Activist Candi CdeBaca on Project VOYCE, building benches and the future of a changing Denver
By Danielle Krolewicz
While Candi CdeBaca attended Manual High School in Denver, it temporarily closed. That was 12 years ago, and was her first experience with education reform. CdeBaca saw firsthand how the closure limited community engagement and student voice. So, she decided to do something about it. That something was to co-found Project VOYCE (Voices of Youth Changing Education) with the goal of empowering youth with the skills to be agents of change in their community, particularly in regard to their education.
After three years with Project VOYCE and following graduation from University of Denver with a Master’s in Social Work, CdeBaca moved to Washington D.C. for a fellowship with the Center for Progressive Leadership. She spent six years in D.C., gaining experience in policy from the inside as an executive assistant at Excelencia in Education, an organization that seeks to advance Latino students in higher education. She then spent time as a compliance monitor with the District of Columbia Public School system.
Family brought CdeBaca back to Denver. Her family is from the Globeville neighborhood of Northeast Denver, and she returned when her grandmother was in hospice.
“I decided that I could be doing the same thing here and Denver needed me, so I stayed and I took over Project VOYCE,” recalls CdeBaca.
“As a first generation high school graduate, to even leave the city was unique to my family,” says CdeBaca. Because of the opportunities she feels lucky to have had, she also feels an obligation to make sure other people get those same opportunities.
Project VOYCE does just that – provides opportunity for youth who may not otherwise have it. Currently, 50 core students from schools like Bruce Randolph, Manual, Cole, and Noel Community Arts (among others) can participate in a five-week program to become trainers in topics such as educational, housing, environmental, and economic justice.
When Project VOYCE gets “asks” from other agencies such as schools, non-profits, and other community organizations, the students – or coalition members – are sent to lead the trainings and are compensated for their time.
“We have to have that component because the groups we work with are often so disadvantaged by the systems they need those economic opportunities, otherwise they can’t choose Project VOYCE as their extra-curricular activity,” says CdeBaca of the paying job aspect.
“The political impact and civic engagement is happening a lot faster as we refine our own tools and methods as an organization,” observes CdeBaca, who has essentially been with the organization since its beginning.
Besides the new pilot module and participatory budgeting, the most recent development to come from PV is The VOYCE, a community-run underground newspaper. Project VOYCE partnered with CU’s anthropology department to provide further training for coalition members on digital storytelling with an emphasis on reclaiming their narratives and the idea for the paper was born from that experience.
“In a city where we have media outlets that barely cover anything in an objective way, we never get our opportunity to tell our stories and to tell them from our perspective,” says CdeBaca. “Especially students of color, who are often painted in the media as dangerous, as criminals, as people who don’t care about change or their community.”
Based on the digital storytelling they learned, coalition members took it to the next level and, according to CdeBaca, they realized there was a pervasive lack of awareness about issues facing their community.
“‘Hey, our community doesn’t know about these things that are happening. They don’t know what’s going on in city council, they don’t know what’s going on with zoning, what’s being built, what other people are fighting against or for. How can we get that into their hands?’” CdeBaca explained. “That’s where the idea for this underground, community-run newspaper came from. [We] said, ‘If you want to do, it go for it, but it has to be youth-led, because that’s how you keep control of your narrative.’”
The paper debuted in March. It is currently online and in print in both English and Spanish, which CdeBaca, who is also bilingual, identifies as an on-going, important issue and barrier for many people living in North East Denver.
“A lot of information is not accessible to our mono-lingual Spanish speakers,” she observed. She’s not wrong – according to the Statistical Atlas, 41.6 percent of people in North Denver speak Spanish at home.
In addition to being co-executive director for Project VOYCE, CdeBaca has her hand in a variety of projects, including Ditch the Ditch, Denver CAN, and GES Coalition. Project VOYCE’s headquarters in the TAXI I building at 3455 Ringsby Court house many of these organizations, and it’s often referred to as the “rebel stronghold” by those involved.
Denver could soon see much more of CdeBaca’s influence. Although the race is not until May of 2019, CdeBaca announced her intention to run for City Council District 9, where she will challenge incumbent Albus Brooks.
“I feel like a lot of my family members and nieces and nephews need to see someone like me in their community so that they can have a model to follow and to grow,” says CdeBaca. “I’m doing what I can, but I know that if I set that example for them they can do even more when it’s their turn, and they can start sooner and have even greater impact.” ■