May/June 2012 Issue • Volume 40 • Issue 5

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Colorado Springs: Whose Utopia?

Heather Albanesi, Michele Companion, Lynda Dickson, Richard Dukes, Abby Ferber, Edwardo Portillos, University of Colorado-Colorado Springs

Colorado Springs, Colorado

Colorado Springs, Colorado

Seventy miles south of Denver, Colorado Springs is the second largest city in Colorado. The University of Colorado-Colorado Springs (UCCS), with fewer than 10,000 students, is the fastest growing campus in the CU system. Its sociology department, consisting of 8 full time faculty, is pretty much typical of the discipline in terms of its leaning to the left. Members have been in the department for an average of 12 years (range of two to 28 years), so the question becomes, what keeps us here in what Time magazine referred to several years ago as a “white-bread” community? We attempt to provide a fuller picture of Colorado Springs, and in the process help answer this question.

In general, Colorado Springs is politically Republican. In fact, 59% voted Republican in the 2008 national election. Collective ownership of City Utilities contrasts sharply with our entrepreneurial orientation; however, rates are low and attractive to everyone, and the city ranks 97 in the cost of living index. The Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) limits the amount of government revenue. Overages are returned to taxpayers. Much city revenue comes from sales taxes, so the Great Recession has resulted in severe budget cuts and a call to sell the largest hospital in the region, possibly to the University of Colorado System. Proceeds presumably would support police, fire, and parks. Cuts include turning off certain street lights and letting grass die in parks. Citizens respond by “adopting” specific lights and maintaining parks themselves, a process dubbed “do-it-yourself government.” Another development in government fundraising is the legal purchase of marijuana from 204 dispensaries if one has a permit based on medical need.

We are surrounded by a number of military installations including Fort Carson, the United States Air Force Academy, Peterson Air Force Base, the North American Aerospace Defense command (NORAD) & Cheyenne Mountain Air Station, and Shriever Air Force Base. These are, in fact, the largest employers in the area, which, in conjunction with the presence of numerous Christian-right organizations, are partly responsible for the city’s conservative reputation.

Religious Diversity

Undoubtedly, Colorado Springs has a strong evangelical presence, with mega-churches like New Life, and the national or international headquarters for many evangelical Christian organizations like Focus on the Family, Compassion International, and The Navigators. However, this reality does not completely represent the religious diversity found in the city. Colorado Springs has four Jewish, three Baha’i, one Buddhist, Latter Day Saints, Wiccan, Pagan, and one Muslim congregation. In addition, there are historically mainline Protestant religious communities, including Unitarian and Quaker, which are theologically liberal and politically committed to progressive social justice. Still, only about 37% of the population indicates affiliation with a religious congregation (city-data.com).

Despite controversies regarding religious intolerance and proselytizing at the U.S. Air Force Academy (making headlines in 2005), the Interfaith Alliance has applauded recent efforts to encourage religious diversity at the Cadet Chapel. Moreover, Shove Council, a multi-faith group located in Colorado College, seeks to foster the needs of various religious groups. While reproductive choice is a hot-button religious-political issue, Colorado Springs has two Planned Parenthood facilities. Although one of them is still protested by anti-choice advocates regularly, they have recently moved into a new, secure facility without any obstacles.

Military and Diversity

Just as our religious context is more complex than outsiders often realize, the large military presence leads to a range of outcomes. For example, the military contributes to much of the racial and ethnic diversity in the city. We are 70.7 percent non-Hispanic White, 16.1 percent Hispanic origin, 6.3 percent Black, 3 percent Asian, and 1 percent American Indian/Alaska Native. There is also a relatively high rate of interracial mixing in Colorado Springs, with 5.1 percent of the local population listing more than one race, due in large part to the influence of the military.

While residents of color can be found in all neighborhoods, southeast Colorado Springs is more racially and ethnically diverse and has lower income levels in comparison to the rest of the city. This area is home to many smaller churches of all denominations. For example, in the 80916 zip code within a two-mile square radius at least 15 different churches can be found. Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic church has served the local Latina/o community for 64 years, with masses in both English and Spanish. Another church in the area, Victory Outreach, is open to all and has programs that attract people who have drug addictions or are transitioning back into the community from jail/prison. With one of the oldest black communities in the state, there are many churches with largely black congregations, including several that have served worshippers for over 75 years.

Colorado Springs also has a strong Native American presence. The Colorado Springs Indian Center offers community dinners, sponsors events, and publishes The Camp Crier newsletter. Organizations based here include: One Nation Walking Together, a charity that works with reservation communities in six states; the Native American Women’s Association; the Pikes Peak Inter-Tribal Youth Leadership Program/UNITY; the Native American Leadership Forum; and White Bison, Inc., which facilitates the Wellbriety Movement. Recent activism has resulted in the return of powwows to the Garden of the Gods park after 30 years.

Gay and Lesbian Population

Ironically, the fundamentalist Christian presence has, in the long run, fostered progressive social change in Colorado Springs and beyond. Local evangelical leaders, with funding from Focus on the Family, started Colorado for Family Values, the originators of 1992’s Amendment 2—the ballot measure that aimed to legalize discrimination against gays and lesbians. Amendment 2 was passed by voters by a 7 percent margin, but was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in a precedent-setting 1996 case, which continues to ground legal claims for LGBT rights. At the local level, segments of the community were galvanized in the fight against Amendment 2. For example, we saw the birth of Citizens Project in 1992 “to counter the growing influence of extremists…to provide a counter-voice to this influence by promoting pluralism, religious liberties and the separation of church and state” (www.citizensproject.org).

Another strong progressive voice that arose at this time: The Gay and Lesbian Fund for Colorado (GLFC). A program of the Colorado-based Gill Foundation, The GLFC was located in Colorado Springs, and served as a major source of funding for educational, cultural, and inclusive programming across the state. Since its founding in 1996, the fund gave over $27 million to nonprofits in Colorado, as one means of providing visibility and increased acceptance for Colorado’s gay and lesbian community while also supporting diverse programming (outfrontcolorado.com/ofcblog/news/gill-foundation-to-refocus-gay-and-lesbian-fund-close-colo-springs-office/). One of the recipients of these funds is the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs Matrix Center for the Advancement of Social Equity and Inclusion, a center founded and run to a large extent by members of the sociology department. The Matrix Center sponsors social justice-oriented events on campus, in the community and across the nation (www.uccs.edu/matrix). Many of our sociology colleagues are surprised to find these programs housed at UCCS, given their familiarity with our conservative environment. However, this same environment has served to motivate and inspire us, as advocates for social justice, to make our voices heard and become active in our community. We are constantly faced with opportunities to practice what we preach.

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