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Despite pandemic hurdles, nonprofit for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ community lives on

//Ali Duncan, owner of Urban Sanctuary. Photo provided by Duncan. 

Ali Duncan grew up in a rural farm 10 miles north of Fort Collins. Once a month her father would take her to various Black churches in Denver. As the only Black family in their town, this monthly trip was important to them. However, Duncan was always instructed to do one thing: Stay clear of Five Points. 

Duncan’s father was stationed in Cheyenne, Wyoming while serving in the Air Force. His trips to the Denver neighborhood were memorable enough that he made sure his daughter knew not to go near it. 

The dangerous reputation of Five Points was well established by the late 1970s after decades of racial discrimination and unjust law enforcement. In fact, after the Fair Housing Act of 1957 supposedly ended discriminatory housing practices in Denver, Five Points residents moved out and the neighborhood’s population halved. Over the next decade, the once-thriving hub fell victim to high crime rates

Growing up in a strict Christian household and as a racial minority, Duncan struggled with finding community throughout her childhood. 

“I was raised on a farm and 100% hated it,” Duncan said.

But the one thing she always knew is that she wanted to help others. Combining her mother’s love for natural remedies on the farm with her father’s service to the nation, Duncan found herself enrolling in the police force with the ambition to heal others. 

“Being raised in an all-white town and witnessing how people were treated differently, I knew I could add something for people of color,” Duncan said. “I was a teen mom. I wanted to help young Black girls like myself.”

In 2003, Duncan was hired as a police officer and served for 10 years before changing her career path. While her mission to help others remained the same, she found a different avenue to achieve it. And her next step was waiting in Five Points. 

Before moving onto that next step, Duncan traveled to India for about three months to get certified in various healing modalities, including Reiki and yoga. When she moved to Denver in 2014, she looked at Craigslist ads in search of a space to offer her healing services. One ad, in particular, ignited goosebumps within her.

The Douglas building, Fredrick Douglas’ family’s mortuary, was for sale and Duncan loved the historical look of it. It had since been turned into a speakeasy bar but hadn’t been rented in months. 

“The building was disgusting, but the energy was amazing,” she said. “I knew that was it. It definitely called me.”

By 2016, Five Points had a new business opening its doors. Once plagued by high crime rates, Five Points has since been recognized for its strong commitment to revitalize the neighborhood and renew historic sites. Crime rates continue to decline. Five Points saw a 14.9 percent decrease in reported violent crime this year compared to 2019. 

Urban Sanctuary is a wellness community that welcomes different ideas, beliefs, practices and people. Their offerings include yoga, massage, energy work, meditation, life coaching and more. It is important to note the styles of these classes are not cookie-cutter. A peek at their schedule showcases classes like BIPOC-specific yoga, cannabis-supported meditation and even nude yoga. 

“I have been taking yoga since 1998 and I’ve always been the only Black body in the studio,” she said. “I thought it’d be so nice to have a space where Black people could come and feel comfortable taking yoga.”

Creating a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community was also a top priority for Duncan, especially after her own daughter, Audriana, came out as queer. 

“I wanted the space to be for her, too,” she said. Duncan added that Audriana was a huge part of Urban Sanctuary’s creation. She helped develop and decorate its foundation. Today she attends many of the classes and workshops. 

Four years into running the business, Duncan was proud of the diverse community that rallied around her health and wellness sanctuary. But she wanted to reach even more people. This past June, Urban Sanctuary’s nonprofit sector launched despite exploding nationwide distress over racial disparities, the pandemic and economic downfalls. 

The nonprofit offers free yoga to BIPOC and the queer community of Denver. It also supports an array of organizations that share the same core values as Duncan, including PREP Academy, an intensive pathway school and the only Denver Public School that serves the district’s expelled students. The nonprofit also works with Why We Gather, a support group that helps single Black mothers combat youth violence, The Future Ancestors, a collective of BIPOC women that focuses on birth justice, and 40 Moons, which works to educate marginalized communities about postpartum health.

“This space is built for them,” she said. “I hope they come to feel at home.”

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