Welcome to our Changemaker Profiles blog series! Each edition will profile one outstanding social changemaker from the JVA client community. By sharing the stories of some of the incredible people we get to work with every day, each accomplishing extraordinary work in nonprofits, government, social enterprise and elsewhere, we hope we will bring a little light and inspiration to your day! 

For this edition, we spoke with Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez (third from the left in photo), director of the Denver Collaborative Partnership (DCP). DCP works with more than a dozen partner organizations to serve youth involved with the juvenile justice system, as well as their families.

Mandated partners include the Denver Department of Human Services, the courts, juvenile probation, the Denver Health and Hospital Authority, the Mental Health Center of Denver, Access Behavioral Care, the Division of Youth Services/corrections, Signal Behavioral Health Network, Safehouse Denver and Denver Public Schools. Additional partners include the 2nd Judicial District, the Denver Public Safety Youth Program under the Department of Public Safety, Families Forward Resource Center, the district attorney’s and public defender’s offices, and a parent partner who has experienced involvement in the system through their children.

Last summer, DCP was one of two organizations statewide chosen to receive state funds through the Office of State Planning and Budgeting’s “Call for Innovation.” JVA had the privilege of guiding DCP through the successful submission of its proposal for this funding.

Serena is also running for Colorado House District 4 in Denver.

1. Tell us about you and your organization and the social change you are trying to achieve.

“The Denver Collaborative Partnership Program came out of legislation in 2004. All counties in Colorado can elect to have a Collaborative Management Program to work with multisystem-involved families or those at risk of being multisystem-involved.

“I came into this role about five years ago. Denver has focused on the juvenile population, specifically kids that have juvenile delinquency charges. My job is to work with all of these entities and systems. I’m working on a larger scale on systems change—how we provide better access to resources and services—as well as to coordinate and facilitate family engagement meetings, where we bring families to the table with these partners to be able to provide recommendations or have a discussion with the family about what services or resources might be appropriate given their particular situation.

We work to take the cookie cutter out of the equation and do more individualized work.

“Maybe a family comes to us because a child is charged, or for truancy. Kids may be on pretrial status, so they haven’t been found guilty, but we still need to discuss services in the community. Our goal is to prevent further system involvement. … Our goal is to keep kids with their families and in their communities.”

2. What keeps you inspired and going when things get tough?

“Not letting people down and not letting families down. In addition to working with the organizations, I get to be hands-on and facilitate meetings. It keeps me grounded and aware of what’s going on with practices and the system, hearing some of the things we have to hear from families—that they are still facing discrimination, or facing homelessness, and transportation issues; that they are dealing with a lot of trauma, a history of abuse—that’s what keeps me going.

“I worked at DHS [Denver Human Services] for eight years before this position. I would tell people, if you don’t feel empathy, if a family is telling you their deepest, darkest secrets, parents are pleading you to help their child because they are addicted to heroin and they don’t want to get a call saying their child is dead—if you don’t feel for them, then it’s time to move on. You don’t have that compassion, so how could you put yourself in their shoes and not become judgmental? People become jaded and say it’s just another addict, just another delinquent youth. I don’t feel that way. We still have a lot of work so we can do better for these families.”

3. What advice would you give to someone who is trying to break new ground in a traditional field?

“Be willing to work with others. You can’t just come in guns blazing, saying we’re going to do it this way and this way. Our different partners all have their own missions and agendas; you have to try to find a way to build consensus and figure out how to work with one another. For example, we have to have a sense of tact in dealing with public defenders and district attorneys who are at odds. You have to figure out how to bring them along on the journey—and also include the families’ voices in these things.

People say having a thick skin is good, but I think that having compassion is even better.

“And being humble. People that come in knowing all of the answers, I don’t think that’s a real leader.”

4. What book do you recommend to everyone you meet and why?

“I honestly haven’t been doing a lot of reading lately. I’m running for office and I also have three kids. I enjoy the show ‘Blackish.’ My husband and I can relate on many levels. Growing up, we weren’t below the poverty level, but my parents didn’t go to college. My dad started working for the city and county of Denver when I was a baby, and he worked there for 27 years, but he always had two jobs. Then he became a real estate agent, and my mom started working as I got older—so they were always hard workers. They always encouraged us to go to college. Looking at a show like ‘Blackish,’ the struggle is very similar. Both my husband and I went to college and we do well, so it’s about keeping our kids grounded and knowing where they come from. On the show, the husband didn’t grow up the way his kids are, and he wants them to understand their background, their ancestors, that the things that they have, their grandparents had to fight for—and also that things are still unequal and they still have to fight.”

5. How have you worked with JVA, and how has that helped your organization?

Sarah Hidey is amazing. The Colorado Governor’s Office of Planning and Budget had issued a ‘Call for Innovation’ throughout the entire state for approaches to improve outcomes for youth involved in the state’s child welfare or juvenile justice systems. The project manager said ‘think big, think pie in the sky.’ It was around youth going into out-of-home placement, low graduation rates for foster youth, youth going into detention. There was a statewide tour encouraging people to apply. There were more than 50 applications, and Denver was one of three chosen. We couldn’t have done that without JVA. JVA has contracts with city and county agencies, so they were able to coordinate and collaborate with all of the city partners. Sarah sat with us and did a wonderful facilitation for how can we break this down into buckets and make it into a great proposal. I attribute our win of this proposal to JVA.”

6. What else would you want to share with us that we haven’t asked?

“I am from Denver, born and raised, which is kind of rare nowadays. I was actually raised in the district I am running in. It is very different than it was. I am now the third generation in Denver, sixth generation in Colorado. For doing the work that I’m doing, it’s really important. When I went to college, I said that I wanted to always work in Denver. I have a huge sense of pride and love for Denver. I’m also the granddaughter of activist Rodolfo ‘Corky’ Gonzales—there’s a library named after him on Irving and Colfax. He was one of the main advocates in the Chicano movement in Denver. So, growing up in my household, you stand up for yourself and you stand up for others.”

If you want to keep up with the area’s most inspiring changemakers, read JVA’s Changemakers blog!