Pursuit of Passion

July 15, 2022

Dacrie Brooks ’98 left her job as one of New York’s most respected PR professionals to help the nonprofit Marshall Project fight injustice in the U.S. penal system.

Prepping for her keynote address at MBU’s Homecoming 2022 Dacrie Brooks ’98 reflected on her career’s recent full-circle journey: 

She’d spent more than 20 years establishing herself as one of New York’s most respected media relations executives. She held positions with top agencies and routinely placed articles about business clients in national outlets like Fast Company, TIME, Forbes, and the Wall Street Journal. Then 2020 happened — and everything changed. Fueled by the 2020 police murder of George Floyd, she altered course and began doing nonprofit communications work that examined socioecononic and racial injustice.

Before that, she reveled in generating results that yielded more revenue for her clients. 

“It was my job to convince some of the world’s biggest magazines to publish stories about high-profile CEOs, the next big tech startup, you name it,” said Brooks. From a certain perspective, it was all about impacting the bottom line. 

But as director of communications for The Marshall Project, a Pulitzer Prize winning nonprofit newsroom covering criminal justice, she gets “to use my skills and talents to educate people about all that is wrong with mass incarceration, and in my own way, push back against systemic injustices by  sharing compelling stories about the  lives of some of the most marginalized people in the United States.” 

Dacrie Brooks ’98 left her job as one of New York’s most respected PR professionals to help the nonprofit Marshall Project fight injustice in the U.S. penal system.

Addressing Mary Baldwin students  and alumni, Brooks emphasized the effect that shift in professional focus has had on her life and personal well-being. She’s fired up about going to work in the morning. She goes home knowing she’s helping to amplify and give a voice to the voiceless. She wants to do her part to make the world a better, more equitable place to live. 

“We need to understand that we don’t need to compromise who we are as people to thrive in the world,” said Brooks. Consumer culture has deified income and materiality — but the calculus of happiness includes more than dollars and cents. 

“Yes, we should demand to be paid what we’re worth,” Brooks continued. But we can’t let fear about not making enough money “steer us away from our passion and keep us from using our authentic voice. We have to own our own voice and our own narrative, and we have to use our voice to write a narrative that brings meaning and fulfillment to our lives.”

Do that, says Brooks, and money will come.    

 


 

BROOKS’ WORK WITH THE MARSHALL PROJECT  marks a return to the kinds of issues that inspired her to go into communications in the first place. Her interest in race-related inequities stemmed from a Naval transfer that relocated her family from San Antonio to Virginia Beach when she was about 12. 

“The area where we’d lived in San Antonio was historically Black, and the city is known for its predominantly hispanic and Mexican American culture,” said Brooks. So, moving to a majority-white city and neighborhood brought “a culture shock. I’d never experienced what it meant to be seen as a so-called ‘minority.’” 

The effects were amplified when her parents enrolled her in Cape Henry Collegiate, one of the state’s most prestigious college preparatory schools at 15. 

“There was a huge expectation for me to be the first person in my family to graduate from college,” said Brooks. “My parents wanted to open doors that hadn’t been available to them, and, to their credit, refused to take no for an answer.” 

The institution had a near-perfect matriculation rate, but was almost exclusively white. Brooks was one of just two or three Black students in a secondary school population of about 400. There was also a radical socioeconomic divide — which visits to friends’ houses made glaringly clear. 

Most of her classmates lived in a world characterized by lavish homes, luxury cars, maids, chauffeurs, personal chefs, trust funds, fine art, and international vacations. Family connections virtually guaranteed professional success, and the promise of inheritance made it unnecessary. They were oblivious about the realities faced by rising middle class Americans, much less those living paycheck to paycheck. 

“It was like stepping into an alternate universe,” said Brooks. Trying to process “the gulf between their lives and mine” led to journaling and a passion for journalism. She began thinking of herself as a kind of sociological observer and documentarian. 

Brooks could see how intergenerational affluence created disproportionate opportunities, and was determined to take advantage of her access. She parlayed her writing talents into a position with the school’s prestigious newspaper. Clips and staff recommendations landed her an internship covering high schools for the state’s largest daily print news outlet (now The Virginian-Pilot).

The paper was then under pressure to diversify their newsroom and coverage. Brooks capitalized by pitching stories that offered readers a window into the day-to-day realities of marginalized and underserved groups.   

“It was an amazing experience,” she said. Brooks got to be part of a real newsroom, work with pro editors, cover a beat, and more. “It inspired me to want to major in communications and pursue a career as a storyteller.”

From left: Dacrie Brooks '98; Brooks posing with her family in 2018.

Brooks was introduced to MBU  through an act of loving motherly espionage. 

“I had this romantic idea of going to school in New York, but she wanted me to be financially responsible and at least consider other options,” said Brooks. 

Her mom packed her in the car under a forgotten pretext and the two headed west toward the Virginia mountains. Arriving in Staunton, Brooks fell in love with the campus’s historic buildings, grassy hillsides, and towering trees. She toured classrooms and dorms, talked to professors and students, and thought: ‘This is where I belong.’

The level of affluence and emphasis on life-enriching, highly personalized learning felt familiar. Brooks enrolled as a communications major and started classes in fall 1995. 

At MBU she wrote for the campus newspaper while working as a freelance higher-ed correspondent for the Virginian-Pilot. Instructors challenged her to broaden her intellectual horizons, think outside the box, and express herself in writing with meticulous attention to detail.

Brooks remembers late English professor Dr. Joseph Garrison in particular. 

“He was stringent and challenging — just hypercritical about writing, and being thoughtful when you’re communicating,” she recalled with a laugh. Garrison helped her learn “the power of painting a picture and inviting readers in to experience a story versus simply focusing on relaying facts through exposition.” 

She calls the storytelling approach foundational and “wildly helpful for my career.” 

Brooks took heavy course loads and graduated in three years. She went to work for a Virginia Beach marketing firm — hated it for 10 straight months — and decided to take a leap of faith. By early 2000 she’d moved to New York, found an apartment, landed a job at a tech-savvy startup PR firm, and quickly made a name for herself. 

“I realized I was really good at writing short pitches and getting editors to pay attention to my clients,” said Brooks. 

Consistent successful placements led to personal relationships with senior editors at some of the planet’s top media outlets. Soon she was ushering client CEOs through private tours of offices belonging to the New York Times, Fortune, TIME, and more. 

Then came 9/11. Watching the twin towers burn through the windows of a neighboring highrise was terrifying. Trying to evacuate the building and escape the city while four months pregnant, even more so. 

“After that, I didn’t want to stay because I had two young kids,” said Brooks. “We didn’t feel safe.”

She sent out a flurry of job applications, accepted an offer from an integrated marketing agency in Maryland — and spent the next six years climbing the corporate ladder. But over time the work came to feel arbitrary, unfulfilling. Monetary success alone wasn’t making her happy: Brooks needed a sense of professional purpose.

“I started dreaming about moving back to San Antonio,” she said. “I decided I was going to find a way to make that happen that wouldn’t compromise my career.” 

Brooks called her former New York PR firm boss in 2008 to pick his brain about the possibility of working remotely. He hired her as a senior media relations specialist on the spot. 

Dacrie Brooks '98 was the keynote speaker at MBU's Homecoming 2022.

Brooks was seeking a major change  when she joined The Marshall Project in early 2022. Following media coverage of George Floyd’s murder and the social upheaval it provoked led her to reflect on racial inequities within the communications industry — and realize she wanted to use her skills to fight for justice. 

“Leadership within the organizations I worked for and with throughout my career was always very white,” said Brooks. While there are plenty of Black men and women in the field, “they have to work five or six times harder to succeed [compared to white colleagues]. … It’s one thing to say you’re serious about diversity, equity, and inclusion, another to actually follow through.”  

Brooks discovered The Marshall Project in late 2021 while researching organizations that push back against racial injustice. Its mission impressed her: Leveraging powerful, unbiased journalism to expose abuses and affect a more fair, transparent, humane, and effective criminal justice system. Then she learned about its workplace culture. 

“In nearly 25 years I’d never been with a company where it felt safe to bring my whole self to work,” said Brooks, a mother of three who identifies as a Black queer woman. Nor had she experienced a workplace where diversity “was seen as a vital asset that should be systematically pursued, supported, and celebrated.” 

She says it’s been amazing to work in an environment where about half of all employees identify as people of color. Reporting to a highly respected Black female journalist that used to work for the Wall Street Journal is a bonus. 

And the job itself? 

In just a handful of months Brooks has already helped spearhead a campaign to expose a Louisiana juvenile detention center that was locking kids in shackles in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day for weeks on end. The privately owned facility also provided no mental health or educational services. Public outcry from Marshall Project reporting resulted in both a shutdown and statewide regulatory legislation. 

“It’s hard to quantify how excited and grateful I am for this opportunity,” said Brooks. She gets to be part of a team of tenacious, highly motivated individuals “that produce tenacious, hard-hitting investigations that significantly impact people’s lives for the better both now and in the future.”

“We have to own our own voice and our own narrative, and we have to use our voice to write a narrative that brings meaning and fulfillment to our lives.”
Dacrie Brooks '98

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