Memories from the Mountaintop

by Sumayya Coleman, founder of the REAL Sistahs Give, a national giving circle to raise funds to award African-American/Black women who need technical and financial assistance with their grassroots efforts to start or enhance their missions to address domestic and sexual violence against women and girls.
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In 1985 I used to look out my kitchen window at least three times a day and talk to the enormous black Colorado Springs Mountains while washing dishes. They made up for the family and friends I left behind in Tennessee at that time. I could not have known that almost thirty years later after years of national and international travel that I would return to Denver in 2013 for the Community Investment Network’s Beyond the Mountaintop experience with the Denver African American Philanthropists, colleagues and new friends who feel like family.  Upon my third time attending a CIN event, this time I made the decision to move our relationship to the next level by announcing, in faith, the beginning of a new giving circle formation- REAL Sistahs Give.  At the end of the day, when I looked out my hotel window, I was compelled to talk to the mountaintops again about my past journey and future destiny.

Before the conference, I had already been traveling for seven days which made the adjustment to the altitude that much more difficult.  I trusted the 10-day advance weather report and did not bring a coat to Denver in October. Still, my fatigue and the fluctuating cold weather did not dampen my excitement at all.  Once I saw familiar faces and received the usual warm greetings, I reconnected to the love and support that draws people to CIN like a magnet – no exaggeration.  Creative layers of clothing took care of the weather’s chill until Brother Effly (DAAP giving circle member) offered me his coat while we toured the Park Hill neighborhood as the sun and the temp were going down, down, down.  Giving a shout out for Brother Effly’s chivalry because his kindness took my mind off the fact that we were on real gangster territory. There was tremendous beauty in the ashes that gave rise to the Park Hill renaissance I got to witness up close. Knowing that in CIN, philanthropy takes on tough projects and turns lives around in ways that can’t be imagined to give lasting hope to depressed communities.

I have been involved in mandatory minimum sentencing reform activities recently to address their impact on victims of domestic violence, which the laws were not intended for this population. Brother Art Way’s insightful workshop, The Drug War and Mass Incarceration, really brought the importance of philanthropy front and center too regarding the prison industrial complex.

Even if a person does not face jail or prison time, a drug conviction record – particularly a felony – often imposes a lifelong ban on many aspects of social, economic and political life.

The historical evolution of mostly white people’s medicinal drug use to drug war to a means to incarcerate black, brown, yellow and red people (people of color) unfortunately is also connected to the lives of the gang members holding their territory in Park Hill.

Yet, the DAAP concept of philanthropy holds the solution to change their destiny by providing means to holistic environments to learn a new moral code and follow a new educational trajectory. The Holly Area Redevelopment Project is an example of the collective community hope in the spirit of Umoja by preparing a place that’s waiting for them just across the street from their holding place.

Visiting the Denver Public Library with Lisa Roy was the most fascinating learning experience that again connected me to my past – this time with my ancestors.  A small group of us rode across town, telling stories about our families’ histories, community myths, and courage to overcome challenges.  I mostly listened to the others talk about their discoveries.  This time, I could not find words to participate in the rhythmic conversations bouncing from person to person. Lisa, our facilitator standing at the front of the bus telling her legacy, made the quest to find our ancestors sound so easy and even fun.  She has been doing genealogies for almost thirty years.  I can’t help but think that while I was talking to the Colorado mountaintops all those years ago, that somehow that beautiful sunny day was being predestined for us to meet. Chad Jones’ words could not have rung more personal for me at that moment:  “As our ancestors foretold, they would not get to the mountaintop with us.  But, here we are, knowing in our hearts that their spirits inspire us, their guidance connects us, and their love strengthens us even as we make them proud by transcending the boundaries that have been set for us.”

Lisa helped me locate information on both my maternal and paternal grandparents, and paternal great-grandparents.  Something inside of me leaped with emotional glee and anticipation, while at the same time a small sense of sadness tried to emerge.  Holding the white paper in my hands with the black letters printed on the page indicating the names of my ancestors whom I come from since 1885 was like receiving translations of the mysterious deep dark lines in the palms of my hands.  There is something intriguing about the 100 years between 1885–1985… can’t put my finger on it just yet, but something to do with destiny for sure.  Also, to learn that my ancestral roots marched through Alabama gave me a real sense of pride and more understanding of my strengths.

The pinnacle of my mountaintop experience was with the group who participated in my workshop: Giving as Organizing and Ministry Too.  We made a personal analysis of Dr. King’s mountaintop speech and demystified “ministry” terminology so that we could openly discuss the spiritual aspect of our philanthropy and how we express it in our various philanthropic approaches.  The conversation was educational for Nick, a foundation staff who attended.  Nick said he received the insight he came for.  Another person was able to share sacred tears that had been waiting for such a space to be released. Others were fully engaged and did not want to leave the workshop on time. I was honored to set the table for us all to freely share this important aspect of our philanthropy without anyone feeling awkward or left out. Dr. King was clear about his spiritual journey:

I just want to do God’s will.

There are many other parts of my mountaintop experience that I could share and will never forget.  This event was about personal and professional development as well as philanthropy.  The CIN platform continuously provides a sacred space for sharing active love, gaining knowledge, positive growth, and reaching for wholeness through giving.  This experience will inform my approaches to developing the REAL Sistahs Give giving circle.  I am looking forward to us taking steps together to build relationships, educate communities, advocate for formerly/battered women and support them with love.  I look forward to being one of the eleven new giving circle formations to be announced in North Carolina in 2014.  I came to the Community Investment Network as a result of following after my heart.  I am eager to see the journey through and what it will manifest with the love and support of many caring hands, creative and open minds, and proven methods.  This is so much more beyond the mountaintop.  Making it real, one step at a time.

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