Former Wilmington College Diversity and Inclusion Director Art Brooks was honored at the Highland District Library’s black history program on Saturday.
As previously reported in The Times-Gazette, each February, the library and the African American Awareness Research Council honor the lifetime achievements of an individual working in Highland, Clinton or Fayette Counties or highlight an aspect of the community’s history.
This year’s program honored Art Brooks, Wilmington College’s first director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs, now known as the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, where he served for 19 years until his retirement in 2012.
Though Brooks was born near Cleveland and worked in places like Richmond, Virginia and Baltimore, Maryland, he moved to Wilmington in 1993 to direct the newly-created Office of Multicultural Affairs.
”I wasn’t sure I wanted to take the job. I was in Richmond, Virginia at the time, and I said, ‘Well, let me see what happens,’ not knowing I’d here 27 years,” Brooks said during the program on Saturday. “I thought it was a rest stop, and I’d leave and move back to the big city. But I think God knew it was time for me to start my spiritual journey.”
In his role as the director of the then-Office of Multicultural Affairs at Wilmington College, Brooks worked on both recruiting and retaining black students, which was a challenge.
“There weren’t many black folks there. I think we had seven black students in the recruitment class and maybe 25 on-campus,” Brooks said. “There was racial tension. The Ku Klux Klan came to town. The Aryan Nation was in New Vienna. The Kehoe brothers had a shootout in Wilmington. It was a bad racial climate, and if you were a black parent, sending your child to Wilmington was a challenge.”
Since moving to Wilmington, Brooks has been a member of the YMCA board, the Mental Health Board of Clinton County and other organizations as well as the co-chair of the Wilmington School District Diversity Committee. However, Brooks was integral in co-founding Hot Hoops, a program that helped provide African American males in Wilmington with a support system.
“In the African American male community, basketball was a big deal. When I got here, they wanted to play ball, but they couldn’t afford the membership to the Y and sometimes they got in trouble with the Y,” Brooks said. “So I said, ‘Let’s make a deal: you guys stop some of the negative behavior and try to change your lives around, and I’ll try to get you in the Y. You don’t have to sneak in, you don’t have to pay a membership—we’ll get you in.’”
Though basketball was the “carrot” that attracted young African American men to the program, Hot Hoops offered other valuable services. Brooks said they had prayer and counseling before they played. The program included swimming and field trips to other sporting events, and Brooks and his co-founders expanded the program to help mentees access jobs and education.
“For some of them, they didn’t do well in high school or they dropped out or they were still having trouble in high school,” Brooks said. “Some volunteers became mentors for some of the students. Some were more at risk than others, and they needed mentors, they needed guidance, they needed a positive black male image or male image in general.”
Hot Hoops mentors and volunteers included black and white community members.
Brooks said Hot Hoops was inspired by similar programs he saw while he was living in Maryland and Virginia.
“I saw some programs where they allowed black males—who were just on the street, hanging out, getting in trouble—to come to a gym at a YMCA or a community center and play ball on Friday and Saturday nights to keep them off the streets at nighttime,” Brooks said. “After a while, they added counseling, job training, GED training. They basically brought the community services to the gym, so it was a one-stop shop for everything that would help them become better citizens. It didn’t work for everybody, but it was effective enough for me to think about doing that when I came to Wilmington, where I saw the same situations with African American males, just on a smaller scale.”
When Brooks started Hot Hoops, the program tried to help African American males from the age of 13 to nearly 30.
“I was more, ‘All y’all come,” everybody that needed help, but some of the older guys were still getting in trouble. They were just playing basketball and not necessarily listening to us,” Brooks said. “We had more control over them if they were in school because we talked to their teachers and coaches, but if they’re just out in the streets unemployed, some people thought we didn’t have the type of relationship with them. I just thought maybe we wouldn’t spend as much time with them, but we still needed to work with them. They were out there, and they were influential on their younger brothers and sisters and some of the other people in the program. If we ignored them completely, they were still there; they weren’t going anywhere. Officially, they weren’t in the program, but unofficially, we still helped them as much as we could.”
Officially, the Hot Hoops program helped young African American men from 12 to 18. Another program, Junior Hot Hoops, worked with 9- to 12-year-olds.
Brooks said Wilmington is the smallest and most rural town he’s lived in for an, and in his involvement with Wilmington and Hillsboro communities, he’s noticed similarities.
“There’s a small black population, and they’re still working to be involved,” Brooks said. “In these small towns, there needs to be more visibility and more African Americans in decision-making roles. I think it’s a challenge sometimes for us to be power-brokers and decision-makers as opposed to on the outside looking in all the time. We should be on the inside making some of these decisions: business, education, employment, housing, government—all those areas where people make decisions about your life.”
Brooks said it’s valuable for all members of a community to see people of color in positions of power.
For young people of color, seeing people who look like themselves holding positions of authority reminds them of what they can strive to do, Brooks said.
”If the African American youth see people who look like them in positions of power, positions of authority, positions of responsibility, then they could strive to be inspired to say, ‘I could do that one day,’ but when they don’t see that, they wonder whether or not that’s for them—that’s for white people, that’s not necessarily for them,” Brooks said. “There aren’t enough role models visible so they can see that it can be done. I think that’s part of the Black History Month program: they try to present people who have done things and made achievements, so the young people can see, ‘Hey, you could do that too.’”
But white children can also benefit from seeing people of color in positions of power.
“It’s good for white students to see African Americans or people of color in responsible positions, so they don’t always see us in a negative light,” Brooks said. “They need to have those experiences in order to live in a holistic world that doesn’t have a negative view of one particular group.”
While events like Saturday’s program are a good start, Brooks said black history should be celebrated throughout the year.
“I think you have to highlight black history in February, but February shouldn’t be the only month,” Brooks said. “For example, we celebrate patriotism in many ways throughout the year, but we highlight it on July 4. July 4 isn’t the only time we talk about being patriotic. I see the same thing with Black History Month.”
Brooks said the some of the best things white community members can do to support people of color in the community are to speak up against discrimination and help their voices be heard.
“People of one culture really can’t make progress alone,” Brooks said. “Obviously there’s a white majority in this country, so those white citizens who are sensitive, conscious, against racism and want to see African Americans and other people of color progress have to promote some of the agenda items African American groups are promoting. They can help form coalitions. If they stand up for fairness in their own communities—that would be a big step. If you hear people say things that are incorrect, you need to correct them.
“That old stereotyping, old profiling, old negativity about race is being passed on because no one’s saying, ‘Stop. No, that’s not how it is.’ If they hear something wrong, they can investigate it and correct it. You can’t be quiet in the white community against sexism, racism, classism, ableism, homophobia. You can’t just let it happen.”
Brooks said those who want to learn more about black history can find information through Google and libraries.
“Obtain information then share that in your home, your school, whatever group you’re in,” Brooks said. “You can educate yourself about the truth.”
Brooks recommended that those who want to combat prejudice should align themselves with like-minded people.
“Try to find allies, whether they’re allies in a particular group, in the African American community, or in the white community. A lot of times in small towns, there are groups. Find out their agenda,” Brooks said. “If you find an organization or group that’s doing something to correct prejudice and discrimination, work with that group, so you’re not a lone ranger. Being a lone ranger is tough. You can’t save the world by yourself.”
Reach McKenzie Caldwell at 937-402-2570.