Academia, activism and nursing – the key drivers for Grant Brookes

BY CATE MACINTOSH*
December 8, 2022

An unexpected period of living rough while on his OE, gave Grant Brookes a taste of “how the other half lives” and deepened his drive to advocate for human rights. As part of a series on the NZNO board directors, Brookes spoke to Kaitiaki about his story.

Caring for his Scottish grandmother in her final months was a turning point for Grant Brookes and opened his mind to a nursing career.

“My grandmother, who I was very close to, became very sick and over the course of six to 12 months it became clear she wasn’t going to survive and the family cared for her, and I was part of that roster,” he said. 

During this period, Brookes, now 54, decided to volunteer at a local hospice to get a closer look at nursing, before deciding the profession was his calling.

Grant Brookes received a scholarship to private boys school

In 1992, and in his mid-20s, Brookes began a bachelor of nursing at Otago Polytechnic – one of the first degree programmes to be offered in New Zealand.

He had spent six years as a university student, completing an honors degree in physics, before turning to the arts, studying comparative literature, philosophy and religion.

Scottish reformer heritage shows through

Brookes says his passion for education and activism connects him with his ancestors, who, as part of a breakaway protestant movement, left Scotland for the colonies, to establish new communities founded on democracy, education and egalitarianism.

The Brookes clan arrived in Dunedin on the Cornwall in 1849.

“I can see how these historical forces have shaped who I am.”

Fast forward to the late 1960s, and 1970s, Brookes describes a happy, middle-class upbringing in which academic achievement was highly valued – and quite a bit of tennis.

Grant Brookes got involved in the student protest movement in the late 1980s.

His mother pursued tertiary education in adulthood, eventually completing a doctorate in philosophy and becoming an academic.

Brookes’ father spent summers working full-time as a professional tennis coach. “His claim to fame was being the tennis coach for the New Zealand Davis Cup team,” Brookes said. 

But in 1980, things changed dramatically when his father died suddenly. Brookes was just 12-years-old.

A teenaged Brookes gained a scholarship to attend John McGlashan College, a private boys high school where he thrived on academic success, debate and public speaking.

At university, Brookes got involved with the student protest movement, which ramped up in the late 1980s, in opposition to the introduction of student fees.

Academic to nurse

As a student nurse at Otago Polytechnic, Brookes admits his academic experience and love of debate didn’t go down very well.

“I was debating all sorts of moot points and they were saying: just get on and bloody well do it. In the end we met somewhere in the middle.”

During his nursing degree, Brookes came into contact with, and embraced, the Treaty of Waitangi “in a serious way” for the first time, he says.

“Growing up in Dunedin, going to a private school, I think I can only remember one Māori student in my school in the time I was there – it wasn’t in my world until I went nursing.” 

Grant Brookes at a protest in support of returning land to Māori ownership.

Grant Brookes said he became aware of te Tiriti “in a serious way” during his nursing studies.

A gap year in London which didn’t go as planned resulted in him living rough for several months, Brookes says.

After being robbed, he was declined a social welfare grant as he didn’t have British citizenship. Unable to pay rent, he lived on the streets.

“I experienced what life is like for migrants who don’t have the right residency or citizenship.”

Eventually he “clawed his way back” and got a job in a cafe, where accommodation was provided. 

In New Zealand, Brookes faced a barren employment landscape after graduating in 1996.

“This was a time of dramatic health spending cuts, privatisation of health services, staff retrenchments, de-unionisation.”

From textbooks to nursing life

Brookes had decided to specialise in mental health nursing as there were “mental health issues in my family background”, but with no jobs available in Dunedin, he moved to Auckland. 

During a new graduate programme, he gained experience in the different areas of mental health and came to terms with a system he felt was overly controlling of patients’ behaviour.

Despite his misgivings, Brookes said he was inspired to stay in the sector and work for improvements and “make it more respectful of human rights”. 

For the past 20 years, Brookes has worked at Te Whare O Matairangi, an adult acute inpatient unit in Wellington as an employee of the former Capital and Coast DHB – now Te Whatu Ora.

NZNO board member Grant Brookes became a delegate while working as a mental health nurse in Wellington in the early 2000s.

While in this role, Brookes joined Tōpūtanga Tapuhi Kaitiaki o Aotearoa, New Zealand Nurses Organisation (NZNO), and became a delegate.

During his first year on the ward, there were three serious adverse events, which sparked numerous investigations and, eventually improvements, he said.

“There used to be three acute adult inpatient wards for the greater Wellington region and the powers-that-be decided to shut one of them, and we went down to two. The pressure on our ward went through the roof and we were not able to cope.” 

He said the ward is safer than when he started, but the issue of violence – against patients and staff – had not been “solved”.

Brookes said he was fortunate to have avoided serious injuries from assaults. In his early days on the ward, a patient knocked him out with a punch.

NZNO board member Grant Brookes with his wife Linda and children Tama and Rosa-Marama in 2012.

“I found myself flat on my back on the concrete and I came to and I thought that wasn’t supposed to happen.”

But he says this was the only serious assault he has suffered in the role, ” . . . that’s pretty good going as far as the averages go”.

Over the past two years staffing levels had decreased and the ward was often short-staffed, he said.

“Things got really bad after I started [working on the ward], because many people left, and then we built that back up – but things have deteriorated. We’re not back where we started, but it’s the worst it’s been in quite a few years.”

Time for activism

Having a stable job had allowed Brookes to focus on activism for various causes, including worker rights, the landbank movement for Māori, justice for migrants and refugees, climate justice, and peace, he says. 

Grant Brookes was elected on to the NZNO board this year.

This year Brookes has taken on a role as national coordinator for a group of health professionals advocating for climate change action, Ora Taiao – the NZ climate and health council, and is motivated to see the NZNO board achieve more in this area. 

His recent election to the board as a director will be Brookes’ second experience in NZNO governance, following a period as president from 2018-2020.

He believes NZNO was in a “painful transition” period during that time ” . . . from being a fairly conservative professional association which did collective bargaining, into a progressive, member-driven, industrial union for professional nurses.”

The experience on the current board, which met for the first time since the elections in October, was very different to his previous experience, Brookes said.

He was certain NZNO leadership and governance would work together to achieve the aims of Maranga Mai!

* First published by kaitiaki.org.nz. Re-posted with permission.

Published by grantbrookes

Kia ora! I’m Grant Brookes, a Nurse, Trade Unionist and NZNO past President now living in Wellington, New Zealand with my partner and two children and blogging at unionnursegrant.org. Since graduating in 1996, I’ve practised nursing in five cities in three countries. I’ve belonged to four nursing unions – and been a rep in three of them. This is my new blog. There’s more about me and my time as President at nznogrant.org.

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