Chappell on Community: Brian Richardson, power in the PR
Wed. April 10, 2013 by Terrence Chappell
What I want instead is to be able to say that I did the best that I could and in some way I was able to make a difference for my community and the people who came after me.
He left his hometown in Alabama to attend undergrad at the University of Chicago. Like so many other undergrads, it was in college that Richardson grew into his true self. He wasn't out in Alabama but soon came out right before his sophomore year of college. Richardson attributes the school and the city's rich culture of people, thoughts and backgrounds to him coming out. It was after college that Richardson would begin his professional adventure of community service.
Working for Teach for America as a teacher in struggling schools in New Orleans introduced Richardson to communities that were failed by the system. "I saw first hand with my students what they were up against. No matter how strong they were, no matter how hard they worked, the system was failing them," said Richardson. It was then that Richardson further realized that he wanted to make a difference in marginalized communities. With this new insight, Richardson traveled to DC, crashed on a friend's couch and found himself on the ground floor in D.C. as a volunteer for the Democratic National Committee.
A few press releases and a couple of promotions later, PR engulfed Richardson. He was the director of the DNC's Speciality Media office where he not only established the media rhetoric and stance of the office but also led his office against Bush's Federal Marriage Amendment, one that would outlaw same-sex marriage. It still wasn't enough for Richardson. So, he went back to school to pursue his M.B.A. to learn how to apply and execute business applications for the greater good. It was there where he met his husband, Alberto, and decided that Chicago was calling him again.
Now as the Director of Public Affairs for the City of Chicago's Public Health Department, Richardson is responsible for the department's stance and outreach on health issues and initiatives as well as ensuring that a connection is made with the media and targeted communities. He also assisted in forming the department's premiere LGBT Health Advisory Board, which includes: Commissioner Bechara Choucair, Kim Hunt; Executive Director of Affinity Community Services, Modesto Valle; CEO of Center on Halsted, and a host of other community leaders, professionals and activists.
Richardson may not have planned to end up in PR, but we're sure glad he did. The newly minted director opens up about his coming-out story, his intimate wedding in San Francisco and how he plans to make a difference one press release at a time.
TC: (Terrence Chappell) You're a southerner at heart but what brought you to Chicago?
BR: (Brian Richardson) I grew up in Alabama but I went to University of Chicago for college and just fell in love with the city instantly. I fell in love with the city so much that I didn't realize I didn't know much about other parts of the country other then Chicago and Alabama.
TC: So, you wanted to travel and explore more?
BR: Yes. When I graduated I wanted to see what else was out there. So, I spent time teaching high schools in New Orleans in Louisiana for Teach for America. I then moved to D.C. where I was a spokesperson for the Democratic National Committee. I ran LGBT media and other specialty media for the presidential campaign. After that, I was a press secretary for Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. I worked for her during Hurricane Katrina recovery.
TC: So, D.C. was where you got your start in LGBT media?
BR: I never thought I would work in media and PR before but I was at the DNC volunteering for a few weeks. I would book the chairman of the DNC on radio stations. He would travel around the country and I'd call up and make sure he had a full schedule doing media interviews. And then the press assistant's job opened up in the office. I jumped at the opportunity and took it.
TC: How did you adapt to your new role as a press assistant?
BR: I learned very quickly how to write press releases, how to talk to reporters, how to do on-camera interviews. I learned a lot very quickly. It was an opportune time for me because we were getting ready for the 2004 elections. Also, at that time our office had expanded tenfold and there was a chance to work on specialty media. So, that included LGBT media, Asian American media, women's media, and college/youth media, just a whole host of different community groups. I actually got a promotion to be the director of that office.
TC: What did your new role as a director entail?
BR: I had to overseer the efforts of all the community groups and really take the Democratic platform and language and make it directly applicable to those different community groups. I then had to find different ways to tell those stories. It was great.
TC: You mentioned that you never saw yourself working in media and PR but yet found yourself in the middle of all the action in D.C. and telling people's stories. Initially, if it wasn't in media and PR, where would you find yourself?
BR: When I was teaching high school for Teach for America I saw so clearly what bad policy was doing to my students. I was in New Orleans, which has some of the deepest levels of poverty in the nation. I saw first hand with my students what they were up against. No matter how strong they were, no matter how hard they worked, the system was failing them. I wanted to take this experience and apply it to a macro level, so I moved to D.C. So, I started volunteering with different organizations with the idea that I want to get there, I want to help beat George W. Bush, and I want to help move the country forward in whatever way I can.
TC: And how do you feel about PR and media now?
BR: I think it's important to be able to tell a story and to be able to communicate that story with people. It's about communicating; it's about having those conversations one on one. And after doing it full time professionally for some time now I've come to like it and realized that I'm pretty good at telling those stories and sharing experiences – that's my contribution.
TC: Any particular story from that time stands out to you?
BR: I remember one morning I was in the office and we got word that Bush held a press conference endorsing the Federal Marriage Amendment, which would outlaw marriage equality. It would restrict marriage to only opposite sex couples. Immediately, I ran to my desk, whipped together a press release and put together a quote from the chairman of the Democratic Party and his reaction to Bush's press conference. The whole team liked it and we sent it out within minutes. To my knowledge, we were one of the very first to react to Bush's press conference. As a result, all of the AP and national wire services that ran the President's speech also ran the chairman's reaction, which was that it is never a reason to restrict rights in the Constitution because that's not what the Constitution is all about.
TC: How did it feel to be the teller behind that story?
BR: It was really powerful for me as a gay man to be able to work for a place that stood so resolutely so quickly against this oppression. But it was also really exciting and empowering to be that person to make that release, to make it happen, and to get it out there fast enough, so we could say that the Democratic Party was the party that was standing up for LGBT Americans.
TC: Earlier you mentioned you worked on Katrina. How was that?
BR: I was just so frustrated by the recovery failures of Katrina that I decided that I wanted to go back to school to get a business a degree. I wanted to learn how the business world plans, executes and gets things done and then apply that to the service world.
TC: What was your first job out of business school?
BR: After graduating with my M.B.A. I spent two years with Google doing policy and PR work for them in the Bay Area, which is a great place to work. But the whole time, I kept thinking I want to move back to Chicago and I want to devote my fulltime career to helping my community and improving the life of others. So, I moved back here [Chicago] in the summer of 2011.
TC: And that's about the time when you started working for Center on Halsted?
BR: Yes. I took a job at Center on Halsted as its Director of Public Affairs and spent almost a year and a half there running public affairs and doing outreach. We launched a brand new website while I was there. I was able to launch a new brand and push things that would work for the community and the Center.
TC: What was a highlight of yours during your time at Center on Halsted?
BR: The day that President Barack Obama announced his support for marriage equality. It was May 9 because that was my third year wedding anniversary and what an anniversary present it was to have the president of the United States recognize your relationship as equal to his own. Being in my position, I was able to put out a press release about the Center's opinion but I also put out a note that it was my wedding anniversary, and that I was happy to talk about it. I was on almost every local news channel that night talking about my marriage and showing pictures of my wedding kissing my husband. It was great to voice and show that we have every right to define our relationship and be a part of the institution of marriage.
TC: So you were able to apply your M.B.A. into helping the LGBT community like you wanted.
BR: I was really excited because I got to work directly with the LGBT community. Center on Halsted was a great place to learn what Chicago's LGBT community is all about and some of the challenges we're facing as well as opportunities.
TC: When did you come out?
BR: I came out when I was 19 and in college. I remember I was in high school when Ellen Degeneres came out on her TV show and our local ABC affiliate stopped carrying her TV show after the episode she came out.
TC: How was it growing up in a place that banned gay TV show characters when you were gay?
BR: Growing up in a place when even a TV show character wasn't allowed to be gay made it very tough for me to be gay. I definitely couldn't admit it to myself or to anyone else until a few years later.
TC: When you were in college?
BR: When I was looking for colleges, I was looking for places on some level or another where I felt I would be comfortable enough to come out and be myself. University of Chicago's catalogue at the time was as inclusive as catalogues were in the late 90s. I went to college there and right before my second year started, I came out of the closet because I was ready to be myself. That ability and comfort zone that I had in college here helped endear me more to the city because I knew it was a place where I could be myself without fear.
TC: How did your parents respond to you coming out?
BR: I never had to face issues that are still too common today of being kicked out by your parents. They weren't exactly happy at the time but over the years as they got to learn more and we were able to have those conversations, they became my fiercest advocates. My mom gave me away at my wedding. She loves my husband like another son, sometimes even more than me. [Laughs]
TC: How did you meet your husband?
BR: I met my husband when I was in business school at Berkley in California. He was a student at Berkley getting his degree in clinical psychology and I was getting my M.B.A. We met one day by chance and within a few weeks we fell in love. We've been together for seven years now.
TC: You guys got married in California?
BR: Yes, we got married in California. We got engaged before marriage was illegal. We actually set our marriage date for after the election, so the state or the federal government doesn't recognize our marriage, but it's still a marriage to us.
TC: How was it to have your mom give you away at your wedding given that she was at first hesitate of you being gay when you came out?
BR: It was great. My sister gave me away too. You could see the progress they had made just as you could see the progress I had made because there I was with my husband getting married. We were outside with the Golden Gate Bridge, the sun was out, and the San Francisco skyline was in the background. About 140 or 150 of our closest friends surrounded us. Our friend who officiated the wedding, said by the power invested in me and by your friends and family gathered here today. For as much as I want and hope that one day she could say by the power invested in me, by the power of your government, it was almost more powerful to hear her say by the power of your friends and family who supported and loved us.
TC: That's amazing. And now you're the Director of Public Affairs for the Chicago Department of Public Health, which now features a new LGBT Health Advisory Board.
BR: The opportunity came to be able to bring together some diverse, committed, talented group of people from our community to discuss public health and define ways to improve health for the LGBT community. This is phenomenal.
TC: From your perspective, what is unique about LGBT health?
BR: Well data shows that LGBT people have increased health issues in part because of discrimination and stigma. It includes increased bullying at the school level. Less LGBT people are insured sometimes because some policies may not extend to partners. LGBT people face increase rates of mental health disorders. All of this contributes to the public health. It's about what we can do to improve public health in the LGBT community.
TC: What's one major issue you and the new advisory health board plan to tackle?
BR: One thing we hope to do soon is make the public health case for marriage equality. Historically, when people win more equality and social justice they also win better health. When the Voting and Civil Rights Act was passed in the 60s, there were decreased rates of infant mortality and increased rates of life expectancy among African Americans that studies link to those two acts of the 60s. The thought is with the stigma being further erased against LGBT people there will be more opportunities for them to gain access to health care and more opportunities for them to live healthier, more complete lives.
TC: What's your personal vision in your new role with the City Department of Public Health?
BR: Rather it was at the Center or now at the Department of Public Health I feel like my job is to help create an environment that is more welcoming and affirming for everyone, so we can all live our best life.
TC: What can people do on the ground level to help with this new LGBT health initiative?
BR: They can like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter to find out what we're doing, Chicago Public Health. People can also continue to tell their stories. If you do have health issues, talk to someone or reach out to someone. If you don't have health insurance, find your local clinic. Take control. The best way to live a healthy life is to have access to quality care and to take control of your life. The goal of the advisory board is to provide that access and outreach to help people take control of their own life.
TC: What do you want your legacy to be?
BR: Wow. No one has ever asked me that question before. I never really thought about it. In all honesty I don't want a legacy for myself. What I want instead is to be able to say that I did the best that I could and in some way I was able to make a difference for my community and the people who came after me.
Interviewed by Terrence Chappell
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