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Social justice nonprofit MANAUS is closing at the end of this year, but some projects will live on

(From left to right) MANAUS staffers Sydney Schalit, Bryan Alvarez-Terrazas, Brianda Cervantes, and Maggie Tiscornia hike near Ashcroft on a snowy day. The team will part ways later this year as the social justice nonprofit they work for closes its doors.
Courtesy of MANAUS
Aspen Public Radio
(From left to right) MANAUS staffers Sydney Schalit, Bryan Alvarez-Terrazas, Brianda Cervantes, and Maggie Tiscornia hike near Ashcroft on a snowy day. The team will part ways later this year as the social justice nonprofit they work for closes its doors.

Social justice nonprofit MANAUS is closing its doors at the end of 2024. It will mark an end to two decades of work on programs that address issues like housing, immigration, education and diversity in the Roaring Fork Valley, but some projects will continue independent of the organization.

Staff and board members at MANAUS said this week that shutting down their program is not due to a lack of money or staffing issues, though some program funding will expire this year.

Sydney Schalit, the executive director of MANAUS, said they’d accomplished what they set out to do, and sunsetting the organization will make room for other community leaders to step into a service role with a fresh perspective.

The decision was the result of months of discussion among staff and the board, who decided to dissolve the nonprofit at its January meeting.

“I have a personal belief that you should only be in a position of power for so long,” Schalit said during an interview on Wednesday. “And MANAUS has been in a significant position of power, just as a funder, as a financier, as a thought partner, as sort of a flame thrower for a long time. And I think we've done a lot to prepare other community members and other organizations to lead in that space.”

MANAUS provides grants to other organizations and operates its own programs. The nonprofit aims to develop self-sustaining organizations that can eventually operate without support from MANAUS.

Schalit said communities shouldn’t rely on just one individual funder or organization for support, and many people look to MANAUS to help tackle big community problems. She believes it’s time for MANAUS to make room for other organizations to step in.

Staff will be working to reorganize some of their existing programs over the next few months so those projects can continue after MANAUS steps back.

While she’s confident in the decision to shut down MANAUS operations, Schalit spoke through tears as she thought about saying goodbye to her staff.

“Getting to be in a position to coach folks like Bryan and Maggie and Brianda, seeing them beyond how they've seen themselves and then helping them get there, it's just been such a gift.”

History of MANAUS

The nonprofit was founded as The Manaus Fund in 2005, by the late George Stranahan — an educator, artist, and physicist from Ohio who settled in the Roaring Fork Valley in the 1970s.

Stranahan built MANAUS to address social injustice in the Roaring Fork Valley by partnering with other nonprofits and offering a source of funding.

Rob Pew joined the board a few years later and became the board chair in 2013. He implemented a user-centered design model so the nonprofit incorporates the voices of those they’re trying to serve.

“I've always thought about how we can use design methods and frameworks in the social sector,” Pew said in a phone call with Aspen Public Radio on Wednesday. “So when I became board chair, we pivoted business a little bit toward the user … really asking the people that we're trying to help, ‘What kind of help do you want? What kind of help do you need? And how can we construct programs that really serve your needs?’”

Pew and his team put this model into practice when they helped found Valley Settlement, a nonprofit based in Glenwood Springs that serves predominantly Latine communities.

Pew said MANAUS hired a community organizer who interviewed 300 families living in poverty, often at their kitchen tables, and asked them about what they needed, where they felt vulnerable, and what kinds of dreams they had.

Now Valley Settlement employs dozens of people who help clients strengthen parenting skills, promote school readiness, and bolster maternal mental health.

Pew said the success of Valley Settlement solidified their user-centered design strategy.

“We tried to carry that forward into the other projects that we worked on,” Pew said.

MANAUS has also had a leadership role in forming the Mountain Voices Project, the Third Street Center, and the Savings Collaborative. The nonprofit also set up an emergency fund during the COVID-19 pandemic that offered financial assistance to families in need.

Schalit said that MANAUS has also been a key investor in a lot of social initiatives and nonprofits in the region, including LIFT-UP, English in Action, and Youthentity, among others.

Fate of existing projects 

While MANAUS will close up shop at the end of this year, some of its projects will live on.

The Roaring Fork Community Development Corporation (RFCDC), a subsidiary of MANAUS, will continue preserving affordable housing units at Glenwood Springs’ Three Mile Mobile Home Park. The RFCDC purchased the park last year, and it will continue to operate as its own nonprofit, helping residents organize and secure a mortgage to buy the property themselves. MANAUS will donate enough money to the RFCDC so that it can operate for a few more years.

Schalit said the Confluence of Early Childhood Education (CECE) is a program that works to improve the quality and accessibility of early childhood education in the region. While she wouldn’t identify the group, Schalit said another agency will take over CECE’s leadership, and they’ll announce that transfer at a later date.

However, the Equity Action Project, which trains organizations in diversity, equity, and inclusion principles and organizes the Equity Speaker Series, will no longer operate when its funding from the Colorado Health Foundation runs out this summer.

Bryan Alvarez-Terrazas manages the program. In a news release, he thanked MANAUS and Schalit for the opportunity to learn and grow in the role.

Schalit said MANAUS will host a two-day event in September at The Arts Campus at Willits to bid farewell to the Roaring Fork Valley and train nonprofits and municipalities on their leadership model.

Halle Zander is a broadcast journalist and the afternoon anchor on Aspen Public Radio during "All Things Considered." Her work has been recognized by the Public Media Journalists Association, the Colorado Broadcasters Association, and the Society of Professional Journalists.