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Durryle Brooks: Helping young people ‘use their voice’

Durryle Brooks grew up in Baltimore’s Cherry Hill neighborhood not only negotiating the challenges associated with being a Black man in the U.S. but the trials stemming from being a gay in a conservative religious environment.

After earning degrees, including a doctorate in education, at universities across the nation Brooks returned to Baltimore. He founded Love and Justice Consulting, serves as a faculty member at Johns Hopkins University, was appointed a Baltimore city schools commissioner in 2019 and dedicated his life to increasing the visibility of LGBTQ people of color.

Brooks spoke with The Daily Record as part of a series of interviews aimed at continuing the conversations started during the newspaper’s “Young, Black, Homegrown and Leading in Baltimore” webinar. The interview below has been edited for clarity and space.

The Daily Record: How has being a Baltimore native as well as a Black man shaped your view of the city?

Durryle Brooks: So I think I would just say being from Baltimore city, growing up in Cherry Hill, and just trying to live my life at the intersections of being black and gay, and navigating so many systems of inequality in the city, especially in my early childhood, really shaped and informed why I even came back to Baltimore.

I moved around a lot for school, but there was something about being here, being around people who have often loved me and supported me, but then also to live in a very conservative environment in Baltimore.

To be gay growing up in the early ’90s, and my family (like many others) is deeply religious, and so Baltimore has this really conservative bent to it.

So many of the issues that shaped me were really around homophobia and sort of trying to understand that being a Black man meant (handling) particular stigmas and challenges, and that… being gay also came with a number of challenges.

So I’ve been trying to do my work ever since then at that intersection.

TDR: Tell me a little bit about some of those challenges at the intersection of being a black man, and a gay man, and whether those challenges have been lessened since the early 90s, or has there not been as much progress as we would have liked?

Brooks: From my perspective we still have a lot of work to do. Some of those challenges at that intersection include … the Black Lives Matter movement. We had to add the All (to Black Lives Matter) because clearly there was, in the community, this idea that when we talk about Black (Lives Matter) it was only for heterosexual folks, and yet black, queer, LGBT folks have been a part of the history of Baltimore city, have been in key positions in leading, and helping to usher in a progressive social and political agenda, and yet oftentimes we’re erased.

TDR: The elephant in the room whenever we’re talking about challenges in the city is race, and that’s particularly true in terms of education. How do you think race factors into how the city’s struggles are viewed in the state and the nation as a whole?

Brooks: Some of the ways in which I think race shapes people’s imaginations about Baltimore … is really through a lot of media. It doesn’t help that one of the things, when I left Baltimore early on, people were like, “Oh, ‘The Wire.'”

That was the thing that they recognized about us. And I’m like, “Wait, we have so much else going on here.”

Now we see these consistent attacks, even by our president, with comments about rodents, or we’re trash, or whatever, and I think what this does is that race becomes the indicator for inferiority.

So when people are thinking about how race begins to shape us, as Black people, they begin to attach these narratives about inferiority, using language around savage or animalistic ways in which they … remove or erase, to dehumanize us.

So race becomes a marker for less than, and therefore people are more easily able to rationalize their decisions to not fund our school district at appropriate levels, and then to blame the city for misusing funds they never really had because they were never given to them.

TDR: Now, you’re obviously someone who’s seen as a leader here in the city. How important is it for Black kids in Baltimore to see someone like yourself in a leadership position in terms of letting them know that they can do this?

Brooks:  I think that’s the biggest struggle. When I talk about visibility I really explicitly mean for it to be (both) Black and gay doing my work, and to be in this leadership position.

One of the things that became really clear to me is that one of the outcomes of oppression, and the way in which we are deemed as less worthy because we live at that intersection, it means that we don’t access our voice as other people do.

One of the biggest things we can do is to tell young people … to use their voice, and then to create pathways, and to remove obstacles like heterosexism, and heteronormativity, for that young black queer person, like myself (and) not have to wait until their 30s to think, “Oh, I’m worthy to lead in this space.”