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Letter from Lauren with Lauren Y. Casteel headshot

Letter from Lauren: On MLK, Jr. Day, Condemn Misogynistic & Racist Violence

// January 14, 2022

Community, Witnessing, Learning, and Healing in the Places We Call Home

On Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I’m taking a different approach

On Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, it would be easy for me to link our goal of gender, racial, and economic equity to his historic legacy. I usually do. However, this year I take a different approach and draw connections between the horrific shootings in Denver and Lakewood on December 27, 2021, and the importance of Community, Witnessing, Learning, and Healing in the places we call home.

The murderous rage that took the lives of Alicia Cardenas, Alyssa Gunn-Maldonado, Danny Scofield, Sarah Steck, and Michael Swinyard was the beginning of a week that also destroyed more than 1,000 neighbors’ homes in Boulder County. It was also the ninth mass shooting in Colorado since 1993.

The targeted killings of December were definitively, intentionally, unapologetically and brazenly driven by extremist hate, which is an epidemic in the midst of a pandemic. The shooter “wrote about similar murders, personal grudges and a desire for revenge in three rambling, misogynistic and racist novels, which focused on rage, violence, economic inequity,” according to The Denver Post. He advocated “male honor killings.” Would Dr. King, the voice of nonviolence, have spoken with condemnation if he hadn’t been gunned down by hate himself? Absolutely.

What I learned at 14th and Ogden streets

I am not tattooed. However, Alicia Cardenas, whose art now adorns bodies and walls throughout the Denver area was an important teacher for me along my journey. My meeting of Alicia began in a place — a building at 14th and Ogden streets I had known well since the 1990s. That place was also the original home to renowned portrait photographer, Katy Tartakoff, whose camera witnessed and captured the evolution of my family. Katy taught me to also see the humanity of bodies ravaged by AIDS and the beauty of children with “stupid illnesses” that were life-threatening. That place was where the late Dr. Abayomi Meeks, a healer and leader of rites of passage, held peace meetings with Crips and Bloods at Moyo Nguvu Cultural Center. I walked in uninvited and sat down firmly to serve as witness. Sweaty young Black men’s bodies glistened with internalized oppression and pain that they protected with prison tattoos of the automatic weapons that they aimed at each other. My fear converted to action to protect the community.

In 2000, when 14th and Ogden became the home of Twisted Sol, Alicia Cardenas’s first tattoo studio, I entered with my 18-year-old who had been drawn to body art for several years. With gang tattoos seared into my brain, I accompanied him to serve as supportive witness, but I know my anxiety and biases were palpable. My fear was every Black mama’s fear of one more reason for my amazing Black son to be a target.

And a witness I was as Alicia, a proud Indigenous woman, who wore magnificent tattoos and piercings I had never seen before, directed her graceful attention to him while silently honoring me. I listened and my eyes took in her beauty as she spoke wisdom. She told my son that each tattoo is a piece of art that needed to have meaning to him as he grew. They would reinforce who he is and who he would become. Through cultural teaching and gentle reflection, she drew me in as a witness-learner to a place of community where mutual respect was essential. Validation of intentional and thoughtful self-expression was simultaneously freedom, rebellion, and healing for the spirit.

Over the years, I witnessed a few conversations and the practice of artistic work making. Alicia taught me not only about my own biases, but also a new understanding of my now man-child. I was honored to be invited and welcomed. Eventually my other children found their way to Alicia. At the heart of it, she exuded love. She was a matriarch and a champion of women and nonbinary people of color. If she loved my children so, I could only imagine the fierceness of her love for her child.

Love as the antidote to hate

I visited Sol Tribe Custom Tattoo and Body Piercing a handful of times in more recent years. The address was different, but the place of the block community felt similar. After the shootings I stopped by the street memorial on behalf of my family and had a moment of grief to absorb the power of my memories. Tears fall as I write this. Tears for all those humans who died that night and women who are victims of misogyny, racism, and staggering incidences of gun violence.

The Women’s Foundation of Colorado champions gender, racial and economic equity because hate, bias, and resistance to seeing our beauty can lead literally to death by inadequate health care and in extreme cases, homicidal gun rage. Our spirits can be robbed by systems that deny child care or housing — and ultimately joy. The list goes on.

Today, I call upon the spirit of Dr. King who taught our beloved community to give witness and act with love as the antidote to heal hate. Today, I urge us all to be honest about our own biases, to join new communities and stop othering in our minds.

The entire state of Colorado is our place, our home. This is our time to champion Community, Witnessing, Learning and Healing and condemn misogynistic and racist violence.

Lauren Y. Casteel, President & CEO

If what I’ve written today resonates with you, I encourage you to check out the Center for Trauma and ResilienceColorado Ceasefire, Colorado Coalition of Sexual Assault, Violence Free Colorado, and the book My Grandmother’s Hands

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