Seven Questions for Women’s Foundation of Colorado President and CEO Lauren Casteel

Lauren Young Casteel

One of Lauren Casteel’s earliest memories was sitting at the kitchen table watching her father, Whitney Young, who was the executive director of the National Urban League and one of the “Big Six” of the Civil Rights Movement, go through the mail.

“He opened up an envelope and there was a check for the National Urban League and a note,” Casteel told me. “I’m not sure who sent it, but the check was substantial. And my father looked at me — and this was the time of Black power — and he said, ‘This is Green power.’ It was the idea that there is power when you can leverage resources to invest in people. And I’ve never forgotten that.”

In 2015, some 50 years later, Casteel took the helm of the Women’s Foundation of Colorado (WFCO), the state’s only community foundation advancing gender, racial and economic equity. In doing so, she became the first person in Colorado to lead three separate foundations, the other two being the Temple Hoyne Buell Foundation and the Hunt Alternatives Fund. Prior to joining the WFCO, Casteel served at the Denver Foundation as vice president of philanthropic partnerships and vice president of donor services.

A national leader and speaker on issues like early childhood education and racial and gender equity, Casteel has earned numerous accolades, including the Anti-Defamation League Mountain States Region’s Civil Rights Award and the Colorado Women’s Chamber of Commerce’s 25 Most Powerful Women Award. In 2014, she was inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame.

I caught up with Casteel for a freewheeling chat that touched on her experience of growing up in a segregated Atlanta, the best piece of advice she ever received, and how a childhood neighbor, one who would go on to be a prominent civil rights leader, taught her how to tie her shoes. Here are some excerpts from that discussion, which have been edited for clarity and length.

Your family moved from Kentucky to Atlanta when you were three months old. What it was like growing up in the Jim Crow South in the 1950s?

We lived in a segregated community near what was then known as Atlanta University — it’s now Clark Atlanta University — where my father was the dean at the School of Social Work and my mother taught at Spelman College.

I grew up in a “town and gown” community where the people who were working at the HBCUs were the heart of our neighborhood. We also had a doctor who lived down the block and made house calls, and another neighbor, Ms. Barrett, would walk me to school on her way to catch the bus to clean homes.

We rarely went downtown because my parents did not want to expose us to the white-only water fountains, bathrooms, et cetera. My parents were very active in meetings and the sit-ins at the time, so I was very much aware of what was happening, even though I was barely seven when we left. If we drove through other parts of Atlanta, the homes were different, the schools were different. I felt the anxieties and I knew there were places that would not be safe for me or my friends.

As you said, you left Atlanta at a young age, but do you think your experience somehow steered you toward philanthropy?

Looking back, I think it infused in me a sense of possibility and connection with the people with whom we shared that community. I saw people sharing childcare and getting together for spaghetti dinners. If someone was sick, the neighbors would bring over food — all of those things that helped our community grow. It was the idea that everyone has something to put in the pot and the pot is never empty, and I can see how, subconsciously, philanthropy was an inherent part of my life.

Any other recollections of being exposed to philanthropy at a young age?

My father ended up getting a fellowship through the Rockefeller Foundation to study at Harvard, so my second-grade year was spent in Cambridge at what was then called the Buckingham School for Girls, where my teacher happened to be the only Black teacher in the school.

Despite my parents having master’s degrees, I was behind in my reading, and my teacher committed herself to making me curious about the world through reading, even though the characters didn’t look like me. I fell in love with Josephine March in “Little Women” and Scout in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” So when I think about it, philanthropy paid for me to go to Buckingham because it allowed my father to spend a year at Harvard.

As years went by, I’d go with my father to conferences, and I would meet people who were investing in his vision. At the March on Washington, my father is standing with Dr. King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, with the throngs of people of all backgrounds from all parts of the country — that too, for me, was philanthropy.

So you have these experiences, but you didn’t consciously envision yourself having a career in philanthropy.

That’s right. My father is from Kentucky and we’d spend our summers there, and I was one of those girls who loved horses, so I wanted to be a jockey. Then, as my father went on into his career, and I was exposed to the national political scene, I wanted to be Shirley Chisholm. And then there was my “parole officer phase” where I envisioned that I would work with those who have been incarcerated in a constructive way. 

I started working in television after the FCC issued a report in the late 1970s called “Window Dressing on the Set: Women and Minorities in Television.” There were a number of internships for women and people of color, and I landed an entry-level position and ultimately got the job that I wanted, hosting television shows in my early 20s.

That led me to become the first press secretary for the city and county of Denver, working for Mayor Federico Peña. In the mayor's office, I met former ambassador Swanee Hunt, who, along with her sister Helen, had a family foundation. She was deeply committed to changing the meaning of the Hunt name within the context of social justice and asked me to run her foundation. [Editor’s note: Hunt’s father, oil tycoon H.L. Hunt, provided major financial assistance to several white supremacist organizations throughout his life.]

And you obviously said yes.

I did, but first, I had to say to her, “I don’t know what that means.” But she had been writing checks only to organizations with which she was familiar and she needed help, so we learned together. Swanee gave me a great deal of latitude to grow, and I can say that I found a career for which I am naturally suited because I’m a people person. Ultimately, philanthropy is about love of humankind. It’s about relationships, it’s about connections and it’s about sharing whatever resources any of us have to contribute.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

I remember something my dad said to me back when I had an afro and it was getting bigger and bigger. He said, “I don’t care what's on your head, I care what’s in your head.” To me, it conveyed an acceptance of seeing people for who they are.

Another bit of advice is “Show up, pay attention, tell the truth and don't attach to outcomes.” Don’t become discouraged by an outcome that may not be what you anticipated, because sometimes it can actually be better than what you envisioned. And then one of my favorites is from Maya Angelou: “My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.” I try to remember that every single day.

I was struck by your extensive work in advocating for inclusivity and diversity in philanthropy. Do you think the field has made sufficient progress in these areas?

Some 20 years ago, we started the Inclusiveness Project at the Denver Foundation to help nonprofits become more inclusive of people of color, and it was hard work. I was often told by colleagues at other places, “That’s great, you do you,” meaning there was no interest. The Denver Foundation also sponsored the Colorado Funders for Inclusiveness and Equity. They had an amazing trainer in the first few years, but only a handful of foundations participated. After the killing of George Floyd, it grew by leaps and bounds. It has a very large participation rate now.

I think the challenge becomes putting it into practice. Oftentimes, people will learn the lingo — philanthropy loves to make up phrases, there are so many over the course of my lifetime, I can’t remember them all. But when it comes to working with organizations — and I say this as a Black woman leader — there are things that I have to challenge myself on if I’m going to be really honest around gender, racial and economic equity.

In our grantmaking, we’re constantly asking, “What does trust really mean?” For our Women and Girls of Color fund, I don’t review the proposals and none of our staff makes the grant decisions. It’s 20 women and nonbinary people of color who make them. We call it liberatory leadership, and it can be risky. But if we think of philanthropy as being our country’s risk capital, then that’s part of the work. It means, “Is there a mistake, or is there a learning?” Again: “Show up, pay attention, tell the truth and don’t attach the outcomes.”

If you could recommend one book to our readers, what would it be?

I’m going to deviate and give you a film [laughs]. It ties to the idea of who has access to opportunity, and it’s a PBS documentary series called “College Behind Bars.” It’s the story of a group of incarcerated men and women who are struggling to earn college degrees and turn their lives around at the Bard Prison Initiative. It is a stark look at our failure to provide meaningful rehabilitation for the over 2 million Americans living behind bars. I felt all of the pain for lives that could have been perceived as being lost, and also the opportunity for redemption. 

Any parting thoughts?

I meant to mention this earlier, and it’s another memory of growing up in Atlanta. [Civil rights leader and legislator] Julian Bond’s family lived next door to us, and Julian was a student at the time. I remember running by their house and Julian was sitting out front, and he said, “Lauren, slow down and come over here.” He sat me down because my shoelaces were untied, and he said, “Do you know how to tie your shoes?” I said, “No, my mom tied them,” and he said, “You cannot leave this step until you learn how to tie your shoes,” so that’s what I did. That’s community.