially and support it myself. That’s where this whole thing comes from.

What is the mission and purpose of the CEC?

That’s a great question. The first priority is a safe space. A space where students or youth in this community who identify with being Black or African American can come to and be their authentic selves, without any judgment on them, and to build relationships with others who have a similar experience of existing in Fort Collins. The second priority is programming, whether it’s through folklore, art, music, language, dance, or learning of our history through books, literature, or film. Through all of that, we see them and teach them to see these things through an African American or Black person’s lens. The objective is that they begin to build confidence and be able to feel fully connected to the community and offer themselves to the community to build partnerships. It’s about developing that foundation, and that foundation can take them anywhere.

The objective is that they begin to build confidence and be able to feel fully connected to the community and offer themselves to the community to build partnerships. It’s about developing that foundation, and that foundation can take them anywhere.

What is something that you’re most proud of with the work at the CEC?

For me, what I’m most proud of goes back to my story. I grew up in this, I know what it gave me, and I’ve seen what it gave those around me who utilized it. It creates this sort of GPS of how to navigate through systemic racism, white supremacy, and to do it with grace and confidence. I’m most proud to be a continuum of that, of learning my history and that long tradition. I know my history inside out, from the early 1600s to now. I’m also very proud of the young people who have been consistently coming to the CEC, giving their time to the space, and giving their time with respect, reliability, and accountability. Those are the main focuses we talk about all the time. I’m proud of their willingness and dedication to be open about what they know and what they don’t know. I’m most proud of them, I really am. 

What are you most proud of in your community in general, even outside the CEC?

I’m very proud of the overwhelming reception the CEC has received from the Larimer County community, but specifically from Fort Collins. A lot of businesses and organizations have reached out from day one with an honest idea of trying to help and support. I’m grateful for that, and I know the kids are grateful for it. I’m proud of the community. I didn’t expect it to happen as fast as it happened. There’s a lot more that can be done, but I’m thankful for those in our community who have put their work where their mouth is and reached out. We’re in a good space, but it could be a lot better.

First and foremost, I really want people to understand the necessity of the space for young people. Young people are always in a state of evolving and trying to develop their identity.

What do you want people to know about the CEC, especially folks who may not know anything?

First and foremost, I really want people to understand the necessity of the space for young people. Young people are always in a state of evolving and trying to develop their identity. The CEC is a space for them to really connect with whatever their identity is, whatever they choose that it is, and to also understand that society somehow has a way of choosing an identity for you and how to navigate that. I want the community to know that this is a necessary space. I’ve heard some backlash unfortunately, that this space is divisive. I want the community to know that there is no desire to separate in a separatist form. The CEC is creating a space that is based on lived experience and connected experience. When you include, fully include, these marginalized groups or specific groups and allow these groups to heal and connect themselves, it’s a wonderful attribute for the rest of the community. They are then able to go into the community and give truly of themselves and add to the community. The creativity amongst like people sometimes creates wonderful things. The kids need this space. It’s not me saying it, it’s them saying it.

Why is it important to invest in BIPOC-led community-based organizations?
How does it benefit the community at large?

Simple answer. Having all voices, all thoughts, all creativity really being at the forefront of a community creates the greatest communities we can imagine. Having these BIPOC-led organizations are only going to create a greater community where people can truly commune with one another. It allows for those who may not have a connection to these groups to eventually have the possibility of connection and growth within them. If we can create a future generation of kids that have more empathy and compassion for everything around them, it will be a lot easier for them. These BIPOC-led organizations and groups in this community have not existed in the capacity that they’re trying to exist now in this community.

Having all voices, all thoughts, all creativity really being at the forefront of a community creates the greatest communities we can imagine.

What are you hopeful for? Where do you see the future of the Cultural Enrichment Center going?

Truly, what I’m hopeful for is that this community continues to do the work of helping sustain – not just support – but to sustain organizations like the CEC. We’re at a breaking point right now at the CEC where we have to get into a bigger space. That’s my dilemma right now because I can’t take on any more kids.

I see it continuing to grow, in a bigger space, being able to provide greater services for even more in-depth programming, and connecting to younger kids. Right now, we mainly run programming for middle and high school-aged kids. I see the CEC providing the best opportunities it can possibly provide for the students or participants that come in. I have fully committed the rest of my life to this work. That is the promise I made.

What do you think it’ll look like when community-based organizations have the resources and capacity they need to fulfill their purpose or mission?

The possibilities are endless. I know that sounds trite, but I can tell you that giving is about sustaining. That’s how I’m trying to focus on grants that I’m writing for now and connections that I’m trying to make even outside this community where there is real philanthropy, where there is continued, sustainable giving. For me, it’s about creating long-term relationships in this community. At this point, we’re really at a brink in history, socially and politically. If we don’t act now, we’re going to be in a tough spot in the next 2 to 3 years. I see Fort Collins having the potential to maintain, sustain, and help develop these programs and organizations that are BIPOC-led. They are going to be a major necessity in this community. Here’s a small example of why: I have many students who are biracial and some from trans-racial adoptions in my program. That identity piece and having these spaces that are BIPOC-led are going to become extremely crucial for the development of our young people, and my hope is that we continue to create more spaces for learning and connection.

What systems change do you hope to accomplish by building capacity at BIPOC-led nonprofit organizations in our community?

From the top-down, city financing and budgeting money is going to have to be different from this long trickle-down way it’s been working. There has to be a serious community connection with policymakers and city council members. Some of that is happening now, but there has to be continued communication, conversation, and relationship building. It’s going to require things to sometimes exist outside of the box from how they’ve always existed, where BIPOC-led organizations or groups have access to direct conversations with those who are in the position to change policy. BIPOC-led organizations also need allocated sustainable funding. It’s not just about giving, but giving and understanding the need for support with capacity building.

I’m working on two things right now: a program and a policy. The program is what we received our grant from United Way of Larimer County for – a social-emotional learning curriculum. We ran it through the summer and now I’m taking on a specific group of young people along with a few from the CEC who are in diversion and probation. (The school to prison pipeline we always talk about.) I’m going to take on a few that we can hopefully stop from going down that pipeline, and create a pitstop if not a wall, where we begin to use culturally relevant curriculum and staff to address these young people and the trauma they’re experiencing and why they’re even in this court system. That’s one thing I’m very focused on this year.

The policy is a no-tolerance policy in our school district of the N-word. It is out of control and now at an epidemic level where at least three of my students every day have a new story about it being used in school. I’m also pushing for true anti-racism work for our educators, for those who really want to do the work. It’s not just a one-time book club where you answer a few questions after reading a book, but a continuum for a full school year. We have to accept these realities and start to develop that type of community.

How has the support from United Way of Larimer County benefited the Cultural Enrichment Center?

It’s been wonderful. We were able to bring a group from Denver this past summer to work with our kids. There were some great relationships built, trust was built, and these kids were allowed to and are still connecting with coping strategies and dealing with emotions they’ve never really had continued conversation about, especially with their peers in a way where there’s no judgment.

I also went through a training by the Mendez Foundation. They run a social-emotional learning curriculum with over 50 different school districts in the US and have been doing it for over 25 years. I’m planning to facilitate part of that social-emotional learning program with our kids.

I learned about data collection because 10% of the grant had to go into doing data collection, and it’s taught me a lot about that process. I’m hoping that whatever capacity this continues to grow, there is more support for data collection and capacity building. For organizations like the CEC, sometimes we’re the ones doing everything ourselves. I don’t have a staff. I have 3 volunteers that run programs, but no one for basic operations. Having small, focused trainings on things like data collection or the best way to run daily operations would be helpful. I’m extremely appreciative and hoping to continue our relationship with United Way of Larimer County.

Any last thoughts or things you’d like to share?

Our motto at the CEC is, “start where you stand”. A lot of people want to run here and there, but it’s about doing something right where you are.

Learn more about the Cultural Enrichment Center in Fort Collins here. Thank you, Jamal, for taking the time to speak with us!

Translate »