Esme Aguilar, a youth participant, poses in front of a mural

Teens find 'voyce' in advocacy

Young people advocate for threatened neighborhoods with researchers' help

May 10, 2017

The Globeville and Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods in north Denver sit center stage to multiple threats. As low-income neighborhoods, there is the perennial problem of economic instability. They also contend with a reimagined Interstate 70 project and increasing residential and commercial developments, which drive up the cost of living. This increase has already displaced families from the neighborhoods they grew up in.

Through a local organization supported by CU Denver, young people living in and around this area have answered the call to tackle community and educational challenges by developing leadership skills.

The Voyce of a new generation

Project VOYCE (Voices of Youth Changing Education) is a nonprofit that helps mentor local youth so they can better advocate for themselves and their neighborhoods. In partnership with University of Colorado Denver, and with funding from the CU Denver Office of Research Services (ORS) Creative Collaborative Research Faculty Fellowship, Project VOYCE now reaches a wider audience through videography and interactive graphics.

For more information about the Office of Research Services call 303-315-5826 or visit

As a researcher who uses documentary filmmaking to tell the story of underrepresented individuals and communities, Marty Otañez, PhD, associate professor of anthropology, is using those same principals to help these Denver youth share their narratives. He’s part of a 10-person team from CU Denver that includes three professors and seven graduate students from multiple schools and colleges.

Through seven videos created in a collaborative workshop, youth who live in and around the Globeville and Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods share their perspectives on what people should know about their community and the difficulties they face.

“Wonderland” by Esme Aguilar

This video was written and produced by Esme Aguilar, one of the youth participants.  She is one of the young activists who will lose her home and neighborhood due to the Interstate 70 expansion project. She also works for an immigration law firm and is a former youth organizer for Project VOYCE.

Otanez said he’s taken a lot from this research. “I’ve learned about problems within our own communities, what we can do as scholar-advocates to retool ourselves, and how we can move beyond academic papers to act as a pipeline to the communities the university is designed to serve,” he said.

“Helping them shape their own narrative”

For youth advocates living in Globeville and Elyria-Swansea, education and civil engagement are seen as the primary ways in which they can bring the neighborhood out of poverty and improve their representation in the local government.

Project VOYCE offers free mentorship to students ages 14-25. Graduates of the program have an opportunity to take a certification test and return to the community as mentors.

Otañez works as the principal investigator on the research side of the partnership between the university and the nonprofit. He is joined by Bryan Wee, PhD, associate professor of Geography and Environmental Science, and Jody Beck, PhD, assistant professor of Landscape Architecture, along with their student assistants.

Candi CdeBaca, executive director of Project VOYCE, appreciates the resources and expertise CU Denver’s team is providing to the young people in the distressed neighborhoods. “It’s helping them shape their own narrative,” she said. “We want this to be a launching pad for young people to teach their peers how to use this model as a tool for research, communication and a way to change communities.”