Racial Justice at the Bell: A Reflection

Read Mateo’s work on the racial wealth gap by clicking here to see his research briefs on mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline and homeownership and access to credit.

I joined the Bell in June 2019 after graduating from Colorado College in May. I am Chííhénee’ (Warm Springs Band of Chiricahua Apache) on my maternal grandfather’s side and Yoeme and Tarahumara on my maternal grandmother’s side. My father is of Scottish and English descent, and I align most closely with my N’de (Apache) roots.

My grandmother, my mother, and my father raised me to be a warrior for the people and for my family. They taught me the importance of living in harmony with our mother earth and all life, walking in prayer every day, and fighting for the people through service — that is, without ego or desire for personal gain getting in the way. They also taught me that I am never alone—I always have my family and the force of centuries of ancestors behind me and supporting me so long as I act, speak, and conduct myself in a good and prayerful way.

I served my community as co-chair of the Native American Student Union during my Junior and Senior years of college. Our student union used many tactics and long-term strategy to bring the issues of our community to the attention of college administration, and to pressure them to take action. We also integrated ourselves into the Colorado Springs indigenous community and did some community organizing work, using the college’s facilities for many community events and gatherings.

As we did this work, we always followed the lead of our women warriors and tried to practice community-based leadership, holding ourselves accountable to our entire indigenous community: students, staff, faculty, and our relatives from the city.  It was this solidarity in community that gave us the strength and resolve to accomplish our goals.

This is the perspective and background I bring to the Bell. That is why I have been refreshed during my time here to see a growing focus on the need to address racial justice in our economy, and I have appreciated how we are beginning to integrate this focus into our work and approach it internally. It has been extremely rewarding to be a part of this work, especially right out of college.

In Our Work

I have been able to lead our research on the racial wealth gap, which outlines how deeply integrated systemic racism is in our economy, and the history of American policy can give us a road map to how we arrived at our current moment. This speaks to my values: My grandmother has always taught me we cannot understand our present if we do not first understand our past — that we do not exist in a vacuum, but instead our past and present inform our future.

I have also enjoyed working closely with the Bell’s director of outreach and the Financial Equity Coalition to continue the work of Proposition 111 — which capped interest rates for payday loans at 36 percent — by advocating for the creation of a state Office of Financial Empowerment that will support local community-led efforts statewide to expand safe and affordable alternatives to the predatory economy, informed by each local community’s unique needs.

We have built a planning team from scratch to lead this work on financial empowerment, with sophisticated and experienced representatives from many diverse communities across the state. These leaders are moving this work forward in a way that is accountable to community, centered in racial and economic justice, and rooted in establishing and maintaining trust in the communities we are working with. We have also recognized funding and capacity are unfortunately factors that shut many communities out from the policymaking process, too often limiting access to power and decision making, so we have sought funding to specifically support the work of the planning team and the smaller coordinating teams who will lead the work at the local level.


Working on these issues externally requires that we are holistic in our approach — that we also look internally and engage in critical self-reflection in order to live out our values in the most effective and authentic way possible. The Bell is proactively engaging in this process by examining our internal diversity, our hiring practices, our internal culture, and how we can best collaborate with the communities impacted by our work.

We are simultaneously engaging in our own learning about the history of race in our country and state, how policy and economics have been influenced by racial categorization throughout history, and how these things impact public policy in our current moment. This, of course, is an ongoing process we’re just beginning. It includes both learning and unlearning as we identify where we fall as individuals and as an organization in the broader systems and structures we exist within. This is deeply personal work for all of us, and it is often uncomfortable and difficult, but we are (and will be) a better organization for it.

This work is not linear, and we cannot expect it to happen overnight. It is an imperfect process where we will make mistakes and learn from them — after all, that is the nature of progress. We must also be transparent in order to be accountable to our ever-growing community of partners, frontline communities, and funders to see this work through. Engaging in reflections like this one is a simple way to do just that.