Ashton Brooks is the co-founder and editor in chief of Chaos+Comrades, a digital publication amplifying BIPOC and queer voices.
Working as an associate producer at WNET, New York’s PBS affiliate, Brooks saw a lack of people of color and queer folks in the station’s documentaries. That’s when he had the idea to start his own magazine. “As a person of color, as a Black person, I felt like I wanted to create my own platform to represent and tell stories of specifically those communities because I’m at the intersection of both,” says Brooks.
He soon began taking design and editorial classes at a local New York City college before launching Chaos+Comrades in July 2019.
Hello Alice spoke with Brooks about building a multimedia publication from scratch, growing a team, and the importance of telling stories of marginalized communities. What follows are his own words, edited for length and clarity.
How did you get into multimedia storytelling?
I was in the Air Force for six, seven years. Afterward, when I left, I moved to New York for film school. I’m a very creative person. I like being creative and exploring different ways of honing that creative skill. So I decided to go to film school to learn how to direct and create visuals.
Through that two-and-a-half-year process, I got on a producer track and learned a lot about producing films and television series and more behind-the-scenes types of things. That led me to my fellowship at WNET. That’s when I got a chance to see how documentaries were being told and put together.
How did your experience at WNET lead to starting your publication?
It took me on different paths. Once I saw how that big machine works and how it oppresses and leaves out certain voices, that’s kind of when I was like, I think I have enough skills and knowledge and resources to start my own. I wanted to apply it more to BIPOC and queer voices versus something that wasn’t really aimed at my community. So I jumped ship, and I’ve been working on Chaos+Comrades ever since.
Once you had the idea, what were your next steps?
The first thing that I did was recognize my limitations and my skill sets, then learn those other skills that I would need to be a good leader. I wanted to learn how to speak to a design team and how to speak my ideas. So I took several courses at SVA, School of Visual Arts here in New York, and learned those skills.
Organically, I went out, did a lot of networking events, and found people that believed in the vision. I met my co-founder, who came on board in 2018. Then, it started growing from there. We started offering internships and fellowships, and through that, those internships turned into people that have stayed with us and continue to work with us. And the company just kind of grew.
Can you share with us the importance of amplifying BIPOC and queer voices?
The most important thing is making sure that my team and my company look like the world does, which is inclusive of people of color and queer voices. I think working in the film industry in New York and seeing a lack of those voices being heard or being oppressed in different workspaces, I wanted to create a space for those people who don’t get the chance to be heard to come in and tell their stories organically, for us and by us.
I think that organic truth-telling is something that saves a lot of lives, and there’s a lot of queer children growing up that need that representation and need someone to look up to. A lot of content when I was growing up, there wasn’t a Black queer guy that I could look up to. For me, this platform represents creating space for the next generation to see themselves reflected in the people doing work nowadays.
How did you grow your audience when you started from nothing?
It’s something that I’ve learned more so recently. I was in grad school for publishing, learning and making connections in the industry that would allow me to grow that audience. One thing is that a lot of people don’t take advantage of the amount of grants that are out there for minority-owned businesses and queer businesses. That helped us a lot. There’ve been so many grants that we’ve applied for over the past year that we were able to get. Some of those are just keeping your ear to the street like looking on social media, doing Google searches.
[Hello Alice Guide: Apply for Minority-Owned Business Grants]
I think great content is where it starts. Whatever you’re doing, you have to make a great product and great content. Then, you have to create great marketing and distribution channels like making sure you have a strong social media presence and branding. Those are the type of things that bring your audience in, and the constant content keeps them with you. It’s what we’ve been doing. Through that process, we decided to relaunch our brand in the coming weeks because we learned so much over the past couple of years. We wanted to redo our branding and start growing the audience even more.
Can you tell us more about your rebranding process?
We always have focused on content for the past year and a half, making sure that we amplify the voices of BIPOC and queer people. That was first and foremost for us. Then it was like, ‘Okay, our competition is stepping it up. Everybody is stepping it up.’
Last year, we started sitting down as a team and thinking about what we want our brand to look like. Because of the pandemic, everything was so digital. There was so much digital noise that it was hard to stand out. For a brand to stand out, they had to have a stronger branding than they did prior to the pandemic.
It was several months of a process of reaching out to different people and experts in the field and talking with my team. But it’s starting with what we like, what we don’t like, and putting things together. Eventually, we had a whole style guide of new branding and how we wanted to take our brand to introduce this new era.
It sounds like your team plays a significant role at your company. How did you find your staff?
There’s a tool that universities use called Handshake, where brands and organizations can post job opportunities. We started our internship program a little over two years ago, and we started posting opportunities there. That’s how we found most, if not all, of the people still on our team to this day.
Through that came more opportunities. I’ve had so many colleges and universities offer us grants to hire their students who want to get experience or learn about what it’s like to go into publishing or digital media. We had a partnership with MIT at the top of this year for January internships, and they gave us a grant to hire one of their students. So that’s a huge thing, putting postings on universities.
Social media has been another tool. We do a lot of editorials, so I like to have personal essays of people from the community. We’ll use social media with a blast like, ‘Hey, we’re looking for Black trans writers to write about this issue. We pay this much for the article.’ There are certain groups on Twitter that you can send that to, and we’ve done many submissions based on that.
You’re launching a print publication this summer. Can you tell us more about that?
It’s a print newspaper that will come out four times a year. The idea is for people to share stories of BIPOC and queer communities that normally wouldn’t read, listen, or be exposed to these communities.
The idea is like when you go to Starbucks and pay it forward: You go through a drive-thru and pay for the coffee of the person behind you. In our case, you subscribe to the print quarterly, you get the digital, and then you send your print version to, like, your mom or dad or grandma. Through that, they’re getting to learn and grow into their understanding of communities outside of their own.