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  • Omar Waheed

Jordan Brooks: Finding cultural identity through creativity

Giving a workshop at the University of Pittsburgh in Titusville, Brooks leads a conversation

on curating inclusive spaces.

An artist, educator and advocate, Jordan Brooks, who serves as the Director of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and multicultural student success at the College of Design, offers himself as a man who wants to help marginalized students find their place in their academic journeys.

Holding multiple positions at various universities centered around diversity and helping diverse students, Brooks often puts his art second to help others in need. A graduate student himself working towards his Ph.D. in education, Brooks shows his dedication as an educator in pursuing education to the highest aspect possible.

“I’m an artist and facilitator or educator, and I use art and creativity through my business KNWSLF… to really help people explore their own cultural identities and how we also create communities that we can see ourselves, know ourselves and be ourselves in.”

Speaking briefly on his goals as an artist and educator, Brooks briefly dropped his business KNWSLF. The business serves as an avenue to extend what he’s been doing in his position as director of DEI at the College of Design and his work as an artist.

Offering workshops and commission-based artwork, KNWSLF largely promotes helping those find and develop cultural identities. Serving as the culmination of everything Brooks has been working towards, KNWSLF extends his mission to help those understand their identity through use of art and creativity.

Giving a speech after receiving an award for Art Educator of the Year,

Brooks speaks on system justification.

Formerly taking the education aspect as his primary role, Brooks had bounced back and forth between taking his art own seriously until 2015 where he made the full dive into making art.

While working at Georgia Southern during the wake of the deaths of Mike Brown and Sandra Bland, Brooks had been working with students to help them make sense of their experiences and feelings until one of the students had come up to him asking him how he was dealing with it.

“But Jordan, have you dealt with this at all?” Tu, one of the students Brooks was working with, asked him.

“And I think that was the first time that seal on myself had been opened again,” Brooks said. “As a professional, one of my previous supervisors had said ‘there’s an on and off switch where you turn on the practitioner and solve the problem. You work through the issue, but if you’re not careful to turn the practitioner switch off and be human again and allow yourself to feel, it can get wild’ and that student asking me that question I think was the switch.”

Something had clicked in Brooks’ head that day. Clearing his schedule for the rest of the day and working with Tu, the pair grabbed some supplies to start painting and talking for the rest of the afternoon, so Brooks had the opportunity to reflect as he did for his students.

Figuring out that his art is something that people resonate with, Brooks decided to take a chance on himself on the condition that he must make at least 1,000 dollars by the end of the year. Lucky for him, he reached that goal with half of December left and decided to ramp it up since.

As an artist, Brooks mainly works with acrylics, but finds himself working with pen and ink along with digital art in pieces that mainly express Black identity as it relates to himself and the Black experience overall.

Finding his way to where he is now, Brooks’ path had taken him all over the country. Originally from Pennsylvania, Brooks found himself interested in art at an early age.

Starting off with comic books that his father had, art allowed Brooks to notice the good and bad in life. Brooks always knew that art allowed people to connect with themselves and others whether he realized it or not.

A painting by Brooks, "Within Black" showcases hues of black stacked on top of each other

to give depth.

Appreciating art at a young age and finding his inspiration from comic books and a love of Transformers, Brooks drawing in classes when he was younger. Finding himself frequently getting in trouble for exploring his interest despite getting the work done, Brooks spent a good deal of time in detention.

Initially just making art for the sake of making art, something had clicked in Brooks’ head while studying his undergrad in art and psychology at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania while working for a social program called Friends of Youth, a community service program for youth who were in trouble.

Channeling his love of art and what he had been learning in his psychology program, Brooks found the children he was working with becoming more open about themselves when they were making art.

Becoming more talkative and willing to share their experiences and how they were feeling, Brooks transitioned from a focus of special effects, which he was studying on the art portion of his undergrad in wake of The Matrix coming out, towards figuring out how art and psychology mesh together to get people to express themselves like never before.

“When I moved here, first off, I was like ‘why?’ but my wife accepted a job here at Iowa State and I was looking for a different opportunity,” Brooks said. “This isn’t one of the places we agreed on. We had a whole list.”

Hoping to find a new opportunity in Iowa, Brooks found himself working at Grinnell College working in diversity, equity and inclusion before finding his way to Iowa State. Keeping up his work in psychology and diversity, Brooks co-authored a paper with Vrinda Varia at Grinnell College called “Reframing Resciliency.”

Pushing the concept about openness in identity and diversity, equity and inclusion services from colleges, the paper pushed the concept about openness and vulnerability in tackling hard issues surrounding identity that he experienced when he was at Georgia Southern.

Wanting to be “the person people know who to call,” all this provided background for where Jordan was going to end up— an artist and educator helping people find and understand their cultural identities through creativity.

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