Q&A with Albus Brooks | 'Being close to death brought me closer to life'

 

Albus Brooks was recruited in high school in his native Claremont, Calif., to play football for the CU Buffs. As a linebacker he earned a nod from Sports Illustrated as one of the hardest hitters at the college level. Yet, neither the challenges he faced on the gridiron nor the injuries that eventually stopped short his NFL prospects could come close to his most formidable hurdle in life: Fighting cancer.

Brooks beat it twice — just during the past couple of years — well after winning his seat on the Denver City Council in 2011 and re-election in 2015. A 15-pound tumor was removed from him in 2016; he then went on to serve two terms as council president. He continued to preside over the council even when the cancer returned, and he beat it back again.

Alongside the community service that goes with his job, Brooks has taken his bouts with cancer public to inspire others, particularly young people with cancer, to fight the fight. That kind of motivational outreach seemed to come naturally enough; he was focused on inspiring and uplifting kids in inner Denver even before his entry into politics. He served as director of the Issachar Center for Urban Leadership, an organization that invests in emerging leaders throughout Denver.

Brooks tells us in today’s Q&A how he grew into that mission and how he derived inspiration from it — and from his mom and even from his ordeal with cancer.

If the day-to-day affairs of the City Council seem less profound — zoning and taxes and policing the streets and, for years now, growth — they can stir almost as much emotion. And, rest assured, Brooks is just as engaged and animated about them as he is when talking about his brush with mortality. Enjoy.

Colorado Politics: It seems at times Denver is at war with itself over the pace and scope of growth — and how to handle it. Some residents resent and resist proliferating urban-infill projects even as Denver’s destination-city appeal keeps luring the kinds of professionals that live and work in those new developments — and who are the envy of many other cities of Denver’s size.

Arguably, the City Council is caught in the middle. It must cultivate a vibrant inner-urban core and the prosperity it generates while also attempting to ease the concerns of longtime residents, some of whom would be content if only things could stay as they are.

What do you see as the responsibility of the council in using its powers in this regard — to foster growth, to simply accommodate it or to even try to limit it? What is the council doing to offset the effect of spiraling rents and real estate on affordable housing, and what more could it do?

Albus Brooks: Denver finds itself at a defining moment. Who will we become?

As Denver transitions from a big, small city to a small, big city, it faces a particular sort of identity crisis. Who will we become? Who belongs? As a leader on Denver City Council, it is my job to seek answers to these questions and provide policy solutions that reflect the values of our residents.

My vision is for Denver to become a truly inclusive city, and the legislative priorities of Denver City Council over the last five to seven years signal that. My colleagues and I believe that an inclusive city is one where all residents can afford to find a place where they feel a sense of belonging and can afford to raise a family there. At its core, that is the greatest value a city provides.

To accomplish this, we must find creative ways of harnessing Denver’s growth and implementing policy solutions that address the areas where our growing pains are felt the most. One such area is our affordable housing crisis, which is why in 2016 we developed Denver’s first dedicated affordable housing fund — and the state’s largest — and doubled it in 2018. This will provide $300 million over the next decade for affordable housing. We also approved and expanded TRUA (Temporary Rental and Utility Assistance Program), which helps those at the greatest risk of being displaced. This program alone impacted the lives of 500 families in its pilot phase. We also passed Denver’s first housing plan, aptly titled, “Housing an Inclusive Denver,” which outlines our strategy for preserving and developing equitable, affordable housing across the city.

My colleagues and I also pooled funds to start a pilot program that provides legal assistance to low-income renters facing eviction. In addition to financial stress, those on the margins often feel a deep sense of political isolation which is why it is important that as elected officials we seek to meet their felt needs.

If our city fails them, we are a failing city.

Denver’s urban growth narrative reflects nationwide trends, and I believe that our strategy should not be to stagnate growth but rather to adjust it to provide better opportunities for our marginalized and working poor. The policies we codify in our city for working-class families will stabilize the market in the coming years. The solution to socio-economic angst is to connect diverse communities by building a truly inclusive city. This alone will usher forth a new era of belonging in the Mile High City.

Albus Brooks

CP: Tell us a little about your background. What brought you to Colorado, what kept you here, and what prompted you to seek elective office?

Brooks: I grew up in Los Angeles and was recruited to play football at the University of Colorado (Go Buffs). Coach [Rick] Neuheisel told me 21 years ago, “Albus, the sky’s the limit for you in Colorado, beyond just football.” This deeply resonated with me, and I packed up my things and moved to Boulder.

Although I studied political science and religion, it was football that was on my mind when I woke up each day. Unfortunately, I blew out my knee twice and watched my NFL dreams fade away. At 21 years old I watched my college backup sign a $10 million dollar NFL contract while I pondered life off the field.

My head told me to go to law school, make money, and use that money to impact others. My heart told me to take a risk and pour my life into serving Denver’s kids of color that were overlooked and falling through the cracks. Following the advice that I would end up giving to countless youth in years to come, I followed my heart.

I began working with a faith-based nonprofit in Denver called Young Life, where I spent the next eight years investing in the lives of Denver’s sixth-12th graders. Their stories became woven into mine, and I witnessed waves of our youth leaving high school with no ambition or preparation for college. This weighed heavily on my heart, so I left Young Life to work with Mile High Ministries to build a leadership development and full scholarship program called the Issachar Center for Urban Leadership.

It was my time leading this program that further opened my eyes to Denver’s achievement and opportunity disparity, which could be measured at a neighborhood level. I learned about the city’s structures that only worked for the privileged few and failed the many by casting them to the margins. I felt called to change this reality, so in 2011 I ran for Denver City Council with the support of my community and the youth that I had spent the previous decade investing in.

CP: You have a blog for which you periodically write inspirational pieces, some of which reflect on adversity. Your most recent post, about your mom, opens with a heartbreaking recollection of how she started out her own life, in a hospital in segregated, rural Arkansas. What role did your mother play in shaping and inspiring your aspirations and in setting your trajectory for success and specifically for public service?

Brooks: My mom was pregnant with me while she was writing her dissertation for her Ph.D. at UCLA. In many ways, my development is tied to her pursuit for knowledge and justice, and public service has been coded into my DNA from my very beginning. She taught me to pursue my calling, and to live my life in such a way that it spoke to this calling. My calling is to serve others and to build an inclusive city where everyone belongs. I am who I am, because she is who she is.

CP: Regarding the racism she endured: It’s easy enough to look at the vast differences between a place like today’s Denver and the Arkansas your mom was born into over 70 years ago. It’s more difficult, perhaps, to accept there are issues of race relations that remain unresolved, even in the 21st century — even in Denver.

What work do you believe the city and county of Denver can do to move the needle in this regard? Specifically, what should the city be doing on civil-rights issues such as Denver police interactions with the African-American and Hispanic communities? And also on an issue you’ve identified, economic inclusion — the need, as you put it, for “a boom that benefits all”?

Brooks: Race matters. Our nation was built upon the backs of the enslaved and oppressed. Forced labor, internment, and displacement are a part of our story and are present in the complexities of evolving racial identities. Although it is easy to speak about the value of diversity, we must realize that diversity is meaningless if it is disconnected. I’ve witnessed this disconnected diversity from the hallways of our high schools to the neighborhood level. A siloed city is one of duality, where one person experiences a boom while their neighbor experiences a bust.

As progressive as our city is, most of the decision-making rooms are predominantly white and male. If we are to pursue our calling to become a truly inclusive city, we need inclusive representation where the voices of women and people of color help tell our story; the complexity of the challenges facing our city can only be fully addressed if our decision-makers are as diverse as the residents they are making decisions for. This is our path forward.

I am an urbanist. I believe that cities provide the solutions to life’s most complex problems, and so my political ideology is shaped in the most profound ways by my love for cities.

CP: You are a two-time cancer survivor. In a post on your blog titled, “How cancer made me stronger,” you offered some profound observations about how your travails actually prompted you to look outward and think of others who were suffering. Tell us about your bout with cancer and how it affected your approach to your family and loved ones, to life in general and, yes, even to holding public office.

Brooks: When doctors found a 15-pound cancerous tumor deep inside my body, I found an important part of my identity deep inside myself that cultivated my spiritual life and connection to God. Removing the tumor(s) paralleled a process of removing life’s distractions, and my recovery journey brought greater awareness to my calling. I saw my wife and kids with new eyes.

I have often been told that I have become more progressive in public life since defeating cancer twice, which resonates with me. The truth is, cancer provided me a chance to discover a deeper sense of meaning. Facing your own mortality provides you with a strange opportunity to examine your own life, and I walked away from my recovery with a yearning to live a deeper, more authentic life. Being close to death brought me closer to life. The tumors showed me what was in my body, but cancer showed me what was in my heart.

CP: How would you describe your political philosophy, and how much — or little — does something like ideology factor into local government?

Brooks: I am an urbanist. I believe that cities provide the solutions to life’s most complex problems, and so my political ideology is shaped in the most profound ways by my love for cities. Ninety percent of GDP in our country comes from cities, so understanding economic forces from the perspective of the city is important to understanding the role of local government.

[American-Canadian journalist, author, and activist] Jane Jacobs famously said, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” This transcends partisan politics, and demands that the leaders of a city develop a pragmatic approach to problem-solving that relies on cooperation and compromise. Put it this way: If we ran our cities the same way we ran our federal government, our nation would be in big trouble.

My belief in cities impacts my work more than any partisan platform ever could, which is why I am working hard to build a Denver that is truly inclusive. All politics is local, and so is our path forward as a nation.

CP: Could you see yourself running for higher office?

Brooks: I fundamentally believe that I have more work to do in northeast Denver, and it is my desire to build upon my first two terms by serving the residents of the Fine District 9. My calling is to build a truly inclusive city, and if an opportunity to run for a position that would allow me to do that opened up, I would need to discern with my wife and kids if it would be a good fit. My family’s buy-in is very important to me because in the past I have not considered them first. In the future, our family will review opportunities together.

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