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R. Alan Brooks on Using Art To Teach Compassion

 Alan Brooks is an insurance agent turned comic book writer and Associate Professor of Writing at Regis University. His graphic novels use art to explain themes such as police brutality and white supremacy. He uses his art to teach compassion and help people realize their differences in order to understand each other.

R. Alan Brooks is speaking at the TEDxMileHigh: Rise event in August. Register here.

As a Kid, What Did You Want to Be When You Grew Up? 

From the ages of 5 through 12, I wanted to become a comic book artist. Then I got waylaid by music. Now, I write and draw comic books! 

For the years in between, I was a rapper and hired live bands to back me up on stage. I put out a few albums, went on a few small tours, and eventually burned out. A lot of the musicians that I hired had negative attitudes and that started to take its toll on me. 

I decided that I could work just as hard doing something that would actually make me money so I started an insurance agency. I did that for four years and eventually found myself feeling very unhappy. So, I wrote my first book, and everything after has been a result of that.

What Was the Biggest Turning Point in Your Life?

After four years in the insurance agency, I found that when I sold people health insurance, they tended to nickel-and-dime me. They would ask, “Can we take that coverage off?” and I’d say, “Sure, but when an emergency happens, you might not have the coverage you need.” They’d wave me off. Then, a year or so later, when something happened, they’d be angry with me about not having the coverage—the coverage that they’d asked to remove. 

Intellectually, I knew that it wasn’t my fault, but emotionally, it was devastating to have people angry with me for something that I fundamentally wasn’t even passionate about. 

So, I quit and went to Europe for a month. It was my first time there, and I spent time in Berlin, Budapest, London, and Prague. When I came back, I was very clear that life was too short for me to remain stuck in a profession that was making me unhappy.

I decided to try to make writing my career. That was 2016. Since then, I’ve released a graphic novel, signed an agent, started writing a weekly comic for The Colorado Sun, began hosting a podcast, and was hired to teach writing for the Master of Fine Arts Writing Program at Regis University.

What Are Three Facts About You That Are Completely Unrelated to the Subject of Your Talk?

  1. I’m pretty handy with a pair of nunchucks
  2. Before quarantine, I went out dancing at least 3 times a week
  3. I graduated from a 4-year college when I was 19

Who Are Three People, Living or Dead, That Inspire You the Most? 

  1. Melvin Van Peebles, director of the film “Sweet Sweetback’s Baaadass Song.” I’m inspired by his determination to get his work out into the world, no matter what obstacles people throw into his path. I’ve done my best to incorporate that into my own life
  2. The creator of “The Twilight Zone,” Rod Serling. He found a way to speak on society in a manner that engaged the entire world. His storytelling, vision, and compassion are largely inspiring to me
  3. Author Octavia Butler has inspired me for many of the same reasons as Rod Serling. She was able to weave these engaging tales of galactic and futuristic visions that make us reflect on our own lives

What’s Your Favorite TED or TEDx Talk?

Well, I’m partial to Brian Michael Bendis’ talk because it was directly inspiring to me when I started to create my own graphic novels.

What’s a Piece of Advice That You Live By or That You Give Other People Constantly?

I often tell people that it’s okay to feel fear—we just have to decide that fear doesn’t get to make our decisions for us. 

Fear is just an alert that a decision needs to be made, but we get to determine what that is.

What’s the Biggest Challenge You Face in Your Day-To-Day Work?

When I’m creating something new, I often struggle with people who have the financial and social resources to help support it—often because my idea doesn’t fit into their idea of what I, as a Black man, should be doing.

It’s interesting because I see these same people embrace similar ideas from non-POC as “innovative.” So, what I generally have to do is move ahead, finish the work without them, and then suddenly they can see the value of it.

Name One Thing We Aren’t Spending Enough Time Thinking About as a Society. What Would Be a Good First Step?

That’s a big question, isn’t it? One thing?

Well, something else that I often say is that when there’s an “ism” (racism, sexism, ableism, etc.), it’s usually derived from either a failure or a refusal to see the humanity of another person. 

If it’s a refusal, then that person has made a choice, so I don’t try to reach them. But if it’s simply a failure, then the trick is to give that person an opportunity to interact with the humanity of someone else. Art is great for that. So, a more direct answer to this question is compassion.

If You Could Achieve One Goal in the Next Year What Would It Be?

I’ve written a movie script, where a lack of compassion is central to the story. We’ve spoken with a couple of potential investors, so I’d like to see that movie get made!

What Action Can the TedxMileHigh Community Take to Support Your Big Idea?

I want people to free their creative voices—to not let fear rob the world of what they have to share. 

I want people to use their art to teach compassion, express humanity, and build bridges between people who simply misunderstand each other.

If you’re interested in learning from Alan, you can sign up to take writing classes from him at Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop.

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