A GoPride Interview

Lara Brooks

Lara Brooks interview with ChicagoPride.com

Wed. November 10, 2010  by Joseph Erbentraut

Lara Brooks
The recent news of the Howard Brown Health Center's financial woes -- to the tune of $500,000 of fundraising needed by the year's end -- has sent a ripple through the city's LGBT community and rallied activists and political wallflowers alike into action to save one of the nation's leading definitively queer-inclusive health organizations.

One particularly invaluable program under the Howard Brown umbrella is the Broadway Youth Center, located at 3179 N. Broadway. The center offers a safe space for youth 24 years old or younger to access a variety of services and opportunities including, but not limited to, counseling, resource advocacy, medical care, computer access and a number of support groups, workshops and development programs. Youth experiencing homelessness without anywhere else to turn can even access laundry and showers. The center serves more than 5000 at-risk youth each year.

With the Howard Brown company in serious jeopardy and the dangers facing LGBTQ youth both in and outside of classrooms on the radar of national media, ChicagoPride.com interviewed Broadway Youth Center manager Lara Brooks about the center's recently launched Lifeline fundraising program and why at-risk queer youth desperately need support from the LGBT community at large.

JE: (Joe Erbentraut): First, tell me about the Lifeline campaign, which puts a spotlight on the story of Will, a gay youth who is today a Loyola student, who describes the Broadway Youth Center as saving his life after he was kicked out of his parents' house.

LB: (Lara Brooks) I think it's always really difficult to try and humanize and capture the complexity of the issue of LGBTQ homelessness. It's hard to look at one narrative because there are so many different narratives and experiences that young queer people are facing today. But what's really important about the campaign is really to generate more awareness and conversations around the ways in which, for example, the Broadway Youth Center is a lifeline for a lot of young people around Chicago's north, south and west sides, providing stable services that are unique and important. We support so many people with so many different types of programs.

JE: The media coverage in recent months of the risk of suicide and other destructive behavior among LGBT youth has somewhat mainstreamed the issue. How does the experience of the youth you meet at the Broadway Youth Center compare to that dialogue being raised about victims of suicide such as Tyler Clementi?

LB: I think this issue is complicated in so many ways and it's actually not a new issue. Young people, especially the folks that access our services and programs here, are mostly young LGBTQ people of color. They're experiencing all kinds of family and institutionalized violence, discrimination in their schools and discrimination while accessing health care. I think some of the media coverage focuses an incredible amount of attention on peer-to-peer bullying and verbal violence but doesn't really do a good job speaking on the ways in which the situation is specifically harming young LGBTQ people of color. It also contributes, I guess, to the sense of hopelessness I think a lot of people are experiencing as it relates to all these different, intersecting oppressions that affect their ability to be resilient and resistance to a lot of the discrimination they face.

I think what I would also add that it's important for young people to be given space to have more options, autonomy and choices to do what's best for themselves. There are also a lot of ways in which bystanders, adult allies and different systems need to be stepping up to do something about this problem. It's not just about young people pulling it together and us telling them that "it gets better," but about all of us stepping up and taking responsibility for this group of people that are experiencing high rates of suicide, for example.

JE: Have you noticed more interest in the center as a result of the media's dialogue on LGBT youth bullying and suicides?

LB: We've definitely been getting more calls about volunteering and lots of requests to come out and do speaking events addressing specifically, for example, youth mental health issues. We've definitely seen a rise in the community's interest in learning more about LGBTQ young people and some of the issues they face.

JE: What are some of the biggest issues facing queer young people here in Chicago?

LB: The biggest issue facing the young people we're working with on a daily basis is the absolute lack of housing. They have basic, human rights needs - things like access to food, clothing and shelter - and these things go hand-in-hand with the verbal, sexual and physical violence they experience. When you put that together with a sense of hopelessness, your ability to view an array of options before you diminishes. Housing is a big piece, as well as the increasing criminalization of LGBTQ young people, specifically those are on the streets or experiencing homelessness. That really impacts their ability to stay engaged in GED or school programs and impacts their employability.

Of course, then there's employment and the lack of employment options not just for LGBTQ young people, but young people in general right now. I think this space is incredible in that I think we have a lot of really important relationships built between adults and young people that continue to demonstrate how resilient young people are and what we can learn about surviving and pulling together the resources to make it work up against a lot of odds.

JE: It seems like the peer-to-peer nature of a lot of the programs and services you provide at the center would be very valuable to these youth. Could you tell me more about the impact.

LB: I think that's an amazing component of the services and programs we have here. It's not just a place where young people access individual services, but this is a place where people connect and there's a lot of community and relationship building with their peers. They can step into leadership opportunities and be able to take up space in really important ways ... They can engage with other people in a lot of different ways. They have moments to reflect on their shared experiences and why it is that so many young people who are LGBTQ are experiencing some of the same things. That plays a huge role in reducing feelings of isolation, and that is essential to the work that we do.

JE: Finally, why is it important for the community to support the Broadway Youth Center?

LB: Programs like ours that are often the most critical are the most in jeopardy of funding cuts. These are tough economic times and we're definitely impacted by all of that. We really try to maximize our output as much as we possibly can with the resources we have. This is a time where we need folks in our communities to be financially supporting this kind of critical work as a sign of allyship. I hope that sense increases as people begin to become more aware of the intersecting issues facing our young people.

Support the Broadway Youth Center and other initiatives of the Howard Brown Health Center by donating directly on the center's website or by shopping at one of the center's three Brown Elephant resale shops (located in Andersonville, Lakeview and Oak Park). Also be sure to visit the center's 50 Stories in 50 Days page to learn more about the many ways that Howard Brown has continued to come to the aid of their many, many clients through the years.

Interviewed by Joseph Erbentraut