In recognition of Black History Month 2023, we are celebrating and sharing the stories of Black leaders and colleagues from across The SR Group and our networks. We are delighted to have been able to interview Terryl Brown, Chief Legal Counsel, Deputy Commissioner for Legal Affairs and Administration for the Fire Department of New York City.
In addition to providing advice and counsel to the Fire Commissioner and senior leadership, Terryl is responsible for overseeing the management of the Fire Department’s Candidate Investigations, Drug Testing, Enforcement of Violations, General Law, Health Law, Health Care Compliance, Human Resources, Investigations and Trials, Labor Relations and Regulatory Compliance Units. On behalf of the Fire Commissioner, Terryl chairs the New York Fire Pension Board, the New York Fire Investment Board and is a Trustee on the New York City Deferred Compensation Board.
Terryl also recently served as a Commissioner of the New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics.
What challenges have you faced during your career journey as a Black leader, and how have you overcome some of these?
I have been very fortunate and have had great career opportunities, support and mentoring. However, these opportunities did not always come easily. I have faced quite a few obstacles and challenges along the way, beginning with a high school guidance counselor who did not think that I was “college material,” and who attempted to dissuade me from pursuing college; to professors in graduate school who would not acknowledge my contributions to class discussions; to being assumed to be a paralegal rather than an attorney; to needing to work twice as others to demonstrate my competence and value, in order to receive promotions. These experiences strengthened rather than weakened me, built confidence rather than doubt, and made me more determined to succeed.
How do you celebrate Black History Month? Are there any figures that you most admire or resonate with, whether they are famous or not?
I celebrate differently each year. This year, the Fire Department of New York kicked-off its inaugural MLK Day of Service. In partnership with Hunger-Free America, we went out into the community distributing informational pamphlets on fire prevention and safety, and how to access economic and food assistance.
Regarding figures that I admire, there are many to choose from. A person who has been in the forefront of my thoughts recently and whom I greatly admire is Mamie Till-Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old Black boy from Chicago who was brutally murdered (shot, beaten beyond recognition and found in the Tallahatchie river) in 1955 while visiting relatives in Money, Mississippi. Ms.Till-Mobley with quiet strengthen and pose, made the courageous decision to have an open casket at her son’s funeral service at a time when people would not dare to speak out about lynchings. She also allowed a magazine to publish photographs of his corpse. These photographs were circulated and expose to the world the horrific ways Blacks were being lynched and murdered in the south.
Is there a policy or legislation in the workplace that comes to mind as something which positively or negatively impacts Black workers in particular?
The CROWN (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) Act positively impacts the self-esteem of Black workers and students. The Act prohibits employers and schools from enforcing purportedly “race neutral” grooming policies and prohibits race discrimination based on natural hair or hairstyles. It empowers Blacks to confidently wear their hair in its natural state.
Any advice for early career talent within the Black community who are navigating the workforce?
First and foremost – believe in ourself!! Show up, put in the effort, take the time to learn – the job, the company, the culture, the industry. Seek out mentors. Continue to educate yourself. Always be willing to take on new tasks and new responsibilities even in instances when there is no immediate financial gain. Be reliable, be accountable, be available, be honest and be authentic.