As alum and emergency department medical director Adam Z. Barkin ’94 shared when reflecting on the last year, “Unprecedented is one of the most overused words of 2020. But considering a worldwide pandemic, racial unrest, economic hardship and the most tumultuous political environment of my lifetime, this word is apt, and 2020 will certainly be written about in the history books for decades to come.”
We hope those history books will include stories like those of the Kent Denver alumni profiled below—frontline medical workers, community activists, entrepreneurs and more—who have used their energy and skills to help their communities during this challenging time.
Maya Muwanga '19: Community Organizer, Future Educator
Maya Muwanga ‘19 planned to use the 2019–20 school year as a gap year to explore her interests and evaluate the best college path for her. After spending fall 2019 as a teacher’s aide through a program in Montevideo, Uruguay, Maya returned to the U.S. with a deeper awareness of “education and the importance of early experiences. It also showed me how much I enjoyed working with kids.”
She decided to use spring 2020 to get more deeply engaged in the education space, starting with a role as a youth voter registration organizer with New Era Colorado. Initially, this involved school-based presentations to help young voters understand and get involved in the election process. “One of my favorite parts of organizing was the diverse array of young people I came into contact with,” Maya says. “I learned so much about how Gen Z is feeling and what matters to them, and got to inform young people about their rights, and for some, facilitate their first experience with democratic participation.”
Of course, with COVID-19 precautions shutting down schools in March, Maya’s plans had to shift. She and her fellow volunteers had to figure out how to reach students in creative ways. “We did frequent phone banking, texting, and some virtual webinars, and also tried to utilize social media to spread information and register voters.” This work led to a New York Times article about Maya and other youth organizers from around the country!
Maya’s civic engagement didn’t end there. “From June through August, I also participated in a teaching fellowship with the program Generation Teach. In this position, I taught four sections of a critical thinking/law class in a virtual STEAM summer academy. My students were 6–8th graders from Denver, Boston, Rhode Island, and Western Massachusetts.”
Now Maya is focused on her own education—she started at NYU Abu Dhabi in the fall of 2020—and is looking forward to connecting with other young people to “continue to advocate for broader equality and justice. The pandemic and increased attention towards the Movement for Black Lives has created this civic energy, and I see people having conversations and learning and pursuing activism in really inspiring ways. This year’s election [and everything else going on in the world] has brought up the topic of accountability again and again. How do we make sure public officials and the government are serving our interests? What are our interests, and how do we ensure they are clearly communicated/visible to those in positions of power? How can we redefine what power and community look like? We’re at an inflection point, and how we move forward matters greatly.”
Next Up: Adam Barkin '94
Adam Barkin '94: Emergency Department Medical Director
Even in a field known for high pressure and high stakes, COVID-19 created unprecedented challenges for frontline medical workers. Emergency department (ED) medical director Dr. Adam Z. Barkin ’94 writes,
"My most significant responsibilities were assuring great care of patients and keeping my team of doctors, PAs, nurses, paramedics and others safe. Because of the newness of COVID, it's easy spread and potential lethality, this created a tremendous amount of tension both personally and within the hospital. With COVID, best practices were changing so quickly, and it was a challenge to keep up with the flood of new information arriving daily. I spent a lot of time reading, listening and trying to glean information from people around the world who may have been a few weeks ahead of us on the curve. Trying to strike a balance between keeping others informed without overloading them has been a challenge throughout.
It has also been essential to focus on frontline workers' mental health during this very long last year. During our big surges in COVID, the ED has felt like a war-zone—so many patients, many very ill and all the while, ED staff with potential exposures to a deadly disease with every patient encounter. We set up options for counseling along with trying to schedule people with stretches of time off and focusing on simple things like feeding people to get them through their shifts.
COVID has laid bare the inequities of our healthcare system and also across our society related to race and income. The emergency department has remained an open door and safety net treating patients regardless of age, race, socioeconomic status and most importantly their ability to pay. I chose emergency medicine because I love the variety of patients I have the privilege of caring for. While there have been times during the pandemic where I have been more nervous and unsure about going to work, I still love being an emergency physician and hope we have made a small contribution to improving the health and outcomes for the patients in our community."
Adam also contributed to his community beyond the hospital doors by serving as a volunteer member of the medical advisory boards at both Graland Country Day School and at Kent Denver, offering expert guidance to both schools’ faculty, staff and families as we all navigated an unusual school year:
"It has been an honor to serve on several medical advisory boards for schools during the COVID pandemic. The task forces and schools’ decisions have required similar trade-offs and difficult conversations as my job in the ED. Keeping kids, teachers, parents and staff safe has been the priority while also recognizing the importance of in-person education not only from an academic vantage point but also the social and emotional benefits of an in-person school experience. At the same time, we have had to recognize that a school can only try to influence the behaviors of its members off campus. I have been impressed with the thoughtfulness of Kent and Graland’s administrators in keeping their schools safely open as much as possible. I have also been bowled over by our teachers' commitment as they have remained focused and present as they educate our kids—they are heroes in my mind. These teachers, leaders and staff at Graland and Kent have been flexible and creative as schedules, activities and health protocols have been reinvented during the pandemic."
As Adam reflects on his experiences in 2020 and looks ahead to 2021, he shares both lessons learned and optimism for the future:
"In my capacity as a physician, hospital administrator, task force member and parent, the last year has required leading through uncertainty and making decisions with imperfect information. Leadership can be an extraordinarily humbling experience and never more so during the COVID pandemic. Often, we have had to adjust strategies when new data emerge, or we gain additional experience.
As the parent of two young, curious and civically minded boys, my wife and I have also had to think about how to explain and contextualize these events for them while reflecting on what we can do to make the world a better place for them as they grow into young men. I am hopeful that 2021 brings widespread vaccinations and a more harmonious political climate that allows our country to heal."
Next Up: Grant Brown '03
Grant Brown '03: Parks & Wildlife Safety Manager
Kent Denver alumni across a wide variety of fields saw significant impacts in their professions. As Colorado Parks & Wildlife Boating Safety Program Manager Grant Brown ’03 shares, with COVID limiting travel outside the state, Colorado Parks & Wildlife (CPW) saw record numbers of people getting outside and exploring local parks in 2020. Water sports, including boating, kayaking, canoeing and paddle boarding, were especially popular across the state.
He adds, “Unfortunately, with the increase in new/novice paddlers, we had to respond to a record setting number of water-related emergencies this summer.” His team’s response work includes everything from assisting stranded boaters to conducting underwater evidence recovery whenever there is an incident on the water. The team also has swift-water specialists who manage all whitewater commercial companies in Colorado to ensure they follow all safety guidelines and provisions and conduct swift-water rescues when needed.
In most cases, drownings and other emergencies on the water could be prevented if paddlers wore life jackets and followed basic water safety guidelines. Therefore, Grant and his Boating Safety Team also spent 2020 increasing boating safety education and enforcement out on the water. “We are especially working on getting the message out more broadly so boaters are informed prior to hitting the water,” Grant says. “The best part of the job is educating the public about boating safety and how to enjoy water recreation safely and legally.”
Just as water recreation season was winding down, Grant and other CPW officers were faced with a new challenge: the wildfires that expanded rapidly in the fall, ultimately consuming more than 625,000 acres across the state. Grant and his colleagues helped with livestock evacuations and providing aid to wildland firefighters. “Many of our officers and staff are volunteer firefighters and were assisting out on the front line too,” he notes. “Our parks also opened campgrounds to give displaced residents a safe place to go while they tried to sort things out.”
After a challenging, but impactful year, Grant hopes 2021 will bring more opportunities for people to be together again safely. "I am looking forward to meeting up with friends in person again. Professionally, I am looking forward to traveling to attend conferences again, as I miss the networking opportunities and also look forward to the return of in-person training opportunities for hands-on skills."
Cody Autterson '10: Entrepreneur
Cody Autterson ‘10 turned to technology as a connection tool in 2020. Alongside his brother Gunnar Autterson ’16 and another business partner, Cody developed 4thWall, a Google Chrome extension that turns minutes spent streaming movies and TV shows on a computer into charitable donations paid for by ad sponsors.
When they picked a March 2020 launch date, no one on the 4thWall team was planning for a global pandemic, but the timing couldn’t have been better for a tool tied to counting streaming hours. The partners immediately knew they wanted to launch with a charitable focus on problems—like food scarcity and medical access—that were exacerbated by COVID-19. So far, 4thWall has donated nearly $10,000 to organizations like Feeding America, the Food Bank of the Rockies and the CDC Foundation, as well as to microfinance organization Kiva, which provides small business loans to entrepreneurs all over the world.
“It’s a really anxious time,” Cody shares. “I’ve found a really profound sense of calm in having one specific problem to focus on. I can ask myself, ‘What can I do as an individual to make a difference? I can’t impact everything that’s happening in the world right now, but I can help a few people.’ Having that sense of control or power is really reassuring.”
He is especially proud of the support 4thWall has provided to other entrepreneurs through Kiva. “Entrepreneurs are motivated by an altruistic impulse to start with. You want [your idea] to impact someone’s life for the better,” he says.
That might explain why Cody has long been addicted to entrepreneurship. In addition to 4thWall, he founded and runs Porch House Pictures, a video and photography production company, and is working on shooting his first feature film this year.
Next Up: Duke Beardsley '88
Duke Beardsley '88: Artist and Influencer
Artist Duke Beardsley ’88 has long used his art to support causes close to his heart, from donating paintings to various organizations (including Kent Denver and Breakthrough at Kent Denver) to hosting his own benefit events at regional exhibitions throughout the year.
However, with in-person events on hiatus for most of 2020, Duke sought new ways of connecting with and supporting other artists.
“I was able to stay operating during the pandemic. I didn’t have to lay off my two employees. I could keep the lights on and paint and keep going,” he acknowledges. “I started to think, ‘If you’re going to have this kind of good fortune, what can you do to help those struggling?’”
Through his assistant Virginia Diaz Saiki, Duke was already connected to Denver’s RedLine Contemporary Art Center, which has a number of programs that support emerging artists. In 2020, RedLine launched the Colorado Artist Relief Fund to support artists experiencing economic distress as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Duke knew he wanted to contribute to that effort.
He auctioned off two paintings with proceeds going to RedLine and the Relief Fund. He says, “Just helping my own community, knowing I’m helping other artists do their version of what I do felt great.”
Duke also wanted to find others ways to connect to the broader community, especially while he and so many others were feeling isolated at home. To that end, he launched Tuesday Night Live, a weekly Instagram-based livestreaming conversation, where he could highlight all the ways people were using creative problem solving during a universally challenging time.
Early guests were fellow artists, but Duke quickly realized that “the idea of who is creative and what creative problem solving is [extends beyond the art world]. I have friends in the more conventional business world, friends in politics, friends in entertainment who are all doing creative problem solving right now.” Among many others, Duke highlighted musician Nathaniel Rateliffe, U.S. Senator John Hickenlooper, and businessman Pete Coors.
“We just kind of tried it,” he says laughing. “It was small, but really well-received from the very beginning. It ended up so much bigger and so much more than I ever dreamt it could be. I am the biggest fan of [the people I interviewed]. To have them accessible to everyone that intimately, just sharing their ideas, it is so much fun.”
Holding on to the fun moments kept Duke energized in a roller coaster of a year. “The energy impact of the situation globally has been profound for me, as an individual and as an artist. It’s brought out some great things from me: determination, enthusiasm, a desire to do more for others. But to be honest, there’s been a lot of moments of feeling frozen in my tracks or not clear in my head.”
Duke channeled some of his emotions into his art, starting a new series in May that he’s currently calling The Moons, which focuses on how the full moon changes from month to month, a reflection of the slower pace many of us have been forced to adopt.
Reflecting on the year past and the year ahead, Duke shares, “COVID has forced me to slow down in a lot of ways, or allowed me to slow down. I’ve had to be careful about how much energy I spend on the things I wish we could go do. I’d like to stay more present moving forward.”
Sayuri Toribio '20: Community Organizer
Community safety and education were top of mind for Sayuri Toribio ’20 in 2020. A member of the newest Kent Denver graduating class, Sayuri has long been a community organizer for her Westwood neighborhood in Denver. While still in high school, Sayuri helped found the Youth-Led Bicycle Repair Shop and Bike Library at Garfield Lake Park. She credits teachers like Jason Mundy and Lucas Richardson with supporting her interest in community volunteerism and activism. “They encouraged me to understand other people’s problems and to ask the question, ‘Is everyone being included here?’”
As part of her quest to understand and include others, Sayuri joined the Communities That Care board, a youth-led initiative that aims to strengthen opportunities for and reduce violence among young people around the country. In early 2020, Sayuri and her fellow-based Denver board members were tasked with selecting a project they would develop and implement over the course of a year. The board decided to focus on a media project: the Southwest Vida newsletter, a paper and digital publication with articles in both English and Spanish. Sayuri was chosen as the team leader and editor for the project, a responsibility she takes seriously. “There are strong youth in our community but not enough of their voices are being heard,” she says. “We’re filling that void with [our newsletter].”
Unable to host typical brainstorming meetings in the spring, the editorial team gathered on Zoom, and once weather allowed, met outside in person as well. They knew they wanted to write articles on the effects of gun violence, substance abuse and economic disparity, alongside resources to help and inspire Westwood neighborhood residents, including job hunting advice, resume writing tips, profiles of local youth leaders, and small business spotlights.
“It’s really exciting to see how different people respond to our articles. We’ve gotten a lot of response from city council representatives and community leaders. They like seeing stories written by [young people],” she shares.
Sayuri and her team also expanded their newsletter to include COVID resources like social distancing-friendly activities, testing information, prevention strategies, and an at-a-glance list of community organizations that could help those struggling with mental health challenges and food insecurity. After Sayuri’s entire household tested positive for the virus this fall, she even used her own experience as the basis for an article where she interviewed an epidemiologist about why some Denver communities, including the city’s Latino population, face a greater risk from the virus.
Southwest Vida has now published four issues, and Sayuri and her fellow board members are applying for grants that they hope will sustain Southwest Vida beyond their initial one-year timeline. All four issues are available online here.
Beyond her community activism, Sayuri is also in her second semester at Regis University, where she plans to earn a degree in business with a focus on organizational leadership. Although COVID brought many unexpected changes to her high school senior year and college freshman year experiences, her goals remain the same as they have been since she was starting at Kent Denver. As she shares in the September issue of Southwest Vida, “I want to become a successful Hispanic woman that paves a path for other young Hispanic youth that do not see themselves represented in society. I want to be able to open up a nonprofit or continue to expand my leadership role to reach even more people. I have learned that you cannot work alone and that you will always need a community to support you.”