"We need women who are so strong they can be gentle, so educated they can be humble, so fierce they can be compassionate, so passionate they can be rational, and so disciplined they can be free."
This quote from Kavita N. Ramdas, a globally recognized advocate for gender equity and justice and member of the Aspen Institute's Henry Crown Fellows Program, sums up the spirit of the four local leaders we profile in this issue of Colorado Expression. Each member of this quartet exemplifies strength and gentleness, intellect and humility, ferocity and compassion, passion and pragmatism, discipline and liberty despite odds stacked against them due to race, gender or both. They share thoughts on their lives and the important issues of 2020 in interviews edited for brevity and clarity.
Dr. Nita Mosby Tyler
The Catalyst in Chief
At home in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood on Independence Day 2020, Dr. Nita Mosby Tyler heard loud bangs she recognized were not fireworks. “I knew it was gunshots. I looked out the window, and there was a dead man,” says the founder and chief catalyst of The Equity Project LLC.
“I always tell people not to get too comfortable even when a neighborhood gets gentrified. We are the only Black family on our block, but there had been a lot of gang activity here. I think we should be really concerned about why kids have guns.” Tyler founded The Equity Project to support organizations and communities in building diversity, equity and inclusion strategies. She also holds a doctorate in organizational leadership from the University of Colorado and among numerous honors, in 2019 was 9News Leader of the Year.
How did the murder of George Floyd and the aftermath of protests and riots affect The Equity Project, which you founded, along with The HR Shop?
We’ve always been really busy, but I’ve never seen us before with no bandwidth anymore. We are booked.
What do you remember about growing up in Atlanta during the Civil Rights Movement?
I’ve been in Colorado almost 25 years. When I got here, I thought for at least a week that I the only Black person in Colorado. In Atlanta, when I was 8 and 9 years old, I was still drinking from the “Colored” water fountain. Negroes were not allowed certain places, and there were cross-burnings on campus. We lived in the segregated South, so our neighborhood was all Black, but my family had a little more privilege. We went to the symphony and the opera. My mother was a teacher and made sure that happened. But my playmates couldn’t have that so I would recreate a play or musical I’d seen, a one-woman show weekly, and charge a dime for them to watch me perform. I think that was my early consciousness of equity.
You’re an entrepreneur now, but earlier in your career, you were the first African-American woman to hold several high-ranking positions, including head of human resources for Children’s Hospital and also the city of Denver. How does being first add pressure to already stressful roles?
It is pressure to be the first to break through, to be the only one. I’m acculturated to being the only one, but it’s still pressure and a different sort of weight to carry when so many people who look like you are counting on you. It has been tough. I feel lucky to be married to a pastor [Tim Tyler of Shorter Community AME Church] so I have a spiritual advisor in the same house. [They’re the parents of three young-adult children—all activists.]
You’re the author of “White People Really Love Salad: What My Childhood Taught Me About Diversity,
Equity & Inclusion.” Are you writing another book? Yes, this one is more academic, trying to put equity in the workplace on a continuum. I’m still noodling, but I’m committed.
What is your superpower?
I’m disarming. I can disarm almost anybody. I have learned how to always put myself in that person’s position before I say anything.
Given current events in our country, do you feel more or less hopeful about diversity, equity and inclusion in Colorado and the U.S.?
It’s a really hard time in history, and I have every right to be a very angry Black woman in America, but I’m not, and it’s because I stay filled with hope. It’s just the way I live. I’m not naïve. I believe in the possibility that everything can be better than it is. I don’t waver on that. I have lots of hope— more hope than I’ve ever had. I see us finally working in a collective. My argument the whole time has been that to work for equity to actually happen, it’s not just people in oppression on the front lines. My mantra is everybody’s on the front line.
Kasia Iwaniczko MacLeod
Kasia Iwaniczko MacLeod emigrated from Poland at age 6, lost her foreign accent and found her American voice. A vice president of community and government engagement for mountain states at Cigna, she pronounces her name “Ka-sha Ee-va-NEECH-ko Mac LOUD.”
And she’s not afraid to speak up: “People say, ‘Your name’s so hard to pronounce. Why didn’t you just take your husband’s name?’ Because I watched my dad literally clean toilets so we could have a better life here, and he didn’t have any sons to carry on his name,” says Iwaniczko MacLeod. Her secret to success? “Be a maverick. Step out of line.”
What do you remember about Poland??
Growing up in Poland during communism was incredibly difficult for many of its citizens, our family included— standing in line for weekly food rations, my mom bartering her seamstress work for eggs and milk with local farmers. In a communist country with only two state-controlled television channels, you really didn’t know what was happen- ing in the democratic country next door, much less around the world. You just did not know what you were missing.
When did you become a U.S. citizen??
In the fall of 1987, at age 13. I remember that day vividly: the oath, the swearing-in ceremony at the downtown Denver federal courthouse, the tremendous pride across my family.
How did the Cold War complicate your family’s path to American citizenship?
The inherent distrust of people escaping communist countries was very real. We were called names. We were spit on. Our family would be passed over for jobs or promotions because of our accents or because our name was not Americanized and hard to pronounce.
How was your immigrant upbringing different from that of your peers?
I never received an allowance for making a bed or taking out the trash. It was expected because I slept in that bed, and that was my trash. I went to work earlier than most. My first job was at 10 years old. The job I hustled out of the hair shop owner, who gave me my first haircut, sweeping floors and answering phones until I was in high school, and I then took on two jobs: bagging groceries and gathering carts at Albertsons and working at a dry cleaners.
As the first person in your family to attend college, you walked in with $36 in your bank, and you worked two jobs as a full-time student. What was one of your proudest moments in college?
Being elected with over 60 percent of the vote to become the first female student body president at Mesa State College, now Colorado Mesa University. That same year, I was fortunate enough to be one of the youngest to be appointed to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights State Advisory Committee. Now I’m honored to return to that same campus as a gubernatorial-appointed CMU Trustee.
As an executive with a demanding job, a leader heavily involved in the community’s philanthropic scene and a cancer survivor, how do you manage stress?
I clear my head by having mindfulness moments. I use the Box Breathing Technique, a tactical method of controlling anxiety or stress through a breathing exercise. It’s used often by Navy SEALs. I live each day as if I won’t have tomorrow.
What do you do in your leisure time?
I love to walk and train in Krav Maga, which is Israeli defense fighting. Since 2013, my husband and I have been avid vintners. We’ve been fortunate to win the American Wine Society’s coveted Wine of the Year for our Super Tuscan and several medals for our Meritage.
Elaine D. Torres
The Community Builder
Elaine D. Torres, the first person in her family to graduate from college, earned her bachelor’s degree at the University of Colorado and her master’s degree at the University of Denver. She says, “I never really thought of not going to college, so I applied to CU-Boulder after my high school guidance counselor strongly discouraged me, saying it was too hard to get in.”
As community affairs director at CBS4 KCNC–TV, where she’s worked for nearly 20 years, Torres oversees station partnerships with the Denver Art Museum, the National MS Society, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Denver and others. She manages events including Together 4 Colorado Toy Drive and A Day for Wednesday’s Child. Torres served on the board of the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District. She currently is vice chairwoman of the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation Board of Trustees and scheduled to become chair in January 2021. She serves on the Latino Community Foundation of Colorado Board of Directors, the Denver Zoo’s Leadership Council and the Colorado Non-Profit Association’s Leadership Advisory Committee.
Your calendar sounds full, but what do you do in your free time?
Normally, we love to travel as a family. We look forward to getting back to traveling and exposing our son to this huge and diverse world and unique cultural experiences hopefully very soon. In the meantime, we’re doing some home improvements. We built a vegetable and herb garden, so I’m trying to figure out how to give it the care and attention it needs.
Who was caring for and giving attention to you as your mentors?
Right out of college I got a job working for Gov. Roy Romer. It was a dream as an inexperienced young political science grad. I worked in several of his offices and met Patricia Barela River— my boss, my mentor and a dear friend who has provided personal and professional guidance and support to me for over 25 years. I have so many strong, kind and caring women in my life. One woman, in particular, was my sister. She died in 2015 from ALS. She was 48 years old, had a loving husband and two wonderful teenagers. She was a rock up until the very end. I admire her strength, her determination and her grace, and I miss her dearly.
She must’ve been proud of you. Did you grow up in Colorado?
I was born in northern California, but grew up in Colorado Springs. My dad was a police officer and my mom was a stay-at-home mom.
As a working mom, how do you manage stress?
Over the past few months, I’ve developed a walking routine. I get up early and walk every day because of how good it’s been for not just my physical health, but also my mental health—especially during this really stressful time in our world. I have a greater appreciation for early mornings, nature and the little things I didn’t see before taking the time to slow down and observe.
The media takes a lot of bashing these days. How do you keep morale up when so many people blame so much on the media?
I’m so fortunate to work for a wonderful company and with people who are so dedicated to their jobs. These are people who operate with such integrity and honesty, and I’m really honored to be a part of the CBS4 family. So many of us have worked together for close to 20 years and we truly feel like a family. The work of the media is so critical and is needed now more than ever before.
Meshach Y. Rhoades
The Team Player
Meshach Y. Rhoades is a partner in the Armstrong Teasdale litigation practice group. When she’s not in a courtroom, she’s probably outside. “I love the outdoors. I grew up in the heart of Colorado, and I am so fortunate to have the Rockies as my backyard. As far back as I can remember, my parents and I trekked throughout Colorado and the Mountain West. I learned about the shifting winds at the Great Sand Dunes, the subalpine and alpine tundra at Rocky Mountain National Park, the strength of the river in the Grand Canyon and its biodiversity, the ancient pueblos in Canyon de Chelly, and the list goes on,” she says. “Nature gave me wonder, joy, confidence, resilience, discipline, friendship, and a healthy respect for the wild. The ultimate lesson I learned through my experiences was that even with the odds stacked against you, preparation can breed success.”
You’ve met with a lot of success and have garnered an impressively long and varied list of awards and honors. What is one of your most cherished accolades?
One that stands out for me is the University of Colorado Kalpana Chawla Outstanding Recent Alumni Award from 2015. Dr. Chawla had an impressive career as a scientist and astronaut, and in many ways she paved the way for women in her field. I’m similarly positioned in a field where women and minorities are under-represented.
You co-founded the Latinas First Foundation with Juanita Chacon to honor unsung Hispanic heroines in Colorado, and to build community, create scholarships and train Latinas for career progression. Do you currently feel more or less hopeful about inclusivity in Colorado?
I would be remiss if I said I have never experienced prejudice and bigotry. I have—a lot. My experiences are not unique. In Colorado, there are only a handful of Latina equity women partners at large law firms. Reaching this level has been a major obstacle for me and many other diverse women, especially. It’s been an incredibly difficult journey. In short, we can't rest. The numbers in the legal profession are not great for women and people of color, but they are getting better. Until we have opportunities for everyone to have a seat at the table, it's so important to be diligent in inclusivity efforts. Now, more than ever, it is important for voices to be heard—not just from the diverse community, but in support of the diverse community.
You were an All-American basketball player for Regis University. What did athletics teach you to prepare you for your career?
People are often surprised that at 5’2” I was a collegiate basketball player, and was a point guard. I come from a long line of college athletes. My father was inducted into the CSU Hall of Fame and played for the Denver Rockets, and my mother was a scholarship softball player at Metro State. I learned how to compete. I learned how to fail and how to pick myself back up, fix what went wrong and put it into practice. You learn about taking care of yourself and teamwork. It taught me about energy and hard work. If you bring positive energy to the room and put in the hard work, it goes a long way at home and in the courtroom. You also learn a lot about lifting other people up. The team dynamic is such that you’re cheering each other on—good days and bad. Being a champion for others is so critical to success, and having someone in your corner, especially as a diverse professional, is invaluable.
Colleen Smith, a longtime contributor to the magazine, is an award-winning journalist, novelist and screenwriter based in Denver.
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