ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — With her professional-chic style, natural glamour and corporate career, it’s a little hard to imagine, but Brenda Brooks can (and will) fix a broken toilet.
Faulty faucets, too.
“I’m handy,” Brooks says. “Girl, I’m handy. I know what every tool in the toolbox does.”
Now the community affairs director for Urenco USA, Brooks credits an earlier job for helping her achieve ace repair-woman status.
A Hobbs native, Brooks spent 17 years working in the oil fields around southeastern New Mexico.
“I mean I worked in the oil field,” Brooks says for emphasis. “Like steel-toed boots, jeans, coveralls, hard hat – with a pickup truck with a toolbox on it.”
Brooks – a self-described girly-girl – had no applicable experience when she was plucked from her oil-company office job in the late 1970s to become one of the first female oil-and-gas production operators the area.
But she did happen to be in the right place at the right time.
“The superintendent was filling out his EEO (equal employment opportunity) report and realized he needed some women (in the field),” Brooks recalls. “And I was sitting in the break room and he asked me if I’d be interested in working in the field. I didn’t think about it long, because I realized I could make three times as much money. I said, ‘Sure.’
“I didn’t know what I was getting into.”
She still remembers her first day on the job, when a conversation with her “gruff, old boss” revealed just how green she was.
“He asked me to go to the toolbox and get a pipe wrench, and I looked at him and said, ‘Can you tell me what that looks like?'” Brooks recalls with a hearty laugh. “And he said, ‘You’re kidding me, right?”
But Brooks gladly embraced the challenge of mastering a new skill set.
Part of that was her upbringing, she says. Her father, an entrepreneur who ran several small businesses, and her mother, a 40-plus-year employee of the Hobbs Country Club, raised her to aim high. Smart, sociable and athletic – she lettered in volleyball, basketball, track and softball at Hobbs High – she was used to excelling.
But Brooks also was driven by a desire to prove people wrong. While the oil industry veterans showed her support along the way, she says some of the younger male workers had a more hostile attitude toward women in the field.
Brooks deliberately stoked that, she says, by wearing long acrylic nails to work. Dissenters claimed it was proof she wasn’t doing her job.
In reality, she never minded breaking a nail – “you can go get a new nail for what, a dollar?” she says – and she never let it affect her performance.
“I had to work really, really hard because the expectation was I was going to fail, and there was no way I was going to let that happen,” she says. “Absolutely no way.”
Brooks grew so comfortable on the job that she lasted 17 years. The experience, she says, taught her she could do anything.
Still, she wishes she’d left the fields a little sooner, if only because she’s found great professional satisfaction in her subsequent positions. That includes her service as executive director of MainStreet Hobbs and her current role at Urenco, the 350-employee uranium-enrichment company based in Eunice.
Part of Brooks’ job involves guiding Urenco’s philanthropic activities. That includes chairing the company’s United Way campaign – which raised $240,000 last time around – and helping with the annual 9/11 Day of Service, an employee volunteer project that helps seniors with home repairs.
Brooks never knew exactly what she wanted to do for a living, but her recent work has suited her perfectly.
“I feel like a late bloomer,” Brooks says. “When I went to work for Mainstreet … I think I realized that the way to make a difference is to make a difference. It’s not just (a) sitting-behind-a desk job. You can impact your community in a positive way, and I think that’s what’s rewarding.”
A former commissioner for the New Mexico Commission for Volunteerism, Brooks is actively involved in the community outside of her professional duties. A onetime board member for Big Brother/Big Sister, she’s made mentoring a lifestyle. She’s taken a series of young women under her wing, offering them guidance, support and advocacy.
Brooks – who has two adult daughters – says she’s always had a natural rapport with young women.
“I’m usually very successful at connecting with them. I’m a mom of two. (Mentoring) was a good fit,” she says. “Sometimes they just need somebody to encourage them, somebody to push them.”
Q: What were your interests growing up?
A: I loved sports. I loved to read. I worked a lot because my dad had all these business interests and he was a firm believer in child labor. (Laughs) (I) pushed the lawn mower, cleaned offices, swept the floors – whatever needed to be done.
Q: If you weren’t doing this, what could you see yourself doing?
A: Teaching high school government. I love teenagers, and I think it’s important for young people to understand how our government works. … If I had a lot of money, I would open up a small school for at-risk boys. I think they need a special environment, and when I see how much lost talent and potential we’re sending to the prisons in the state, it should be unacceptable.
Q: Do you have a professional mentor?
A: The person who I think I owe the most to outside of my mom and dad … is Rep. Steve Pearce’s mother. Jane Pearce was my seventh-grade English teacher. … I don’t know what she saw in me, but she took me under her wing, and she encouraged me to compete in 4-H, in the speech competition. She really mentored me in terms of being able to get up and talk to people and having that self-confidence. It’s not that I didn’t have it before, but I think it really made me realize that I liked doing that.
Q: Why is it important for you to be involved with the New Mexico Office of African American Affairs?
A: I remember growing up and hearing about the three cultures of New Mexico, and I think it’s very important that people not forget that we’re here and that we have played an important role in the development of New Mexico.
Q: Do you have any guilty pleasures?
A: Shopping, so I’ve convinced myself not to shop for clothes, because that’s guilty, guilty. Now I shop for the house and I can say that’s not really for me; it’s for everybody who comes to the house.
Q: What do you do to relax?
A: I read and cook. … I love to bake, and I love comfort foods, so I do a really wicked shrimp creole.