Ashley Cornelius came to Colorado Springs from Flint, Michigan as a 3-year-old. She had been diagnosed with severe, even life-threatening asthma, and her mother decided that moving here might save her daughter’s life. Ashley has survived and thrived, forging an exceptional life and career — but it hasn’t always been easy.
“I grew up in Colorado Springs and hardly ever saw myself represented,” she told Voyage Denver in 2019. “As a Black woman, the only person who looked like me was my mother so feeling like I belonged in the city, at school, even my neighborhood was never an easy fit for me.”
Yet Cornelius adapted and persevered. After graduating from college with degrees in communications and psychology, she was uncertain about her future.
“I had no idea what I wanted to do,” she recalled. “I was accepted as an El Pomar Foundation Fellow and spent two years there.” During that “exceptional” time, Cornelius “leaned heavily towards the arts, learning about grants, nonprofit management and developing as a young professional.”
After her time at El Pomar, she went to work for a Denver arts organization, Art from Ashes, which provides “creative empowerment programs for youth.” That spurred her interest in art therapy, and led her to get a master’s degree in international disaster psychology.
Her time with Art from Ashes had rekindled her interest in poetry.
“We would hire local poets and artists to perform and inspire the youth during the workshop, and I drew so much strength and courage from these experiences and started performing poetry myself,” she said. “I had always written poetry, but never took myself seriously in that arena.”
Since then Cornelius has become a nationally renowned poet and spoken word artist, performing at live or virtual events in Dallas, New York City and here in Colorado. She has won poetry slams and received awards from the Indy, the Business Journal’s sister publication, as well as the Pikes Peak Arts Council.
“I’ve made my focus to speak about my identity as a Black person, as a woman, as a woman of size, and speak honestly and frankly about how I interact with the world,” she said.
“I aim to be a model of possibility,” she said. She presently works at Denver Health as a full-time licensed clinical professional counselor. She also leads Poetry719, facilitating poetry events that focus on people of color and marginalized communities.
Has our city become more welcoming and inclusive in recent years?
“It has,” she said, “but we still have to continue. Racism is like air, it’s all around us and it’s always here. We have a lot of work to do here — I don’t want to leave. Colorado Springs is a special place to me and I want to give back.”
Cornelius just finished a collaborative piece called “A Seat at the Table,” and is “flirting with writing a children’s book, focusing a lot on mental health and trying to expand the work I do,” she said. “I’d like to have a private practice sometime in the future, and do poetry at an event that has nothing to do with poetry. Maybe Poetry719 could become a nonprofit — one of my goals is to integrate art with the rest of the world.”