Dr. Siobhan Brooks does not have the background that some would deem fitting of a college professor. Her mother spent years hospitalized for a mental illness and raised Brooks in a San Francisco housing project. Plus, she’s part of two groups of people who have been historically ostracized—African-Americans and the LGBT community. In the classroom, though, she may be just what her students need.
“I think I offer a unique perspective to different issues that my students can also relate to,” says Brooks, an assistant professor at California State University, Fullerton.
During the 2016-17 academic year, she will introduce a course to students that embodies not only her identity, but shares the untold stories of people like her.
The first class of its kind in Fullerton’s Department of African American Studies, she will teach the course The Black LGBT Experience .
Each week has a theme “that’s probably something that’s familiar to students in terms of Black history, but they just don’t know the LGBT contribution to that part of our history,” Brooks says, noting that Black gay people are represented in periods from slavery, the civil rights movement, and the Harlem Renaissance to present-day hip-hop and the Black Lives Matter movement.
For Brooks, exploration of racial identity came in the 11th grade during a college prep class, which was mostly filled with Black and Latino students. A Black woman from San Francisco State University was her instructor.
“It was the first time that we talked about ourselves as people of color,” Brooks recalls. “This was the first time we were forced to look at what’s around our neighborhoods—why are there no grocery stores, for example—things that I just thought were normal in my neighborhood, that I was able to start doing critical analysis.”
She passed the class with an A, earning her automatic enrollment into San Francisco State University without taking the SATs. After testing the waters of creative writing and ethnic studies in undergrad, she carved out an intellectual space for herself as a women’s studies major.
During college, Brooks was an employee of the Lusty Lady, a strip club in San Francisco. In this environment and elsewhere, she was exposed to different ideologies around sexuality. “I came to a conclusion that heterosexuality is one option upon the spectrum of sexual development, but it wasn’t the only option,” she says.
In 1996, she received a bachelor’s of arts degree. For the next few years, she was engrossed in the politics of sexuality, which included helping to create a sex workers union at the Lusty Lady. She was also invited to lecture and participate in several panels regarding gender issues.
Inspired by Barbara Smith, a Black lesbian feminist, Brooks decided to pursue graduate studies in sociology at the New School in New York. There, she was able to build upon her union-organizing experience to create the foundation for her dissertation. It discussed the ways in which Black and Latina exotic dancers are racially stratified within industries of stripping.
Later, her dissertation was published into a book titled Unequal Desires: Race and Erotic Capital in the Stripping Industry.
Brooks received a master’s in sociology from the New School in 2001 and continued at the university to earn a doctorate degree.
Her first teaching experience was at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn in 2002. It was in this inner-city setting where she realized that her background “was a real advantage to reaching the students because I was able to meet them where they were, bring their real-life experiences into the classroom and really connect with them,” Brooks says, noting that some of her colleagues found it difficult to teach that demographic.
She continued teaching in the City University of New York system until she completed a Ph.D. in 2008. She then taught at the University of California, Santa Barbara. While the university had a different demographic of students, she says, it was another wonderful experience. “At the end of the day, the ingredients of what makes a student are basically the same—I think the only difference is the exposure and the confidence of the student.”
Before coming to Fullerton in 2013, Brooks was a postdoc fellow in gender studies at Lawrence University in Wisconsin and a visiting assistant professor of women’s studies at Temple University.
In addition to her forthcoming course, Brooks has also designed two other classes at Fullerton: Race and Relationships and Black Women In America.
In every situation, her aim is to prompt critical-thinking skills in her students. “I feel like the real learning happens when you can take what you learned in the classroom and apply it to your real life,” Brooks says. “Then I feel like I’ve done my job—when students are able to make those connections.”