SubscribeAvailable Now

Disrupters: 15 People Who Are Changing Denver

Newsmakers, innovators, and game changers who spent the past year setting lofty goals and building a metro area they believe in. These individuals, in sectors ranging from art to business to politics, are guaranteed to keep you thinking and talking well into the future, whether you agree with them or not.

|

Jeff Fard

Media

Photography by Matthew Defeo

If you want to know what’s happening in metro Denver, Jeff Fard’s Facebook Live show is a must-watch. The nearly hourlong installments feature Fard, known as “Brother Jeff,” and at least one guest discussing everything from good policy to good beats to good eats. The speakers are a veritable who’s who of local politics (guests most often come to him asking to be on the show because they know they’ll reach around 1,000 people). Recent topics have covered the upcoming mayoral election, gentrification, and Denver Public Schools’ superintendent search. “I want to show people that your leaders are accessible to you,” Fard (pictured above), 54, says. “They’re not doing you a favor. They are actually doing their job.” The show is just one of Fard’s many projects, which include Brother Jeff’s Cultural Center in Five Points. The facility has served as a community hub since 1994 and hosts programs like Black Dollar Saturdays, an incubator-style meetup where entrepreneurs can set up booths for free. (Recently, Fard opened a second center in Aurora.) And Fard’s reputation is only growing: In June, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder stopped by the Five Points outpost for a conversation about gerrymandering. “We have a platform where people are turning to be heard,” Fard says.

Brandon Rietheimer

Environment

Photography by Matthew Defeo

Brandon Rietheimer was a political neophyte when he drafted what would become Denver’s Green Roof Initiative, a directive requiring large buildings to use a portion of roof space for vegetation. Frustrated that Denver’s sustainability goals weren’t going far enough, he and other volunteers gathered signatures to put the proposal on the November 2017 ballot. Despite being outspent 12 to one, the initiative passed. A committee, of which he was a part, then took much of 2018 to fine-tune the plan; Rietheimer admits it needed revisions (more than 90 percent of existing buildings couldn’t handle the weight of green roofs). Rietheimer believes the changes helped strengthen the impact of his original concept; buildings now have more compliance avenues with solar panels, reflective roofs, and other renewable energy options. “At the end of the day, we were able to craft something that was achievable for everyone,” he says. Recently, Rietheimer, 32, helped with an effort to put an initiative on the May ballot that would let Denverites vote—before public money is spent on the campaign—on whether they want the city to bid for the 2030 Olympics. In short, Rietheimer isn’t done with politics just yet.

Blake Angelo

Food Security

Illustration by Aleksandar Savic

Blake Angelo, 32, has spent about a decade working in food advocacy for the likes of Colorado State University Extension and the city of Denver. After all that time, though, he was still dismayed by the fact that a city enjoying such a prosperous period was also a place where one in seven kids went hungry each month. Angelo drafted Ordinance 302, aka Healthy Food for Denver Kids, designed to create a nine-year sales tax increase to support programs to end childhood hunger. Denver voters agreed, overwhelmingly, this past November. “It is a modest amount [of money],” Angelo says, “that can make a transformative impact on a decade of kids.”

Amanda Henderson

Homelessness

Illustration by Aleksandar Savic

The team behind the Beloved Community Village, a colorful collection of 11 tiny homes for people who’ve experienced homelessness, spent most of 2018 looking for a new, well, home, because the RiNo land where it stood will be redeveloped. Along with others, the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado—helmed by 41-year-old Reverend Amanda Henderson—has been instrumental in the search for a new spot. The experience and other advocacy efforts led to the formation of the Congregation Land Campaign, which aims to help churches, synagogues, and places of worship think creatively about how to leverage underutilized land (thousands of acres of parking and empty lots around the metro area) to find solutions for affordable housing.

“Yes, we need to house people,” Henderson says, “but we also have to weave people together.” Henderson hopes the project will help religious entities share ideas and make connections. It’s working: At least six congregations have already signed up.

Tay Anderson

Education

Photo by David Russell

Tay Anderson may have lost his bid for Denver’s school board in 2017—he was just 19 years old at the time—but that didn’t slow him down. “I needed to step up and be the change that I want to see,” Anderson says. So this past spring he helped organize Colorado’s March for Our Lives in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida; then, in August, he announced he was running for school board again. If he wins next November, he will be the youngest member ever. “Organizing is in my blood now,” he says, “in my DNA.”

Elisabeth Epps

Criminal Justice

Photography by Matthew Defeo

Change can happen quickly—just ask 39-year-old Elisabeth Epps. On April 29, 2018, she noticed national buzz about efforts to bail women out of jail in time for Mother’s Day. She started reaching out to see who was organizing in Denver; when someone encouraged her to do the work, within days, she set up a website for what would become the Colorado Freedom Fund with a goal of raising $20,000. The group got 14 women out for that holiday and repeated the effort on Father’s Day and again in December. Now Epps, who has worked as a public defender, often bonds out two people daily, some of whom are being held in jail for $10 bond. Her organization recoups the money when the individual’s case is completed. But she doesn’t want the fund to be the answer; she wants to end the cash bond system, which disproportionately penalizes poor individuals and people of color, in Colorado by 2020—and she’s optimistic it can be done. “It is just really exciting because it says how ripe and ready Denver is for this [reform],” Epps says. At the same time, Epps has fought her own court battle over a 90-day sentence for interfering with a police investigation (Epps says she was arrested when police approached a man she’d been trying to help because he appeared to be in crisis). Ultimately, she says, her four-year appeal process, which is ongoing as of press time, has motivated her to work even more diligently to keep people awaiting trial out of jail.

Advertisement

Tran Willis

Business

Photography by Matthew Defeo

Nail salons aren’t exactly the kind of place you’d expect to be eco-friendly—at least, not before Tran Wills, 37, and her co-founder, Sarah Simon, opened Base Coat, one of the nation’s first toxin-free nail spas, in LoHi in 2013. The duo was operating four locations (two in Colorado, two in Los Angeles) and had launched a line of polishes and mani-pedi necessities like scrubs and creams, all without harmful chemicals, when Nordstrom came calling. In 2018, the retail giant began carrying Base Coat’s products in 114 stores and asked Wills and Co. to take over nail bars inside five of its outposts (three in California, one in Seattle, and one in Chicago). “We haven’t had a chance to celebrate,” Wills says with a laugh, “because both of us spent most of 2018 on a plane and living out of Nordstrom.” This mother of four and serial entrepreneur—she’s started three businesses, including the now-closed, high-design home goods haven Super Ordinary Gallery—has even bigger plans for the future of Base Coat: a halal polish collection and a wholesale supply store and consulting service for spas that want to go toxin-free. —Jessica LaRusso

Merhia Wiese

Art

Photo by Anthony Camera

For two decades, Merhia Wiese has felt a calling to ensure artists can earn a living wage. So when the artist, marketer, and self-described “Jane-of-all-trades” first heard of Meow Wolf—an arts collective based in Santa Fe, New Mexico—she wanted to work with the group. As the socially conscious organization began eying the Mile High City for a new location, Wiese made sure she was involved: “I would not take ‘no’ for an answer,” she recalls. In January 2018, after Meow Wolf formally announced it would open its largest interactive arts space here, Wiese became one of the company’s first full-time hires in Colorado. Wiese, 45, has worked closely with Meow Wolf CEO Vince Kadlubek and a team of local activists to develop a concept for Meow Wolf Denver, find local artists, and build a relationship with residents of the Sun Valley neighborhood, near where the project will be constructed. “The only thing I wanted to do in life is make a difference,” she says. “Finding a way to get artists paid was something I could do. And now, with [Meow Wolf], I can do that on a grander scale.” —Jay Bouchard

Mike Biselli

Health Care

Illustration by Aleksandar Savic

When Mike Biselli, 40, gives tours of Catalyst Health-Tech Innovation in RiNo, he nearly sprints through the seven-floor complex, talking about health care transformation at a pace that matches his stride. The “integrator,” which Biselli co-owns and opened in July, invited major health systems, startups, universities, physician groups, and nonprofits to move their offices into one enormous building. The theory: People from different offices could meet in the hallways or break rooms, talk about their projects, and come up with solutions to health care’s many thorny problems. The long-term impact of those collaborative moments remains to be seen, but Biselli has already managed to extract intelligent people from their silos and get them communicating—no small task. —Mary Clare Fischer

Candi CdeBaca

Community Activism

Photo by Gem Reul

Since moving back to Denver from Washington, D.C., in 2014, Elyria-Swansea resident Candi CdeBaca has focused on advocating for her neighborhood and fighting the I-70 expansion project. Along the way, she’s used her voice to champion progressive ideas like community land trusts—a new twist on an old idea in which a group of community members buys a parcel of land, but individuals purchase the homes built on it in order to stabilize taxes and pricing. She isn’t the first to promote the concept, but she helped boost the idea until it became a reality in her neighborhood last year (the project is partly funded by $2 million from CDOT to offset displacement from the I-70 expansion, which began in the summer). She was also an original signatory on this past November’s Measure 2E, an effort to level the campaign finance field by lowering contribution limits in Denver elections while establishing a public fund for candidates who do not receive money from corporations (it passed with 71 percent approval). “It’s democracy for the people,” she says. Next up? CdeBaca, 32, stepped away from nonprofit Project VOYCE in December to focus full time on her bid to win a City Council seat in the May election.

Faith Winter

Politics

Photography by Matthew Defeo

After 11 years in elective office—first on the Westminster City Council and then as a two-term state representative—Faith Winter, 38, is accustomed to the grind of politics. But even she admits that this past year was atypical. “It is definitely the hardest year that I’ve put my family through,” she says. In November 2017, Winter came forward with claims that she’d been sexually harassed by another state legislator, which sparked a discussion at the state Capitol, led to the representative’s expulsion, created new procedures for investigation of sexual harassment claims, and fueled a statewide discussion about safe workplaces. But Winter wasn’t done. She helped Democrats take control of the state Senate this past November by winning in District 24. “This year taught me I was stronger than I ever thought I was,” Winter says. “I’m not going to stay quiet and be nice. I’m tired, and I want things to change. I’m going to stand up.”

Advertisement

Anthony Garcia Sr.

Art

Illustration by Aleksandar Savic

From its inception nearly a decade ago, BirdSeed Collective was much more than an arts nonprofit or a community outreach organization. When the group, led by Anthony Garcia Sr., moved into the Globeville Recreation Center in 2018, it established a new home base where Garcia would be able to amplify the events BirdSeed Collective is known for—whether that’s giving out more than 2,000 pounds of fresh food to those in need every Monday or engaging local artists to teach mural workshops for kids. Garcia, 33, who also manages Alto Gallery in Berkeley, has plans to ramp things up even more this year. “I’ve always been an artist at heart,” Garcia says. “I never really found my place in the art world until I found BirdSeed Collective.”

Jennifer Knowles & Family

Kids’ Rights

Illustration by Aleksandar Savic

Jennifer Knowles thought her three sons would learn about business and giving back when they set up a classic lemonade stand near their Stapleton home last May (they planned to donate their earnings). Instead, after someone complained, police officers shut down the operation because the family needed permits. Knowles says that the police officers were just doing their jobs but that the incident spurred her to action: “I decided to do my job,” she says. She began asking City Council members about why Denver had such prohibitive rules for what was a rite of passage for kids; by then, the family’s story had received national attention. With Knowles’ input, the City Council voted in the fall to exempt kid-run food stands from permitting—and Kraft Foods’ Country Time Lemonade threw a party to celebrate. Knowles, 40, says the biggest lesson was about community engagement: “One person can make a difference.”

Evan Weissman

Civic Engagement

Photo courtesy of Creative Mornings

“Participatory budgeting”—a system that allows residents to decide how some public funding is spent—is a wonky term that doesn’t seem as though it could inspire artistic endeavors. That is, unless you are 40-year-old Evan Weissman, a Buntport Theater founding member and the brain behind civic engagement project Warm Cookies of the Revolution. This past August, Weissman’s group hosted an elaborate art installation in a northeast Denver garage that explored the concept of participatory budgeting (think: an exhibit with Rube Goldberg–inspired machines and other art pieces). It’s also dispersing cash, thanks to a grant from ArtPlace America, to support community projects in the Cole neighborhood and on the Auraria Campus. Weissman says the goal of the project is that people “learn what the difference is between being asked for your input and having real decision-making power.” —MCF

Maytham Alshadood

Immigrant & Refugee Rights

Photography by Matthew Defeo

Between Maytham Alshadood’s full-time job as a transplant medicine registered nurse and leading the Denver Refugee and Immigrant Vitalization and Empowerment (DRIVE) Project, the 33-year-old doesn’t have much free time. In 2018 alone, his group worked on voter registration and developed civic engagement curriculum for citizens and noncitizens. And in a first-time policy effort, Alshadood and DRIVE Project helped change Colorado law based on his personal experience: After serving for three years as a combat interpreter with the U.S. military in Iraq, Alshadood didn’t qualify for in-state tuition when he landed in the Denver metro area in 2008, which delayed his education by almost two years. The new law grants refugees and immigrants who are resettling in Colorado in-state tuition upon arrival in the state. “Someone had to advocate for me to be here in the first place,” he says. “Why should I not be the advocate for future generations?”

Spring Reading

Newsletter Signup

Keep me up to date on the latest trends and happenings around Denver. 5280 has a newsletter for everyone. Sign Up