The first few years of José Silva’s life were marked by so much heartache and poverty that he could have easily ended up on drugs, in jail or worse. Instead, helped along by various caring souls, the Denver native gradually clawed his way clear of the undertow.

“I was a knucklehead of a kid trying to survive, but I had people who were looking out for me,” he said. “I owe so much to those who came in and filled those gaps for me.”

CU Denver student Jose Silva supply drive
Jose Silva works with a group of students at a school supply drive in Denver.

Now in his late 30s, Silva continues a lifelong pattern of striving and self-improvement by being a member of the Latin@ Learners and Community cohort in CU Denver’s Doctor of Education, Leadership for Educational Equity (EdD) program. He feels it’s his turn to fill the gaps through which people who’ve been dealt a tough hand can fall. Whether it be in schools or city hall, on nonprofit boards or campaign trails, Silva takes every opportunity to lead and be a voice for the voiceless.

“I don’t see myself as a politician, I’m a foot soldier for the greater good,” Silva said. “I’m an organizer – let’s organize from the ground up.”

Could have become ‘negative statistic’

CU Denver student Jose Silva helps at an Easter event
CU Denver student Jose Silva volunteers for many community events. Here, he helps fill Easter baskets at a park in Denver.

For many years, it appeared unlikely that Silva would find his footing. Before he was even born – his mother was six months pregnant with he and his sister – Silva’s father was killed in northwest Denver. When he was almost 5 years old, Silva witnessed the overdose death of his mother’s girlfriend. At age 14, after Denver’s infamous 1993 “Summer of Violence,” Silva was standing next to his best friend at a birthday party when the friend was shot dead. The boy’s older brother had stabbed a gang member earlier that year. “We were residual victims of that summer,” he said. “It really affected my life where I could have easily become a negative statistic.”

Instead, the nonprofit Save Our Youth sprang out of the chaos and Silva was paired with a mentor who impressed the teen with his steady guidance as well as his cherry-red Impala. Still, Silva was essentially homeless throughout junior high and high school. He entered his senior year 100 credits shy of graduating, but once again a kind person, Trudy Swain, Program Director at Save Our Youth, stepped in. Swain allowed Silva to live in a home she owned, getting him back on track academically.

Community support groups – Safe City Youth, Just Say No, YouthBiz, Young Life, etc. – were there whenever Silva felt he was slipping. Back then, Michael Hancock, current Denver mayor and CU Denver alumnus, was active in a youth sports program that helped keep Silva and others from his ‘hood off the streets.

Finding his voice

Silva was gaining confidence – and he would later lead some of the very groups that helped him – but he still hadn’t found his voice. That happened when he took part in College Summit, the nation’s largest nonprofit dedicated to connecting low-income youth to college. At a summit session at Colorado College, Silva wrote his personal statement – essentially a vision statement for himself. “That’s where I realized I was no longer a victim but a survivor, and that’s the mentality I’ve lived with since 1994,” he said.

Silva enrolled for a time at Metropolitan State University of Denver before transferring to Denver University. He ran out of financial aid in 2004 and, short of a degree but out of financial aid, went to work. He also ran for an at-large seat on the Denver Public Schools Board of Education and received 10,000 votes, finishing just shy of being elected. Silva then moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked for College Summit. He helped lead an effort that raised $20 million to expand college access to underrepresented students.

He then returned to Denver and finished his long-postponed bachelor’s degree in 2014 in organizational leadership. It was a field where he showed natural talent, as evidenced by the launch of his own business, Metrix Consulting. Metrix consults with candidates running for public office, devises strategies for organizations, promotes minority representation on boards and councils, and helps those who feel disenfranchised within a school district or major infrastructure project to become empowered.

Jose Silva receives Rosa Parks award
Jose Silva receives a Rosa Parks award at CU Denver this spring from his wife, who nominated him for the award.

Silva was appointed by Mayor Hancock to the Denver Latino Commission in 2013, and he was reappointed this year. Also this year, the Denver native has been honored with ‘40 Under 40’ and Rosa Parks awards.

Fulfilling program at CU Denver

Silva has aspirations of public office – he came close in two runs for the DPS School Board and worked hard in a state House of Representatives race, as well as an at-large bid for Denver City Council – but for now he’s happy to be among the change makers in the education doctorate program at CU Denver. He looked at doctorate programs around the country, including Johns Hopkins University and DU, and was excited to find the new Latino cohort in CU Denver’s EdD program.

“It’s intense,” he said, noting that the cohort members have developed a supportive, family atmosphere. “It’s different ways of looking at things, so we’re moving our minds into those spaces. It’s been really fulfilling to me.”

The people he grew up with call him Jose Obama (he’s half African-American and half Latino), and he’s carried a lifelong dream to earn a doctorate – something less than 1 percent of the Latino population in the U.S. has achieved. “This degree will help me to be an advocate, be an expert, have substance behind my ideas,” Silva said. “In our minority communities, we’re great at protesting, but not great at equating power. I see this degree as a way of equating my power … not just speaking from a place of experience, but from a place of experience, pathways and solutions.

“I’ve always been a solution-based person, so that’s how I want to use this degree.”

Silva sees much work to be done in public service, especially in helping low-income, low-opportunity populations in Colorado to find their voice – and, like himself, to find their purpose.

“The word I use is resilience – I’ve been resilient throughout my life,” he said. “I often wonder if I was cursed as a kid growing up: Why me? But I had a lot of people in my life who believed in me, and I believe that had a huge effect.”