Barbara Barreno-Paschall, MPP’17
Barbara Barreno-Paschall, MPP’17

Minorities in Public Policy Studies (MiPPS) will honor Illinois Human Rights Vice Chair and Commissioner Barbara Barreno-Paschall, MPP’17, with its annual Alumni Award at a gala on May 4. 

The gala, hosted in conjunction with Harris’ Reunion Weekend, is a celebration for the student and alumni communities of MiPPS, one of Harris’ oldest student organizations.

Ahead of the event, Barreno-Paschall, whom Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker recently reappointed to the Human Rights Commission, spoke about the award and how MiPPS “creates an environment that helps prepare students to thrive after graduation.”

What does this recognition mean to you?

It is a true honor to receive the MiPPS Alumni Award. As a Latina who has worked in sectors in which people of color historically have been underrepresented — and who has dedicated my career to promoting civil and human rights — I am committed to ensuring that the next generation of leaders, including women and people of color, has more opportunities and mentors who can help them achieve their goals. 

I am grateful for this recognition by a terrific and impactful student organization and look forward to supporting Harris students and MiPPS members who are passionate about advancing laws and policies that make our world more just and equitable for all.

Why is MiPPS such an important organization for Harris overall and minority students in particular?

When I was a Harris student, MiPPS created an inclusive community for students by bringing people together for engaging programming and conversations. By inviting speakers who are leaders in their fields, MiPPS creates an environment that helps prepare students to thrive after graduation.

Alumni who were involved with MiPPS when they were Harris students have gone on to do amazing things. For example, one of my classmates, Gregory Smith, MPP’17, who was a leader of MiPPS, is currently serving as head of exploration for the United Nations Development Programme in Trinidad and Tobago, Curaçao, Aruba, and Sint Maarten. Another former MiPPS leader, Leila Pree, MPP’16, has worked as director of strategy, innovation, and planning with the New York City Administration for Children’s Services and is currently a manager with Accenture. I currently serve on the Executive Committee of the Harris Alumni Council with Aidan Ali-Sullivan, MPP/MBA ’17, who was also involved with MiPPS and currently works on political strategy and policy at Waymo. 

You’ve gone on to the Illinois Human Rights Commission. What is your role there? 

In March, I was reappointed by Gov. JB Pritzker to a second term on the Commission, and in October I was honored to be elected by my peers as vice chair. 

I am proud to continue furthering the mission of the Illinois Human Rights Commission by promoting freedom from discrimination. I also enjoy conducting outreach about the Commission and its services with students at colleges and universities. It is important for students to know their rights under the Illinois Human Rights Act and know that the state is working to prevent discrimination and remedy its effects.

You keep ties to Harris in many ways­ – including with the Alumni Council – and you are active with the Alumni Association at Harvard, where you received your undergraduate degree. Why are such connections important?

I had a transformative experience at each of the universities where I pursued my education and am committed to staying connected to these universities and their students and alumni. I am dedicated to mentoring current students and recent graduates so that they feel supported as they pursue their careers. I also value how universities respond to a changing world and I want to stay active as an alumna to help provide ideas and insight, including on diversity, equity, and inclusion.

This year, I am completing my three-year term as a member of the Harris Alumni Council. I currently serve on several Harvard alumni organizations, including as vice president of Harvard Alumni for Global Women’s Empowerment and a board member of the Harvard Club of Chicago

When talking to people contemplating a public policy career what advice do you share? Is there advice specifically for minority students?

I encourage students to find and maintain relationships with mentors and to keep their options open, because they never know what opportunities may be available down the road. I also encourage students and recent graduates to become involved in volunteer activities, including serving on nonprofit boards, and to get to know their neighbors and other members of their community. 

For students of color, it is especially important to identify leaders in the areas they are interested in and get to know them, whether or not those leaders are people of color. That’s important because students from underrepresented backgrounds may not see as many people who look like them in positions of leadership.

Barreno-Paschall and family

Your husband and daughter join you at university events, including cheering on the women’s basketball team in the NCAA tournament. Why are such support systems so crucial?

Working to address and remedy discrimination and injustice can be difficult work in part because change does not happen overnight. It is therefore vitally important to have strong support systems to pursue this work and maintain optimism that systems can and will change. I am grateful to have a loving family both here and in California, where I grew up. My family is my rock, and we support each other as we go through life’s joys and challenges.

In reflecting on your Harris Master of Public Policy degree, what do you see as the biggest takeaways? And what Harris tools do you continue to use in your career?

Harris provided a fantastic education and experiential learning opportunities that have had a significant impact on my work today. For example, while I was a Harris student, I had internships with Cook County government and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF). At Cook County, I learned about budgeting, tax incentives, and economic development initiatives. At MALDEF, I learned about advocating on behalf of bills in the Illinois legislature. As a state officer, my responsibilities include overall governance of my agency and I stay up to date with legislative changes to the Illinois Human Rights Act, my agency’s enabling statute.

Harris’ economics and statistics coursework created a solid foundation, and I really appreciated the opportunity to learn from adjunct faculty on issues such as women’s leadership, budgeting, education policy, and the impact of philanthropy on public policy. Equally beneficial was being able to take courses at other schools at the university.

The opportunities at Harris helped broaden my skillset and prepare me to serve as a leader. I also met amazing people who are passionate about changing our world for the better.  

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Harris has a bright future as it continues to attract talented students from around the world. I am grateful for MiPPS because I found community by being a member and am honored to be recognized by this organization. 

There is more work to do, and I am excited to see what MiPPS students and alumni do to address the greatest challenges humanity faces.

Register now for Harris Reunion Weekend 2023!