In Pursuit of Democracy Brenda Barrett ’94

It all started with an interest and a somewhat naïve determination to make a difference in the world—but it was my time spent in the early 1990s in South Africa after working with the ANC Women’s League in the townships of Cape Town that probably mattered the most in those early days. Since then, I’ve been working in development and I’ve never looked back.”

Brenda Barrett

The world that Brenda Barrett ’94 lives and works in is far removed from that which she saw growing up in 29 Palms near Palm Desert.

As a senior transition program adviser for USAID (a federal agency devoted to extending assistance to countries recovering from disaster, trying to escape poverty, and engaging in democratic reforms, according to the USAID website), Barrett’s assignments take her to war and disaster torn parts of the world. Though she’s been shot at by the Taliban while in Afghanistan, she hasn’t been dissuaded from pursuing her lifelong passion for effecting political change.

It was on a mission in the Wardak province in Afghanistan to observe water obstruction in a canal and to check on a school that was allegedly closed by the Taliban because girls were attending that bullets came whizzing by her head. As the only non-military female member of that detail, Barrett, who was wearing body armor but not a helmet to show that she was a civilian, came back undeterred. The Afghanistan assignment completed, she is now in Tunisia, one of a series of assignments that have placed her in Sri Lanka, the Kyrgyz Republic, and Haiti in the past year alone. With USAID she’s also worked in Bolivia, East Timor, Lebanon, Jordan, the West Bank, and Gaza. Prior to joining USAID, Barrett also worked in Nicaragua (as a Peace Corps volunteer) as well as in Senegal and South Africa.

Prior to joining USAID in 2003, she also worked for the UN refugee agency UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and various NGOs while she was doing PhD work. She also worked in South Africa with the African National Congress Women’s League. She completed her PhD research in Sri Lanka and is receiving her PhD in international development from Tulane University School of Law.

Her work has been the pursuit of a lifelong passion. In high school, she was likely the only one in her class who had subscriptions to both The Christian Science Monitor and the Los Angeles Times. “I knew there was more out there,” Barrett said, referring to life outside of sleepy 29 Palms. “In high school I was really involved in following the politics of our country and the world.

At USF, her faculty only fueled her passion.

“I was drawn to the politics department at USF. My interests were cultivated and all of my pursuits—academic, intellectual, or actual trips —were supported entirely by the faculty and then Dean (Stanley) Nel and professors Jennifer Turpin (USF’s current provost) and Rob Elias. USF’s commitment to social justice, being on the right side—although not always the easy side of an issue—and the emphasis on teaching/helping others definitely helped me.”

Barrett, 38, admits that living out of a suitcase and in different parts of the world is getting to her a bit, though she still loves the actual work.

“I’ve managed for 18 years to do what I love, not compromising my values, being on the right side of an issue, working in complicated places and actually being really proud of what we accomplish,” she said.