Gill-Brooks Talks About Being Black in Branford
Branford native Roberta Gill-Brooks spoke with former state representative Lonnie Reed for a Zoom interview, Black in Branford: A Perspective in a Time of Awakening, coordinated by the Blackstone Memorial Library and BCTV. Video still courtesy of BCTV )
Against a backdrop of national civil unrest and, locally, sometimes difficult conversations about race and inequality, Roberta Gill-Brooks, the elected Branford tax collector, recently sat down with former state representative Lonnie Reed in a Zoom broadcast to offer her perspective on what it is like to be Black in Branford.
The video, Black in Branford: A Perspective in a Time of Awakening, was coordinated by the Blackstone Memorial Library and BCTV and can be viewed at vimeopro.com/branfordtv/blackstone-library.
The town’s two-term tax collector hopes to open up a discussion in the community, and to connect as friends and neighbors on a deeper level, particularly on “hard-to-talk-about realities” including race, inequality, brutality, and justice.
“With the horrific death of George Floyd captured on video for all of the world to see, racism has been brought right to the forefront of everyone’s life,” Gill-Brooks said during the Zoom interview.
Gill-Brooks has been vocal about George Floyd, police brutality, and issues of race before, speaking at a Black Lives Matter rally in June, which drew a multiracial crowd of between 800 and 1,000 people, according to Reed.
Gill-Brooks has deep roots in Branford, which is 90.1 percent White and 1.2 percent Black, according to the 2019 census. Her family has lived in town for more than a century after her great-great grandfather arrived in 1910. And her father, Robert Gill, spent 45 years working in law enforcement in Branford, spending nine years as police chief before retiring in 2007.
Gill-Brooks herself was the first African-American woman to run for office when she was elected as the tax collector and for her second term, she was cross-endorsed by both political parties.
While Gill-Brooks is a loving daughter of Branford and has had success in town, she isn’t sheltered from those hard-to-talk-about realities, as some might suspect, Reed said.
“[These issues] have been dividing us for quite a long time,” Gill-Brooks said, noting that because racism and police brutality have been in the headlines so frequently, now is a good time to start a conversation.
“Even in a town like Branford, where I have mentioned many times, the soil is not racist,” she said. But “even a good garden, a garden of rich and fertile soil, has weeds and there’s no escaping it.”
In the interview, Gill-Brooks shared stories about her experiences with implicit bias at work, referencing a few instances in which taxpayers have come in with a complaint or misunderstanding and asked to speak to the person in charge, but they wouldn’t believe that Gill-Brooks was the “person in charge.”
“That doesn’t necessarily make you a racist, but you know, are you just having underlying misconceptions about Black people?” she said.
“A lot of times, folks want to ask questions but they don’t want to ask the wrong question… they don’t want to be accidentally offensive,” she said. “So, they don’t ask, but we have to get past that.”
Responding to her own question, she said that she’s heard many people say that they have Black friends. She tried to put it in perspective.
“Have you ever been the only White person in the room?” she asked, adding that fear is often created by lack of exposure.
On the broadcast, she also read aloud a letter her father wrote to his grandsons about how to act and how to conduct themselves in the presence of police to avoid reaching an escalation point. Her oldest nephew, she shared, has been pinned to the ground, face down with guns drawn by the police in a case of mistaken identity in California.
“It’s sad that it had to be taught. It’s sad that it had to be said, even here,” she said. But her father’s grandsons aren’t likely to remain in Branford and may go “where the soil is a little more racist than Branford.”
She wants the community to “figure out what to do with this elephant” even if the discussion is uncomfortable or becomes painful.
And now is the time. “I think we’re at a time of great awakening,” she said.
With George Floyd’s death, she said her emotional dam broke. And others are having similar reactions, catalyzing discussion and action.
“I wasn’t the only one being shell shocked, after being exposed to something like that while horrifying to many, it wasn’t so foreign to Black people, we’ve been watching this and experiencing this for years,” she said. “But what this event did do was awaken many non-Black people to things they never even thought about never even knew existed.”
Talking about racism and putting the subject up for discussion is worth the risk of being uncomfortable, she said.