Senior communications advisor, Nicole Brooks strives to be “a better advocate for everybody who presents differently than society wants them to”
In high school, Nicole Brooks looked up to her English teacher (and poet), Maxine Tynes. “She would tell us stories with this amazing vocal cadence. And I remember saying to her one day, I want to be YOU when I grow up.” In part, this is because Brooks saw in Tynes a passion for reading, writing and literature she felt in herself. More than that, Brooks saw in Tynes a Black woman who had achieved the same dreams to which Brooks aspired.
After taking a degree in English literature from St. Mary’s University, Brooks “followed the path I enjoyed the most. I always loved reading and writing, so I looked for opportunities in that field.”
Brooks is a senior communications advisor with Nova Scotia Health’s Public Engagement and Communications team, where “I get to help Nova Scotians understand a little more about how the system works, make it simpler for them and share stories about the work that’s happening internally at Nova Scotia Health and the cool people we work with.”
One of Brooks’ great sources of pride as a person of African descent is her last name and the sense of connection and family that goes along with it. “My family is from East Preston. We have Brooks Drive named after us because of my granny and my granddad; they had 19 kids. I love the fact that I can see and meet another Brooks who is Black and I may not know them personally, but we instantly know we’re related. There’s a sort of kinship that comes from having a big family that’s part of the community. I want to be able to do them proud.”
When Brooks reflects on how her identity as a person of African descent shapes her work, she describes an evolution. “My identity as a Black woman has always been evolving, from when I was younger up to this point, especially as I had children. My children identify as African Nova Scotian as well as mixed race.” Brooks’ father is Black and her mother is white.
“I knew that I was Black, and I say that in a way that sounds probably silly. I knew I was different, and I knew that my family members looked different, but I didn’t introduce myself as Black. I introduced myself as Nicole, and I think that speaks to the fact that I grew up as a shy person and I knew that I was different. I thought the less I drew attention to the fact that I was different, the more accepted I would be. This is the privilege of being a light-skinned Black woman.”
Brooks’ view and approach changed abruptly in 2020. “The death of George Floyd really made me examine the privilege that I have as a light-skinned Black person in Nova Scotia. I felt that I wasn't representing my community as well as I could have because I have access to a lot of spaces that not everybody does.”
“I’ve made a conscious effort since that moment in 2020 to show up and to be a better advocate for Black people in more spaces where we should be, deserve to be, and became vocal about how I think. I took the opportunity to reexamine the way I looked at my life previously and things that I didn't really consider. (For example), things I would have previously labelled as bullying behaviour was probably racist behaviour. I made a marked decision from that day forward to become a better advocate for everybody who presents differently than society wants them to — different than the status quo.”
If society, and the health system, are going to shift to be anti-racist, Brooks believes people who are white need to be open to feedback and learning about language or practices that may be maintaining the status quo. “If I say something to you – hey, you know what, that’s kind of racist. That language comes from periods of enslavement. It’s not an attack on your character, but it’s a call for you to learn more about me and about other people.”
When it comes to better reflecting the stories of people of African descent in Nova Scotia Health communications, Brooks said, “Everybody has a different experience of being African Nova Scotian or having African ancestry. No one Black experience is the whole story. In the work that we do, we need to make sure we hear from all voices within our community because not one person can represent the entire spectrum of the Black experience or the gay experience or the transgender experience, and so on.”
Reflecting on her philosophy of work and life, Brooks said: “It’s always a risk to lead with your heart but that’s what I like to bring to my work. Let’s lead with empathy. Let’s lead with our hearts.”