TeRay Esquibel

“It wasn’t risky to say ‘Stop ignoring the brilliance in our backyard.’ The risk was staying silent.”

A Gary Community Ventures GranteE

By Will C. Holden

Editor: Chyrise Harris

Creative Director: Algernon Felice Jr.

Director of Empowerment. Some of the brightest minds in Colorado’s philanthropic and community organizing sectors gave TeRay Esquibel that job when he was 25 years old.

He was young for a director, but everyone agreed TeRay had earned the position. And he’ll admit, he really loved that job title.

That was until he walked into a community meeting in Montbello.

“Director of Community Empowerment, huh?” TeRay remembers being told. “Son, I’m already empowered.”

The comment hit TeRay like a truck. Not because he felt demeaned or belittled by the woman who delivered it, but because he knew exactly how she felt. He knew she was right.

When he was 16 years old, TeRay became a father. And he remembers a lot of the people with job titles they worked hard to earn — teachers, high school administrators, doctors, nurses — looking past the power he saw in himself. Almost a decade later, here he was doing the same thing.

Shortly thereafter, TeRay did something a lot of people might consider radical. He quit a dream job with a good, steady paycheck to strike out on his own. Or at least that’s what it might’ve looked like from the outside looking in.

For TeRay, co-founding Ednium: The Alumni Collective was never about placing a bet on himself; it was about placing a bet on the inherent power within his community. Just a couple years in, it seems that bet is already paying off.

Their latest act? 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.

TeRay is thrilled about who he gets to bring to the table for those discussions. This is the road — and the community — that brought him here.

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

TeRay Esquibel Q&A

You came to two major forks in the road during your time at Lincoln. Can you tell us about those?
I played football and basketball growing up, and being an athlete was always a big part of my identity. But my junior year, I started getting concussions, and that derailed my athletic career. And then a couple months later, I found out that my girlfriend at the time, Michelle, who’s now my wife, was pregnant. When you’re 16 years old, and they’re telling you that you can’t play sports anymore and you’ve now got to find a way to take care of the kid, it was a lot to handle. I feel like my identity got stripped away in a huge way.

How did you cope with that loss of your former identity?
Not well at first. I was an athlete, I was in AP classes, and I loved music. But I also hung out with kids who other folks had written off. I worked hard to earn people’s respect across the board, and I loved that I got to be the kid at parties talking about my science labs and history lessons with the homies. After Michelle got pregnant, I felt like people tried to make me feel like I was just another teen dad statistic. There was an administrator at Lincoln who bought me tickets to go see Stanford. After he found out we were having a kid, he took those tickets back and told me I should hang around town and find a job. That was devastating. But motivating at the same time. I started to get a better understanding of how the system treated you when you no longer were seen as an easy win.

Ultimately, though, you found a lot of people in your corner who helped you channel that frustration, right?
Absolutely. My neighborhood leaned in. Both of my parents were teen parents too, and they were always there for me. A man named Warren Smith, who worked at the school to support students in this situation, took interest in me. He said he saw something in me and introduced me to an internship with Denver Open Media that was funded through the Department of Human Services. They were working to raise the voices of teen parents. It was the first time I learned how powerful storytelling can be. We filmed a video that was a love letter to my son that ended up winning a couple awards. People really listened to me when I told them it felt like doctors were looking past me and other teen dads at appointments — particularly dads of color — acting like they knew we weren’t going to hang around. I was getting paid for speaking engagements, and they seemed to be making a difference. That was the first time I realized that you can use your voice to make a living and to inspire folks. Those were powerful realizations to have as a kid.

You ended up attending the University of Denver on a full-ride Daniels Fund scholarship. Can you talk about that experience?
Trying to figure out how to be a dad and a college kid was a trip right from the start. When we got into orientation, I heard stuff like, “My dad’s the CEO of this, my mom’s this type of lawyer.” My insecurity started to set in, because no one in my immediate family had been to college, and we for damn sure weren’t going to the Bahamas on vacation. I started to realize this institution wasn’t built for me. I thought about transferring to CU-Denver or Metro State where more of my friends were going. But I remember one of my uncles convincing me to stay. He said, “You’ve got experiences that are wholly unique. You learned about markets and the economics of supply and demand watching people survive. You saw people fight and then take care of each other. You’re raising a son. Bring those experiences into the classroom and people will think you’re a genius.” He was right. From that point on, I’ve tried to lean into my experiences and my community. That’s my superpower. And I fell in love with the idea of helping other Denver kids realize they have that same superpower.

Your activism in the education system started at DU. Can you tell us about those early days?
We helped create the group visit fellowship program at DU, and each year we were able to bring 300 Denver Public Schools (DPS) sophomores who were on free and reduced lunch plans onto campus for tours. Once again, I was getting paid to tell my story. We were talking about how to get onto a university campus and navigate it — and about how college isn’t the finish line. I liked it so much, I came back and became an admissions counselor, and I was really proud to help DU recruit and retain students who were underrepresented on that campus. DPS was my territory as a counselor, and it gave me a firsthand look at some of the inequities that existed between the schools. It also helped me build real relationships with families and staff in the district.

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

You then landed at RootEd, a philanthropic organization in Denver focused on advancing equity and accountability in Denver Public Schools. And your job title was Director of Empowerment. Knowing your backstory, that had to feel like a dream job, right?
It was — right up until the moment I hosted my first community meeting. I’ll never forget getting cussed out by a woman in Montbello who let me know she was already empowered. Thankfully for me, that community brought me in and gave me a swift lesson about how philanthropic organizations are often here today, gone tomorrow. Communities like Montbello have long memories. They taught me about the importance of not only showing up, but following through.

Eventually you were named a Partner at RootEd, which was a big promotion. But you walked away from the organization less than a year later — with their blessing. Why?
There were steep learning curves for me with RootEd. I was getting a crash course in community organizing right as former DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg stepped down. It created this power vacuum that lots of folks were trying to fill. I was spending way too much time in boardrooms with adults using technocratic terms; talking about communities and students like bargaining chips. With a lot of love and support, Pat Donovan at RootEd helped me incubate the idea of Ednium: The Alumni Collective while I was still working for him. I just felt like my people were being ignored throughout the existing ecosystem. And I thought that I could do something about it. So we jumped. I just felt like I couldn’t be out here telling people to lean into their truth and to take chances and not take one that was presented to me.

How did the seed for Ednium: The Alumni Collective get planted?
It started with me wanting to bring 20 of my Lincoln people to a DPS board meeting to make some noise about the 2018 superintendent search. But it didn’t actually start until a project we did (at RootEd) with the Denver Scholarship Foundation. Big shoutout to Sara O’Keefe and Bryan-David López Blakely from Turn Corps (now Public Alignment Communications) for their leadership in that process, because none of this happens without them. We brought together more than 150 young alumni from across the district and asked some simple questions. What do you wish you had known in high school? What do you wish you were able to do that would have helped you define and achieve success after high school? We also did analysis with community members and alumni to make sense of what we heard. We then took that report to the DPS board, and it was the first time we realized the power a group of alumni could have — because when Susan Cordova got hired for the DPS superintendent role (NOTE: Cordova is now the State of Colorado’s Education Commissioner), she asked us to reconvene our group. And walking out of that meeting, an alumni challenged me at the elevator, basically asking me if all this talk was going to lead to action or if I’d just wasted his time. That brought me back to getting challenged in Montbello with RootEd, and really forced the wheels to start turning.

What has Ednium accomplished in its 3 years as an organization?
We started things with our Design Lab, Leadership Launchpad and Advocacy Accelerator, which all still exist today. The Data Lab regularly invites DPS alumni from 19 to 30 years old to help us rethink education based on their experiences. The Leadership Launchpad now has more than 40 graduates, all of whom are DPS alumni who’ve come together with us to build personal and professional skills while expanding our collective social infrastructure. And the Advocacy Accelerator leans into those Launchpad graduates to help us define our organizational priorities for action. From this process, we led the push for DPS to make financial literacy as well as cultural and ethnic studies curricula graduation requirements. And we partnered with the district to ensure student and alumni voice was centereed in the implementation of that curricula, which launched this school year. And most recently, we’ve helped push to expand eligibility criteria for the Prosperity Denver Fund so that Denver alumni up to 30 years old can access funds to support their pursuit of postsecondary education and upskilling programs.

I understand you’ve made a lot of progress on the financial literacy curriculum work?
We have. After gaining approval from the school board, we worked with DPS to secure a grant through Next Gen Personal Finance to establish a Financial Literacy Specialist position within the district. We were able to hire Tiffany Askins for that role, and she has done amazing work aligning alumni and student visions with the development of the curriculum. The courses went live this school year, and we feel like we’re well positioned to build a true iterative process that is focused on continuous improvement. The hope is that each year, the next class of students walks out of school a little better prepared than the one that came before it.

You’ve been able to tap into large funding from sources from places like Next Gen as well as organizations like ours at Gary Community Ventures, where you’re an Entrepreneur in Residence. What has gaining those resources from the philanthropic community allowed Ednium to do?
Gary, in particular, has really walked the walk as a funding partner. They have never pushed us aside when we said “no” to things. And the people within Gary have helped us learn and grow in so many ways as a young organization. Being able to count the broader Gary team as partners — not just funders — has been such a blessing because it has given us the stability, freedom and support to define who we are as a collective.

You’ve now been named to the Denver Business Journal’s 40 Under 40 list. You were recognized as part of Notley’s 2023 Changemaker Program, alongside some high-profile civic leaders in Colorado and across the country. And you were also named a co-chair of new Denver Mayor Mike Johnson’s Children’s Affairs transition committee. But you often shun the spotlight that comes with those honors. Why?
I always try not to get lost in the sauce. Every time I get hit with something like this, I feel like, “OK, now I really gotta do something.” But at the same time, it does feel vindicating, because there have been people who’ve said Ednium would never work. At the end of the day, we view these recognitions as a tool. If we can use them to open more doors to help our communities walk through them, that’s the dream. We want people to see that you don’t have to be a suit-and-tie guy to make it; you don’t have to have done everything right. Talent and brilliance come from everywhere, especially our own backyards.

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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