LAUREN Y. CASTEEL looked me straight in the eye and said: “I’ve had an extraordinary life, but I am not an extraordinary person.”
Anyone who knows Casteel, the president and chief executive officer of The Women’s Foundation of Colorado (WFCO), would beg to differ, for if ever there was an extraordinary person, it is she.
Daughter of the late civil rights leader Whitney M. Young Jr. and the late educator-author-racial equity advocate Margaret Buckner Young, Casteel grew up in the 1950s in segregated Atlanta. Her father was dean of social work at what is now Clark Atlanta University. It was there that Lauren Casteel received one of her first exposures to racial discrimination. Her father, despite having served as an Army sergeant of segregated troops in World War II, wasn’t allowed to use the GI Bill to purchase a home. In 1961, Young left the university to become executive director of the National Urban League. He served 10 years, until he drowned while swimming during a trip to Lagos, Nigeria, where he was attending a conference sponsored by the African-American Institute.
Casteel moved to Denver when she was 20, seeking a fresh start after surviving a succession of personal tragedies that, in retrospect, prepared her well for the career path she followed. “When life hits you hard, you can be derailed and unable to see options— and for a period of time that was me,” Casteel said, referring to a violent sexual assault when she was 16, the deaths of her beloved father and grandfather when she was 17, and the passing of a treasured friend a year later.
Her fragile emotional state caused her to fail out of Swarthmore College during the second semester of her junior year. “I just stopped. I shut down,” she said. Today, when she speaks to young people, particularly those of color, she tells them, “I am you,” to let them know that no matter the obstacles they encounter, they can succeed.
Arriving in Colorado, she enrolled at the University of Colorado Denver and earned a bachelor’s degree in communications. (In January, her alma mater recognized her many accomplishments by selecting her to be an honorary doctor of humane letters.)
Communications degree in hand, Casteel advanced at a local television station under the mentorship of another equality-for-all pioneer, Beverly Martinez, before then-Den- ver Mayor Federico Peña tapped her to become his press secretary. After holding executive positions with the Hunt Alternatives Fund, the Buell Foundation and The Denver Foundation, she joined The Women’s Foundation of Colorado in February 2015.
Casteel said she came to WFCO “with a sense of gratitude ... to work on behalf of gender, racial and economic equity for all,” her drive to succeed fueled by the knowledge that as a Black woman, “I can’t fail, or [I will] risk doors being closed for those who follow me.”
From the get-go, she has demonstrated leadership at WFCO that others in the Denver nonprofit world hail as intentional, inclusive, sharply focused, supportive and, perhaps most important, one with a keen understanding of the issues that women of all ethnicities face.
“Lauren is a truly inspirational, passionate, caring and effective leader,” said Gary Steuer, president/CEO of the Bonfils-Stan- ton Foundation. “And, just a good, kind, thoughtful human being.”
Arlene Hirschfeld, who was president of the Junior League of Denver in 1986-87, when that group helped start WFCO, praises Casteel’s “breadth of knowledge and storehouse of experiences.” She also admires Casteel’s ability to draw out the best in people.
During her tenure, WFCO’s assets have grown from $18 million in 2015 to its current $31 million, reflecting the success of prioritizing gender-linked investing. In 2020, the foundation granted nearly $2.2 million to nonprofit organizations, its largest annual grant total to date. The foundation has created eight giving circles and 66 donor-advised funds, all of which help fulfill its mission of “catalyzing community to advance and accelerate economic opportunities for Colorado women and their families.”
Or, as Casteel puts it: “We use all the tools in our toolbox to get women ahead.”
One giving circle, the Women’s Impact Investing Giving Circle at WFCO, recently invested $125,000 to fund three social ventures led by and benefiting women: the Alamosa-based First Southwest Community Fund, which has helped meet the needs of rural Coloradans since 2015; the JEKL Foundation for STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Art and Mathematics) Education, founded by physicist, mechanical and nuclear engineer Toi Massey of Denver; and Ruby’s Market, a multicultural artisan and food incubator at 1569 S. Pearl St. in Denver.
In the 2021 Colorado General Assembly, WFCO advocated on behalf of 22 bills important to its constituency.
Joanne Davidson spent 29 years writing about nonprofit organizations for The Denver Post and is now a regular contributor to Colorado Expression and Colorado Politics.
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