A building used to taking on tough issues grapples with Tuesday’s shooting

There are few places I know where people make more of a difference than Denver’s Alliance Center.

In story after story of the 108-year-old building on LoDo’s Wynkoop Street, teams of progressive nonprofit groups spend their days (and nights and, often, weekends) working to make our city and state and world better.

Some are focused on saving our rivers. Others fight for government transparency and voters’ rights. Some build solar projects and promote energy efficiency. Others help young farmers launch careers in agriculture. Some are striving to save at-risk birds, fish and other critters on the brink of extinction. Others are urging more people to bike in Denver, or car-share, or take the bus or just walk. Some work to elect conservation-minded politicians. And others help kids from low-income communities graduate from college.

On the second floor Tuesday afternoon, Cara Russell was at work when her estranged husband entered the building, fatally shot her and then killed himself. Russell was the executive director of the Colorado Association for Recycling. She spent her days trying to keep us from wasting our resources, our time and our planet.

“I am passionate about the power of one person to make a difference,” she had written recently on her Twitter feed.

In the building where she worked, Russell was in good company making a difference. But now, in Tuesday’s aftermath, the people of the Alliance Center have a new cause: making meaning of her killing, and, in one way or another, taking action.

Some groups are avoiding the building today, gathering out-of-office to discuss the shooting and how to heal. Some tenants have been on social media musing about organizing events for tougher gun control laws or against domestic violence. A few Alliance Center workers milled around the card section of the Tattered Cover next door looking for sympathy notes to send Russell’s family.

At least three workers I know have taken the day off. One has chosen to stay home with his wife and kids. Another went to mass, which he said he hasn’t done in more than a decade. And another knocked on my door at about noon today to sit on my stoop and wonder out loud why it takes proximity to make tragedy seem real.

“I was numb to this stuff until I heard the shots,” she said. “But I’m not numb now.”

The groups that occupy the Alliance Center are used to taking on tough issues. Their workers are no strangers to challenge. But the questions posed by Tuesday’s murder-suicide are tricky for a community that prides itself on its open door.

“Something like this happens and it can shake core principles,” said John Powers, board president and a founder of Alliance for Sustainable Colorado, which owns the Alliance Center. “The question is how to make people feel – and be – safe.”

Powers doesn’t just mean safety measures inside the office building. He also means balancing power in a state and nation where, he says, “The gun lobby, which is a small group of radicals, is holding us hostage.”

“It’s amazing that people who want to have guns have more rights than people who don’t want to be around them,” he said. “When Americans are no longer able to feel safe in our schools, churches, theaters, clubs and workplaces, something is terribly wrong, and we must take action.”

For the tree huggers, green energy wonks and transit activists who make up the alliance in the Alliance Center, gun control is very much a form of sustainability.

“Often, people think of sustainability as just an environmental value, but it’s a complex web of values that includes, in this country, some sense of safety from the proliferation of firearms,” Powers said. “What it all comes down to is that there needs to be a higher or greater appreciation for life – for people’s lives – and we need to take the long view on how to get there.”

It came as no surprise this afternoon that, when asked how the Alliance Center community will move forward after Tuesday’s shooting, Powers quoted environmentalist and explorer Robert Swan: “The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.”

“We can’t be passive. We can’t be spectators in making ourselves safe from guns,” Powers added. “If our leaders won’t represent us on this issue, we need to replace them with those who will.”

Photo credit: Google streetview

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