In late May, the world watched as SpaceX and NASA made history as the first private human spacecraft successfully launched to and then docked with the International Space Station. But as we marked this moment of American ingenuity, a disheartening reality pulled us back to Earth with the death of George Floyd igniting weeks of U.S. and international protests against racial injustice.
Unfortunately, these highs and lows are not new to 2020. Nor is it the first time that aerospace accomplishments and social justice tragedies are linked — more than 50 years ago, during the launch of Apollo 11, protesters gathered at the Kennedy Space Center gates in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
Henry Brooks remembers watching the Apollo 11 launch as a child in Tennessee while also living the headlines about racial injustice.
“I grew up in a time when Black kids were not allowed to attend kindergarten, and it was not uncommon to see signs on water fountains for white and colored people. Institutional racism was very much alive and accepted,” said Brooks, the president of Customer & Account Management for Collins Aerospace. “Since I was a child, I’ve watched the aerospace industry evolve — and for more than 30 years, I’ve been a part of it.
“While aerospace evolves, we continue to experience chilling examples every day that show that equal freedom and opportunity is not yet a reality. I have seen many talented Black colleagues walk out the doors of corporations, including this organization, because they were overlooked for growth opportunities and promotions.”
Recently, Brooks shared his personal experiences with racial injustice during a video conference with young professionals from the Aerospace Industries Association and Dr. Margaret Weitekamp, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum curator and Space History department chair. Weitekamp recently wrote an article titled “The Challenge Before Us: A Historical Reflection on 1969 and 2020” that participants discussed to compare the two aerospace milestones with instances of racial injustice.
Brooks advised the young professionals to use what makes them unique to stand out and be noticed.
“Many times I’ve walked into a room where I’m immediately noticed because of my skin color. Over the years, I’ve had to figure out what I’m going to do with that and ensure I’m bringing my authentic self to work each day,” he said. “As leaders and employees in this industry, we all have the responsibility of inspiring our teams or colleagues to fully be accountable for an enlightened future.”
To that end, Brooks shared his six principles to success:
- Own your ideas and voice — often, the lonely voice is the right voice.
- Leadership is an active choice.
- Real opportunities are sometimes disguised as undesirable challenges or positions. Take them on and do well. Your best learning will come from these experiences.
- Seek to first understand before being understood.
- A big network can solve big problems.
- Be the best you that you can be.
That advice has guided him in both the past and in his present role supporting the development and implementation of customer initiatives and facilitating internal and external collaboration among customers, the Collins Aerospace team and industry.