By Erica Boniface
It’s a new year, with a new governor leading the way for Colorado. We give Gov. Jared Polis a big welcome, but with that hearty hello, we also wave, shake hands and thank Gov. John Hickenlooper for his past eight years leading the Centennial State.
It’s an argument we’re happy to make, but it’s safe to say Gov. Hickenlooper was so successful thanks to his amazing team. One of those team members is 2005 Livingston Fellow, Jamie Van Leeuwen, who served as Hickenlooper’s Senior Advisor for many years.
We decided to catch up with Jamie as he steps into a new role with Emerson Collective. When you hear him talk about the day they embarked on helping Colorado’s homeless population, and about the day of the Aurora Theatre shooting — you realize how important and monumental their working relationship and friendship was for the state.
Bonfils-Stanton Foundation: What are some memories you’ll take away after serving as senior advisor to Gov. Hickenlooper?
Jamie Van Leeuwen: There are so many! I worked with Hickenlooper for 14 years and we became family. And like any good family, the hard experiences (and fun ones!) bring you together in unique, unforgettable, intense ways.
I remember literally my first day on the job for Denver’s Road Home, created by “Hick” in 2005 to end homelessness. The Colorado Health Foundation invested $1 million in the initiative and I walked into his office with his chief of staff at the time, Roxane White. Hick was eating a sandwich, contemplating such an ambitious effort — whether ending homelessness was actually achievable and how it could happen. Of course, there are still thousands without homes, but over the years we created an ecosystem that made a huge difference for thousands. We created over 2,000 new units of housing and reduced chronic homelessness by 65 percent. It started that day in that room. If someday everyone does have a home, Hick deserves limitless credit for his early vision and ambition.
I’ll never forget the day of the Aurora Theatre shootings. It was a tragedy unlike anything we had ever known, and brought us all to our knees. So much needless, inexplicable loss. But we came together and responded both that day, and in the months to come, in a way that was almost an equal force of kindness to the hate that was inflicted. It is during times of enormous crisis where your leadership is tested and you are thankful for the skills and smarts of everyone on your team and what they bring to the table, especially when it’s helping others through unimaginable hardship.
And I remember standing behind John Hickenlooper the day he announced that he would make Civil Unions a priority for Colorado. He talked the talk and he walked the walk. And he truly spent his entire career making sure that everyone, I mean everyone, had a seat at the table.
Which reminds me of something he once said: “Who’s mad at us, and when are we meeting with them?”
BSF: You are a 2005 Livingston Fellow. So much has changed since 2005! Tell us about how the program initially helped you and your organization early on – but also how it still plays a role and influences your leadership abilities still to this day.
JVL: The Livingston Fellowship turbo-boosted my career as a young nonprofit professional. It challenged me to think bigger and differently about the work that I was doing and raised the notion of “What if…?” for me.
Obviously, the roots of the Livingston Fellowship run deep for me as the Global Livingston Institute is thriving a decade after its inception as we have 18 academic partners in place and have engaged over 1,400 scholars and community leaders in our social impact initiatives in East Africa. We now have one of the largest music festivals in East Africa where 70,000 Ugandans and Rwandans attended our shows in August; we tested over 10,000 people for HIV and connected over 3,000 women with reproductive health services and cervical cancer screens. And we are just getting started!
Thank you for your vision John Livingston!
BSF: For new and upcoming Fellows, what advice do you have for them?
JVL: Think different. Think big.
And with everything you do as it relates to community development, Listen and Think before you Act.
BSF: Aside from your new position at Emerson Collective, what are some goals and aspirations you’re looking forward to this year?
JVL: For the GLI we are growing as an organization and we have two goals in mind! We want to change the way that the world is talking about Africa and we want to be the best on the planet when it comes to how to do good community development.
For me, I want to continue my life’s work focused on removing barriers for the poor and underserved. I was a child of two educators and was raised without ever having to worry about what I was having for dinner or whether or not I would go to college. That is not the case for many others, who with the right support and investment are also eager to change the world for the better!
I want to address equity issues both domestically and internationally and create opportunities for people who should have a seat at the table. Because when more people who have different life experiences are at the table where big decisions are made, the results are always better, more sustainable and comprehensive.
And in doing all of this work, I’m so lucky to have the support of my friends and my family and my husband and my son. In fact, they’re partners and inspiration. They are the reason I do the work that I do every day and I am forever grateful as they are always in my corner.
BSF: Is there a motivational quote that you have always loved that you can share with others?
JVL: “Work hard. Be nice.” – Gov. John Hickenlooper
I talk about this all the time. It was embedded in our culture for the 14 years that I worked with Hickenlooper. As a society, we have the first one down! We work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and we get stuff done. We miss the second part all the time. In the midst of solving our most complex social problems we often forget that the work we do is informed and enhanced by how we treat each other. Be nice.