Updated: Apr 28
The stories, influence, and path to becoming a community BRIC Builder for many of our supporters are personally unique. However, they often reach the same place of having a solid commitment and desire to make a difference. Deborah Richardson’s dedication to strengthening the community and the ideals of what “community” should be were built throughout her life and influenced by the many examples of people while growing up in Atlanta – from her parents to notable civil rights icons who happened to be her neighbors. For 30 years, she has led nonprofit organizations to advance transformational social change. Today, Deborah serves as the executive director of the ACLU Colorado, the state’s oldest and largest civil rights organization. She is the first African American to lead the 70-year-old affiliate. We had the pleasure to speak with Deborah recently, who shared her story, thoughts on the current state of affairs, and what needs to happen to achieve long-term social change. We are grateful for her leadership, continued commitment to lay bricks for the future, and her support.
BRIC: Please share your journey and path to philanthropy.
DR: I was fortunate to be raised in Atlanta and surrounded by Blacks who, individually and collectively, were committed to uplifting the race by self-determination. This dedication included founding and supporting Black-led organizations committed to supporting Black-led groups and institutions. When I was with the Women’s Funding Network (an international network of funds created, led, and supported mainly by women), I started a Black Women Donors Fund aligned with these principles.
BRIC: Can you share how your early socio-economic environment and parent role models informed your commitment to social justice?
DR: My parents met at Tuskegee Institute (now University) and moved to Atlanta for the above reasons. My father was an electrician and started his own business; my mom was a registered nurse. More importantly, they bought a home in Collier Heights, one of a few Black communities listed in the National Historic Register. Many Civil Rights icons were our neighbors (notably, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s parents). Until I was a teen, I thought every adult was evolved in the Movement, either through direct action, philanthropy, or pro bono support (e.g., attorneys, physicians, etc.).
BRIC: Why did you choose to be a community BRIC Builder?
DR: When I announced that I had accepted a position with the ACLU Colorado, Audrey Jacobs, a friend who is a Philanthropic Advisor, told me about LaDawn’s work. I contacted her to learn more and immediately saw how it aligned with my philanthropic values. I am honored to be a BRIC Builder.
BRIC: Why do you feel BRIC is vital to Colorado’s Black communities in working to advance transformational social change?
DR: We now know and honor the fact that people who are most impacted have the solutions for their liberation from societal injustices. BRIC’s commitment to advancing transformational change, not just presenting needs, is an important lynchpin in these efforts.
BRIC: As the Executive Director of the ACLU Colorado, the state’s oldest and largest civil rights organization, can you talk about the importance of collective work to drive critical changes within our communities?
DR: In alignment with the principle stated above, I led a statewide listening tour in my first year as head of ACLU CO to learn firsthand what mattered to Coloradans. Their input shaped the strategies and outcomes for our strategic roadmap. We continue to be in dialogue with directly impacted groups and provide access to our resources, such as advocacy training and storytelling, as tools to speak directly to our elected officials.
BRIC: What responsibility do you believe we all have to be invested in community outcomes?
DR: My north star is Dr. King’s definition of the beloved community: “The Beloved Community is a global vision in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger, and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry, and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood.”
BRIC: Today, we watch as civil rights are challenged, history is being banned, and divisions are widening. What steps are the ACLU Colorado taking, and what can we do to turn the tides?
DR: There is a theory around social change, part of which we do very well, which is organizing and advocating for public policy reform. The one strategy we haven’t built up is the muscle for holding the line. Any progress forward is always met with resistance. A law or mediated agreement does not come with a guarantee of not being overturned, as we are seeing today. A simple but effective way of building this muscle is by sharing with generations after us “what conditions caused this action to occur” and, most importantly, “why it is important today?”
For example, the retrenchment of civil rights is because the younger generation does not know about the world when Blacks did not have the protection of the law. This lack of awareness is because we don’t demand that civics be returned to our curriculum. Whenever I ask a group of young people— “Please tell me how politics impact your life,” for the most part, they say, “It doesn’t.” If we have not educated them that political participation is the tenant of a democratic society, we cannot blame them for not voting. This specific concern speaks to the importance of the When WE Vote campaign. In essence, people have the power in their vote.
To learn more about Deborah Richardson and the work of ACLU Colorado, visit https://www.aclu-co.org/en.