Take Hope: Combating Ageism, One Birthday Card at a Time

Erika Righter has hope.EXPAND
Erika Righter has hope.
Kyle Harris
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To Erika Righter’s chagrin, she often finds herself in the spotlight for everything but Hope Tank, her decade-old gift shop at 64 Broadway.

Read the headlines: As COVID-19 hit, she curated a mural project to ensure that artists had some income and boarded-up storefronts along Broadway didn’t appear abandoned. She’s fought the city on its treatment of small businesses through the pandemic, championed an end to the urban camping ban, crusaded for social justice, preached the merits of abolition and anti-racism, and fought for myriad other causes in which she believes.

Her rewards for all that work? Some call her a bitch. Others have vandalized her shop with graffiti or harassed her online. But most who know Righter's work view her as a Denver hero, someone who has devoted much of her life to the greater good: championing people of color, the LGBTQ community and fellow women entrepreneurs.

Her growth as an activist has been well documented, she says. Hope Tank’s story? Not so much.

And that’s too bad. Because this small shop at 64 Broadway is where she does most of her work, and through pleasurable, shame-free shopping, she connects with consumers and uses each transaction as a chance to mobilize people who might not normally engage in social movements.

Walk into Hope Tank and you’ll be greeted by Righter or a staffer. She used to have five employees. Today she has only one — though she hopes to bring on another in a couple of weeks.

“Have you been to Hope Tank before?” they'll ask. If your answer is yes, the inevitable response is “Welcome back.” If it’s no, you'll hear a brief explanation of the store’s model. Revenue from every item sold goes to a related nonprofit — not bloated, trendy organizations with huge war chests, but smaller, grassroots community projects. Righter uses Hope Tank's merchandise as a chance to talk about issues ranging from homelessness to racial equity.

The shop always seems busy, with people looking for the right card for a friend or relative, or picking up a Colorado-themed T-shirt, board game, book or mug. Many of the items are made in-state, a testament to Righter’s commitment to strengthening the Denver economy from the ground up. All are labeled with a nonprofit or community organization in which she believes; at checkout, a customer will learn about that group's work.

“The person purchasing [a gift] gets a little information,” she explains. “We plant a little seed. And then when they give the gift, they say, ‘Oh, and it supported this organization.’”

Those conversations can be transformative, Righter says. People often return to Hope Tank and offer thanks for provocative in-store discussions that shifted how they view the world. With any luck, they talk about how they were moved to take action of their own.

While business is down 50 percent since the pandemic began, Hope Tank remains a community hub, a place where people go not just for gifts, but to organize. In a city that has too often failed to communicate what resources are available, Hope Tank hooks people up with everything from crisis resources to 311, the city-services phone number.

Take Hope: Combating Ageism, One Birthday Card at a TimeEXPAND
Kyle Harris

In normal times, Righter hosted events, panels, comedy and more; she plans to reboot all of that in August. For now, she’s pushing her product lines, from divorce and cancer cards to pronoun pins for people of all genders to announce what they prefer to be called. (Those pins recently sold out, but she promises more will be in soon.)

Her latest line of cards, created during the pandemic with Janine Vanderburg, director of the anti-ageism campaign Changing the Narrative, offers a fresh take on birthday cards for older adults, which too often exploit self-deprecating tropes and shaming, showing older people as grumpy, fragile, ill or lonely. These cards turn those stereotypes on their heads.

“What if we flip it, and we're both celebrating aging, and nobody has to feel like shit?” Righter asks. “And it's not Pollyanna. It's actually really healthy.”

To find artists for the series, Changing the Narrative held a contest for which applicants provided a statement about why they cared about the issue, their demographics and samples of their work. Winners were selected based on their portfolios and statements. The creatives chosen range in age from 16 to 82 and span races, genders and sexualities.

The cards themselves, by artists including Sandra Bierman, Patty Kingsbaker, Tobias Moreno, Nikki LaRochelle, Tessa Fuqua and Arlette Lucero, are joyful, empowering, and resist the needless jabs so many messages from Hallmark and American Greetings deliver. Local shop Yellowdog printed the cards, delivering them straight to Righter's doorstep.

Online orders started piling up, and Hope Tank was the one place in the country where they could be purchased. The project was critical to the store’s survival through the pandemic.

“The reason I'm still here is literally this project we did in COVID,” Righter says. “So not only did this help my business; this helped twenty artists get paid. And like a real payment, a good chunk. I think it was 500 bucks.”

The cards have garnered national attention, with write-ups in big newspapers and magazines for older adults. Vanderburg delivered the keynote address at a national greeting-card convention, where she spread her anti-ageist message; she hopes that the project will inspire bigger corporations to cut back on demeaning cards and offer better alternatives.

"We’re not trying to be the birthday card police," Vanderburg says. "We’re trying to say there’s a better way of doing things."

And talking about them. “What's cool is it gives us the opportunity to have a conversation right in the store about ageism, which is something that is not happening in general,” she says. “The conversations I have had have been incredibly moving — not just with older people, but with younger people, too.”

She’s particularly proud that she founded the project with another woman, one who has been leading on the issue of ageism nationwide. This kind of community building, coupled with art curation and social justice, builds on so much of what Righter has accomplished through other collaborations at Hope Tank.

“Yeah, this is a fun place,” she says. “We want people to have a fun time here. It's not heavy-handed. It's fun, but it's almost like it's a bonus. And people leave here feeling like they can make a difference, even if they don't have a lot of money or they don't have a lot of time. These are ways they can engage.”

There's always hope.

Hope Tank is located at 64 Broadway; it's open from from noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, find out more at 720-837-1565 or hopetank.org.

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