Prepared remarks: El Pomar Foundation Leadership Conference (Oct. 27, 2023)
Thank you, Kyle Hybl, and the whole El Pomar Foundation team for the opportunity to join you today. The work you do here in Colorado is truly a gift to our great state. I look forward to opportunities to collaborate in the future as well as celebrate your important work.
The collaborative, service-minded nature of this conference warrants some appreciation. In the times we live in, we face increasing divides and rising levels of demonization. I will talk about social media in a bit, which is clearly a significant driver of this problem. A powerful answer is connection through shared commitments and in person engagement where people come together and build relationships, just like you are doing here for the 20th year. Congratulations!
When I consider the framework for collaboration modeled in this room, I am hopeful. In a few minutes, I will talk about our state’s opioid response efforts, a collaborative framework that some of you are involved in, which operates in a similar manner. But as the theme of your conference is community engagement, let me start on that note and then move to talk about collaborative solutions in response to the opioid crisis and our youth mental health crisis, which is indeed driven in part by social media platforms.
One of my favorite expressions is that our democratic republic is a team sport, not a spectator sport. To translate that concept into reality, one of my first goals as attorney general was to develop a robust and effective community engagement program. That’s because I need to hear from all of Colorado to inform and advance our important work, and ensure important resources reach the communities most in need. The chance to be here with you all, and to learn from you and find continued opportunities to work together, is part of that commitment.
I am proud of the team we have put in place in our Division of Community Engagement. Matt Baca took on that role masterfully in my first term and Vanessa Devereaux, who led a critical project in Southern Colorado for our team that I will get to in a minute, has taken the reigns for my second term and is off to a great start. And serving across both terms is my outreach director, Diana Noyes, whose passion for community-centered service and great organizational abilities has helped meet my priority to engage across the whole state—visiting all 64 counties, often several times, and to maintain an open door between our department and Colorado communities. Diana is here with me today and I encourage all of you to connect with her. We also hired Mindy Baumgardner, who is based in Grand Junction and is doing tremendous work engaging with rural Colorado communities.
Our Division of Community Engagement is where we incubate programs, some of which ultimately will become trusted and lasting resources for Coloradans. Consider the case of Safe2Tell – a program focused on school safety and addressing threats to kids. Although founded outside the Department by former Attorney General Ken Salazar, my predecessor former Attorney General Cynthia Coffman brought the program into the Department of Law and Safe2Tell is now a critical tool our office is proud to manage. During my tenure, we continued to hold companies accountable and built upon our office’s investigative work for the opioid crisis. We created the Opioid Response team within the Division of Community Engagement, and as I will talk about soon, this team has the major task of overseeing the responsible distribution of over $770 million we brought back to Colorado from our opioid related lawsuits.
Another critical part of our Community Engagement team is our consumer engagement and data services operation that takes input from the public—including through our Stop Fraud Colorado platform—so we can keep up with the scams and frauds exploiting vulnerable Coloradans and take action where we can hold irresponsible actors accountable.
Finally, our Community Engagement team is responsible for awarding and managing grants to communities across Colorado. The funds for these grants come from settlements in cases where direct restitution to the harmed individuals is not feasible. To put this program into context, consider that, since I became attorney general, we have brought back over $770 million to Colorado to address the opioid epidemic and secured over $392 million in refunds or debt cancellations.
To give you a portrait of how our community engagement work and our granting work go hand-in-hand, I want to talk about our Colorado Partnership for Education and Rural Revitalization, or COPERR Program, as we call it. This is the program I mentioned earlier that our current Division of Community Engagement leader, Vanessa Devereaux, who grew up in San Luis, spearheaded – and is now being managed by Virginia Carreno. The concept for this program came out of conversations I had in Southern Colorado, including at an Action 22 convening, when leaders raised a sustained concern about the lack of housing options and, at the same time, the need to rehabilitate blighted housing across the region. The community members asked what we could do. Back at the office, when reviewing some past settlements, I noticed that when he was attorney general, John Suthers recovered $60 million for Colorado from big banks to address the harms they created in the foreclosure mess—namely, foreclosing on homes without proper documentation. I asked how much of that money had gone to Southern Colorado. The answer: $0. The reason for that oversight was that the funds were supporting an existing housing program within the Department of Local Affairs that did not lend itself to addressing the acute housing needs in this rural community. So we created a new program, working with the local communities and community colleges, to address this unmet need.
At a high level, the COPERR program aims to revitalize rural housing and support construction training programs at community colleges in Southern Colorado. Through the program, Trinidad State College, Lamar Community College, Otero Community College, and Pueblo Corporate College, a division of Pueblo Community College, are training students and renovating blighted housing in southern Colorado. Students from those programs have already renovated homes and put them back into circulation. And the programs are building up their enrollments, with Lamar Community College, for example, enrolling 11 students this fall. In short, COPERR demonstrates what can happen through real dialogue, listening, and collaborative problem solving.
Let me offer another example of the impact of real dialogue, listening, and collaborative problem solving. Like so many of you, I am concerned about how northwest Colorado will manage the transition away from coal economies. The people who live in Craig, Hayden, and other affected communities bear no responsibility for the changing energy industry and should not be left stranded as critical sources of jobs and tax revenue shift. That’s why I led and joined a series of meetings in those communities. In one of them, I met with Colorado Northwestern Community College and they shared their interest in creating a cybersecurity training program, to help develop a locally-trained workforce with the skills to participate in an increasingly essential field. Based on that conversation, we created a new partnership, using funds from a $3 million data breach settlement caused by Equifax, through which the College was able to pilot a training program for its students in the northwestern region of the state.
You will note that, in both the COPERR and cybersecurity area, we are responding to concerns about workforce development and have focused on solutions based within our community colleges. That’s no accident. It’s clear to me that we face some real gaps and challenges in our current skills development model. Over the years ahead, I believe that we are going to need to re-think and re-design how employees develop the competencies they need and meet the demands of employers. This is particularly true in certain sectors, including law enforcement, nursing, and mental health counseling, where it’s clear we are going to need to find new ways to develop professionals and ensure that our communities don’t continue to suffer from pipeline challenges. I appreciate that workforce development is a prime focus for El Pomar; we want to partner with you all to develop new solutions to these challenges.
The Opioid Crisis
Another priority of mine when I came into this office focused on addressing the opioid crisis. Many Americans are directly affected by this crisis and feel it deeply. But some others are surprised to hear that, over the last two years, during the worst part of this crisis, more Americans died from drug overdoses or poisoning (when you have what you think is, say, a Xanax pill, but it’s actually fentanyl than from car crash deaths and gun violence deaths combined. It’s clear to me that we must use all of the tools at are our disposal to meet this moment—and we need to do so with a clear sense of urgency.
The opioid crisis started in the boardroom, as readers of Empire of Pain or viewers of Dopesick know well. Purdue Pharma, most notably, thought it could make money, leave people addicted to opioids, and not worry about the consequences. They and so many others who acted wrongfully and shamefully are being held accountable in our courts of law. My office worked intensively on and lead a number of these cases. As a result, Colorado now has $770 million to invest over 18 years to address this crisis.
Colorado’s model for addressing this crisis is an innovative and collaborative one. It was built on a set of principles, including that all of the funds would be reported transparently and 90% of the funds would be spent at the local and regional level. Through a dialogue with local governments, we worked together to develop a framework for how we would invest these funds. That framework, according to the Johns Hopkins University Public Health School, is the best in the nation. And, it merits note, it has much in common with El Pomar’s regional council model.
I also am a big believer in bringing stakeholders together in one room to facilitate information sharing and relationship building to achieve, streamline, and amplify meaningful results for the communities we serve. For that reason, I am so glad you are all here today doing just that. In this spirit, a couple of months ago in Montrose, we brought together the leaders from across Colorado who are committed to investing our opioid settlement funds and developing responsive solutions in their communities for our second annual Colorado Opioid Abatement Conference. The core goal was to build a community of practice and to enable them to learn from one another, just as you are doing here. It was powerful. And it was inspiring that individuals from different backgrounds, not just from different parts of the state, but those in elected office, public health professionals, law enforcement, service providers, peer counsellors with lived experience, and medical professionals, among others, really listened to one another. That’s what our democratic republic aspires to be—a collaborative and constructive set of conversations, with true dialogue, respectful debate over ideas, and engaged deliberation that leads to impactful action.
Youth Mental Health
Beyond the opioid crisis, I am deeply concerned about how social media is dividing us and how it harms our kids’ mental health. I know that the word crisis gets thrown around a lot, and I just called the opioid epidemic one. But I am convinced, as is the U.S. Surgeon General, that the state of our youth mental health is in a crisis.
To set the stage, let me share what Colorado Children’s hospital has to say:
“Suicide is the leading cause of death for kids ages 10 to 14 in Colorado — higher even than accidental deaths. Fully a third of Colorado high school students say they consistently feel sad and hopeless, a key warning sign, and 17% admitted considering suicide. Seven percent actually made an attempt.”
For me, this is personal, as I have two teenage kids. I believe that there’s nothing more important than mental health—and, unfortunately, we still have a lot of stigma around discussing mental health experiences.
The Safe2Tell program I mentioned earlier was founded after the tragedy at Columbine High School, to establish a trusted and anonymous platform where kids, family members, and others could report threats to kids, including plans to perpetrate violence at a school. Of late, the overwhelming number of reports that we receive, however, are about imminent threats of suicide. And the second most common report we get tends to be about bullying, which we also know is certainly harmful to kids’ mental health.
Over the last decade, all signs indicate that the state of youth mental health has gotten worse. As I mentioned, one critical factor here is the influence of social media. Last year, a whistleblower told Congress that young girls on Instagram searching for how to lose weight will receive videos on self-harm and even suicide. That’s because those videos draw in teens in an attempt to keep them engaged in the platform, even when harming their mental health. Experts have studied how the deliberate design of social media platforms—including the use of addictive techniques and algorithms—keep young people on their platforms for as long as possible, despite the harm such use causes. These same algorithms promote content to young users that negatively impacts their self-worth and overall mental health.
In response, I am leading a bipartisan investigation into TikTok and Meta’s conduct, along with the Tennessee Attorney General, evaluating the harm these platforms have caused to children and teens. Just this week, based on what we learned about Meta, which owns Instagram, we sued Meta along with over 40 other states. We are continuing to investigate TikTok, so please stay tuned on that front.
The amount of work ahead on teen mental health will need to be a focus for all of us. There are many factors harming our kids, but one of particular note is the availability of dangerous substances like fentanyl or vaping products. In response to this threat, we successfully sued JUUL for promoting vaping products to teens, using social media influencers to suggest vaping was “cool.” Now we are going to invest the $32 million we brought back to Colorado to support cessation and prevention efforts, including through programs that build trusted relationships between youth and adults.
I know that teen mental health is top of mind for many of you and a focus of El Pomar. As we confront this challenge, I am committed to working with all of you, with schools, communities, and behavioral health professionals to meet this moment. As we work on this challenge, one critical element must be to name and approach mental health issues for what they are—a public health challenge. The stigma and shame around depression, anxiety, and substance use disorder has led too many to suffer in silence and not seek help. Our message must be— “it’s okay to not be okay; it’s not okay to not get help.”
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To tackle any of the issues I have discussed, we must maintain our bonds of citizenship and fellowship with one another. How can we create opportunities for people to build authentic relationships and friendships, even if we vote differently, love differently, or worship differently. Our national ethos is e pluribus unum, out of many, we are one. We must embrace that mindset, and act in its spirit, now more than ever.
To meet this challenge, our department sponsored, and we worked with El Pomar on this effort, the Ginsburg/Scalia Initiative named in honor of late Justices Ginsburg and Scalia – who were able to maintain a rich and lasting relationship throughout their lives despite their differences in opinion. The concept of the initiative is to encourage relationships between people who view the world differently and to promote listening and learning from different points of view. As the late Justice Scalia’s son explained at a conversation I hosted recently, Justices Ginsburg and Scalia were not friends in spite of their different ideological views; they were friends in considerable part because of them. As you heard about last year from Harry Gottlieb, working with former Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams, we hosted the Unify Colorado Challenge, which brought Coloradans from around the state into have meaningful conversations with people who see things differently from them. It was a huge success, and we developed a documentary and teaching tool from it.
In closing, despite all of this divisiveness, and even in the face of very real crises in our society, I am hopeful. That’s quite simply how I grew up. I am a first generation American and, in my family, the difference between being born in a Nazi concentration camp—as my mom was—and serving as Colorado’s Attorney General is just one generation. The fact that I am even here is a miracle. I believe that we all have on obligation to do our part to repair our world. It’s an honor to work with you to do just that.