Richard Maez

“When our students say, ‘I can solve an equation but I can’t manage my debt,’ that’s a problem.”

A Gary Community VENTURES GranteE

By Algernon Felice Jr.

Editor: Will C. Holden

Creative Director: Algernon Felice Jr.

If Richard Maez left his front porch in southwest Denver and walked in any direction, he wouldn’t make it 10 minutes without running into a member of his extended family.

Sometimes, having your family that close can feel like a blessing. Other times, it can feel like a recurring nightmare. For Richard, it’s been a little of both. And he wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Both sides of Richard Maez’s family have deep roots in southwest Denver. And the larger community the Maez’s have built and nurtured alongside those family roots run even deeper.

Of the many Denver communities that know them well, the Maez’s have long been celebrated for their commitment to education. One of Richard’s grandfathers was a founding teacher at Thomas Jefferson High School. Even though his grandparents on the other side of the family didn’t go to high school, they were staunch enforcers of its importance.

Interesting enough, it was education that almost took Richard out of Denver. He’d long had his eyes set on California. He’d even gotten accepted into Stanford.

But when push came to shove, Denver still just felt like home. And as it turns out, life would ultimately shove the Maez family pretty hard during Richard’s formative years.

When the walls felt like they were caving in around him, southwest Denver was there for Richard to build them back up. He’s here to repay that favor.

Richard doesn’t view the Mile High City with rose colored glasses, though. Having witnessed firsthand the impacts of rapid gentrification over the last 20 years, he understands how Denver has changed — and why those changes often haven’t benefited the communities he cares about.

But pessimism really isn’t in Richard’s DNA. In the midst of this change, he sees a chance to write another new chapter for this city he loves so dearly. And wouldn’t you know it? He’s working alongside the education community here in Denver to help shape it.

This winter, Ednium is working with Gary Community Ventures to imagine new credentials Metro Denver high schools can offer students before they graduate to better prepare them for what comes next, and to help them live choice-filled lives.

Richard will be at the table for those discussions. These are the experiences he’s bringing with him.

Lead photographer: CierraAnn Media, Assistant photographer: Mimarie Creative, Venue: The Headquarters | Sunday Night Meets

Richard Maez Q&A

Can you explain how deep your roots run in this city?
My dad grew up in what’s now Santa Fe Arts District for the first part of his life before he moved to Littleton for a bit. My mom grew up in southwest Denver. Eventually, my parents bought a house five minutes from my grandparents. And all of my aunts and uncles on my mom’s side still live in that same Southwest Denver neighborhood. I’m so connected to it that three years ago my partner and I bought a house in the same neighborhood — two minutes from my mom. I guess you can say really, I love Southwest Denver, and just the community that it is.

I understand school was really important in your family — and that this wasn’t really a problem for you, right?
Absolutely not. I loved school. I played school in my basement growing up. I wanted to be a teacher for as long as I can remember. School just worked for me. I understood the system, how to advocate for myself, and how to work within it. I went to Kennedy High School, and a lot of my friends complained about their teachers. But honestly, I enjoyed the vast majority of mine. They really made me passionate about learning.

I also understand that school wasn’t the only thing that was really important for your dad. Can you talk about his love of boxing and what that imparted on you?
My mom and dad were always really involved in the community, and my dad was really involved in the Littleton Youth Boxing program. He saw the value that program gave to kids in that it provided them some of the skills needed to go out and be successful in the world. My freshman year of high school, he suffered a really scary brain injury, and was in and out of rehab hospitals for years. That whole time, we had community surrounding us, which was so important. And it was a byproduct of all the work he and my mom had done showing up in our communities themselves. It’s a big reason why I’m currently doing the sort of work I’m doing today.

Your dad passed away when you were 18 years old. Can you tell us how you processed that?
I didn’t process it. My dad got hurt my freshman year of high school and he died my freshman year of college. When he passed, I distinctly remember that it happened a week before my winter quarter finals. So it was like, it happened, we did the funeral and I went straight back to school and took my finals. So I didn’t process it — not for a good year. I threw myself in school, activities, my job and I ran myself ragged. My sophomore year, I also distinctly remember getting an upper respiratory infection, a double ear infection and a sinus infection all at the same time. It was like all of that trauma finally came to a head, and so I really needed to take a step back and think through it and talk to friends. That helped a lot.

Do you feel like you’ve fully processed losing your dad now?
It’s still hard, because there are pieces of me that he didn’t really get to know. For one, I didn’t come out (as a gay man) until my senior year of college. So he didn’t get to know me living life as my full self. He didn’t get to meet my partner, who I just married this last summer. At the same time, I’ve also struggled with people at points in my life saying, “Oh, I’m so sorry about your dad, I feel so bad that you lost him.” And it’s gotten to the point where I’m like, “Thanks, but there’s really nothing I can change about it.” Ultimately, I’m grateful that I had the dad I did and for the time we got to spend together.

You had a chance to leave Denver shortly after your father’s passing when you were accepted into your dream school, which was Stanford University. You went to the University of Denver instead. Can you explain that decision?
During the admissions process, DU introduced me to this program they have called the Excelling Leaders Institute, which is a program offered to students of color the week before orientation. That was huge for me, because Kennedy was a predominantly Latino school when I went there, and I knew DU was not going to be that way. Through the Excelling Leaders Institute, right away, it felt like I was going to be able to build a community, which felt super helpful. When I was touring Stanford, it just felt like that experience was going to be cutthroat. At DU, I felt like I was going to have the resources to be successful. Between the chance to build those peer connections and the school’s supportive faculty, DU had this vibe that we’re here to do this together — to elevate each other together.

What’s kept you in Denver since then?
After I graduated, I got my dream job working at Denver Public Schools — first as a teacher and then a college advisor. I wanted to go to work in the system and support students in this city, because I feel like it’s given so much to me. Both the positive experience and the negative experiences I’ve had in Denver — they’ve all been immensely valuable for me. Those experiences have shaped me into the person I am, and have shaped my desire to give back to this community. I’m not in the classroom right now, but I don’t think I’ll ever fully leave education or this city, because both have given me so much.

You were part of the George Washington team that worked on a pivotal transition for the high school, as you worked to integrate students in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, who were essentially part of a school within a school, into the larger student population. Can you tell us about that experience?
Our BIPOC communities at George were feeling especially locked out of the IB program, and that was an issue that had to be solved. I was an IB student myself, so I had a somewhat unique ability to straddle the IB and BIPOC communities. Overall, I’m happy with the work we did. There are still factions at the school, but it does feel more united. Frankly, though, I think it’s one of the reasons I decided to step away from DPS. When you’re trying to support a transition like that, support students, support teachers, it’s a lot of weight to carry day-in, day-out.

Did those experiences at George Washington spark something in you to think about changemaking in our education system?
They did. When you think about it, the public educational experience hasn’t changed fundamentally over the last 50-70 years. In a lot of ways the content and systems aren’t as responsive to the needs of the student as they need to be. So when I found out TeRay Esquibel was mobilizing alumni through Ednium: The Alumni Collective, with rallying cries like “I can do an equation and I know how the branches of government work, but I don’t know how to buy a house or manage my debt,” that put words to something I’d been feeling working in schools. It always seemed to me like the purpose of school and learning is to prepare our kids to be functional, successful adults. If our students are saying we’re not doing that, we’re failing them. I felt like Ednium had worked to identify that root problem, and there was this great opportunity to start to create policy and systemic solutions to address it.

Lead photographer: CierraAnn Media, Assistant photographer: Mimarie Creative, Venue: The Headquarters | Sunday Night Meets

Tell us about how you came to be Deputy Director at Ednium: The Alumni Collective, which is working to center alumni voices in the search for more public education solutions?
Absolutely. So I met TeRay Esquibel, one of the co-founders, in college. And then I knew he had this idea for Ednium in the beginning of 2020. I was able to join the first cohort of alumni who provided the organization input on DPS, and I told him, “If this is something that could become a full-time job, I would love to do this.” And I think everyone that’s worked for Ednium engaged in our community outreach efforts first before seeking out a salaried role. I think that speaks to the fact that Ednium is unique and galvanizing for our community. We just haven’t had spaces like this. Unless you go to college and you join affinity groups or that sort of thing, recent high school alumni don’t have spaces where they can talk about leadership development, capacity building and that sort of thing.

Ednium has already logged some big wins in just a couple of years, including implementing a financial literacy curriculum within Denver Public Schools that’s now a graduation requirement. How have you done it?
Frankly, we just engaged different communities and actually talked to people. We started with the DPS school board, and they said, “This is a great idea, but DCTA (​​Denver Classroom Teachers Association) is going to say no.” OK, so we went to DCTA, and they said, “This is a great idea, but the principals union is going to say no.” So we went to the principals, and they said, “This is a great idea, but the DPS central office is going to say no.” We went to the central office, and they said, “Oh, DCTA is definitely going to say no.” And that was when we finally got to say, “Yeah, we talked to all those people you said we’re going to say no, and none of them actually said no. So now it’s time to say yes.”

Has the experience with the financial literacy curriculum informed your mission to activate alumni in changing how cities educate and reinvest in their homegrown talent?
I think it’s led to us doubling-down on how we’re trying to do this work — grounding it in listening, building relationships and cultivating communities. Things don’t happen as fast as we might like because of it, but we’ve learned that deep down, people don’t start at a place of “no”. They want to say “yes” to things. We just have to bring these issues to the surface, and give these larger communities a good reason to say yes to the solutions we’re proposing.

You identify as an introvert in a role that involves a lot of relationship-building and difficult conversations. How do you bring that identity to the table in your work?
I’ve actually used the experience of my dad passing as a bridge in relationship building work, especially with other introverts. Sometimes you don’t feel like talking about something, but as humans, we still have a need to process things — that’s what I’ve learned. We do have a lot of tough conversations with people (at Ednium), and the biggest thing I try to model is not completely shutting down. That’s what I did when my dad passed, and it wasn’t healthy. Maybe you don’t want to talk about something right now, and that’s OK. We can also hold space for you in these conversations where you can just come, sit and be. That’s something I think I would have appreciated when I was going through things with my dad.

Why do you think Ednium has been successful in achieving things like curriculum change and changes to the Prosperity Denver Fund, which will unlock funding for new credential attainment opportunities for a greater number of DPS alumni?
We’ve been able to get funding that has allowed us to take risks. We really can’t thank our funders enough for both empowering us and trusting us to do this work. I love that we’re able to say, “Let’s do this. Let’s see if it works. If it doesn’t, that’s OK — we’ll adjust.” Through that process, I think we’ve developed a multi-modal approach that has worked well. We really try to marry our pushes for systems and policy change with relationship cultivation through programs like our Design Lab as well as youth leadership development through programs like our Leadership Launchpad. I think it also helps that we don’t see Ednium as belonging to us. Yes, we’re building this operation, but once we get it to a certain place organizationally and our team gets to a certain place personally, it’s going to be time for someone else to take this on and lead it where it needs to go. If this operation is truly going to represent alumni voice in the way we imagine, it needs to be run by people who best understand the issues.

Contact Ednium

Interested in working alongside Ednium in support of Denver’s homegrown talent? Whether you’re a DPS student, alum, employee, parent or community member, there are many roles you can play.

The Ednium Podcast

The Ednium team is sitting down with some of the top talent and leaders in Denver, including candidates for DPS school board and Denver mayor, to share game, tell their stories, inform the system and just vibe.

Leadership Launchpad

Leadership Launchpad is for DPS alumni ages 25 and younger interested in learning about leadership styles, advancing their own leadership and applying lessons to support their goals.

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