The majestic views of the Flatirons. The buskers on Pearl Street. Organic food companies and winding bike paths. This is what Boulder is known for and why many of us love it. Boulder is not, however, known for its diversity.
According to the 2015 U.S. Census, 90 percent of Boulder County residents are white, up 3 percent from 2010 and 13 percent more than the national average. The median income is more than $15,000 above the national average at roughly $69,400. This can create endless issues from affordable housing to biased policing and more. But there are some who are working to reverse these trends and make the County measure up to many of the values its citizens hold dear.
“In Boulder, I think people have always wanted to have a self-image of a liberal city that’s really welcoming and open to diversity. But when you talk to underrepresented people, the flipside to that, is that may not necessarily be what’s happening and that may not be the experience of minorities in the city,” says Nikhil Mankekar from the City of Boulder’s Human Relations Commission. “You have this dichotomy between what the self-image of the City is and what’s actually happening. … So my goal has been to be as honest about that as possible so we can come up with solutions.”
Mankekar will be joined by Syrian refugee and University of Colorado Boulder graduate student Salam Hindawi, community and immigration activist Laura Soto, Ghanaian drummer and dancer Maputo Manesh and Ray Ramirez from the Native American Rights Fund in Boulder for a panel discussion on diversity in Boulder County as part of the One Action: Arts + Immigration Project.
Born and raised in Boulder, Mankekar’s parents moved to Colorado after his dad got a job with IBM. Both from India, they met while studying in Chicago and Mankekar identifies both as Indian and Sikh-American.
Growing up, Mankekar understood the differences between himself and the majority population, but it is something he’s always appreciated and celebrated, while also making him more aware of what it was like for other minorities.
“It made me conscious of noticing other people’s experience and if something negative was happening to people from all different kinds of backgrounds, whether it was Latino, black, Muslim, Asian, it made me want to be an ally and want to help and make those situations better,” he says.
In 2015, Mankekar was appointed to the City of Boulder’s Human Relations Commission, where he has been working to foster a more inclusive, safe and welcoming community with the other four commissioners.
“Diversity makes communities better because the quality of life is better when you have many different kinds of people, many different cultures and they are all being respected and embraced,” he says. “When you have a community where everyone has the same income level and has the same hobbies it’s just not a really satisfying community to live in for everyone, including the majority population.”
Laura Soto, for one, sees diversity in “the face of Boulder County,” she says. “The face I see is a beautiful multi-cultural face of all colors and all languages. It is a beautiful thing to uplift.”
But she advocates for more integration while bringing awareness to both the minority populations and the organizations they serve.
“It’s much more than just diversity, it’s real actions that we can take on a daily basis to support this integration in our community,” Soto says. “We do have these awesome organizations that are already doing great work to integrate the community. So if you attend the events they are putting on, it’s a great opportunity to support integration, to support leadership in minorities and to get to know the people they serve.”
Now a paralegal and community rights activist, Soto immigrated to Colorado when she was 10 years old.
“I have grown up as an undocumented immigrant and I’ve suffered greatly the racism, the discrimination, the lack of opportunity and the ignorance that makes it hard for those of us who don’t have the same opportunities,” Soto says.
One such opportunity is the eligibility to vote, which Soto, despite her civic activism, lacks. “This time of year is very important, I believe people are very distracted by the presidential candidates,” she says. “I would like to bring it back home and say we have some local positions that are up for reelection and we want to make sure that our elected representatives do in fact care about our community issues.”
Salam Hindawi is also concerned with the upcoming elections, more specifically how the political rhetoric has changed since he moved here in 2014, and the effect that rhetoric is having on society.
“This is not what I expected,” says Hindawi who is a Syrian refugee studying human geography at CU Boulder. “I’m not saying that there is a lot of hatred but I’m afraid that the political scene will affect the reality.”
With an undergraduate degree in Arabic-English translation from Syria, Hindawi was conscripted into the Syrian Army after graduation. With no hope of ever being released, he defected in 2012.
“Not only because at one point I imagined I would be choosing between killing or getting killed, but because I was wasting my life,” he says. “And in my political view, I was against the Assad regime because they were using brutal force against the Syrian people.”
Encouraged to apply for the program at CU by a professor from Princeton Hindawi met in Aleppo in 2004, he was accepted and came to the U.S. on a student visa in December 2014.
Since moving to Colorado, he hasn’t experienced overt discrimination or stereotyping but, “I can’t be inside someone’s brain when I tell them I’m from Syria,” he says. “What I’m afraid of is the effect of the political rhetoric on the reality that someday maybe this is what people will think.”
His youngest brother lives in Germany and another brother and sister in Turkey, while his parents remain in Aleppo. “Sometimes they have no water for a month, sometimes no electricity for a month or two, I’m not kidding at all. The prices are very high,” he says. “The Syrian people are losing. We hope for the war to be over and the political process to start but unfortunately that’s not in our hands.”
For now, Hindawi is applying for asylum in the U.S. while he has temporary protective status that allows him to work in addition to going to school. Having grown up with an awareness of America, he says diversity is “the true spirit of this country.” He adds, “This country was established on the idea that you can come over here and start a good life. In that way, Boulder could be representative of the true spirit of the United States, the true spirit of America, the land of the free.”
Correction: The original article mistakenly stated Hindawi has two sisters living in Turkey, instead of one sister and one brother. We apologize for any inconvenience.