Current Illinois human rights commissioner had been selected as an Irving B. Harris Fellow.
Barbara Barreno-Paschall
Barbara Barreno-Paschall

Barbara Barreno-Paschall, MPP’17, could have ended her LinkedIn profile headline after the first three words: Human Rights Commissioner. Appointed by Governor JB Pritzker in 2019, she’s among Illinois’ first seven full-time commissioners, a heady role in which she’s tasked with resolving discrimination complaints under the state Human Rights Act.

But stopping there would have left out much of the story.

So, getting almost equal profile billing are “Community Leader,” “JD/MPP,” and “Lifelong Learner,” a title burnished when she left her job at a law firm and enrolled at Harris Public Policy in 2015.

Law, Barreno-Paschall said, “is a broad profession that enables you to specialize in a certain area … I decided to study public policy because I wanted to gain skills that could help me  advocate on behalf of communities that needed help.

“I represented immigrants seeking asylum as a pro bono attorney (she was honored by her firm for that work). And that was an excellent experience. But I noticed that in helping those people I’m operating within a system. … What if you could change the system? What if you could find ways to expand rights and give people more opportunity. So that’s why I decided, ‘OK, if that is something I want to do, how can I get there?’”

One way there, she said, was Harris, with its “tools and the frameworks that I could use to one day be an effective advocate or policymaker.”

Key to her decision to enroll in Harris, said Barreno-Paschall, was her selection as an Irving B. Harris Fellow, an honor that comes with a full-tuition scholarship plus stipend. “It meant the world to me,” she said, “to have this financial support because I decided to make a major life change.”

And, she added, “it’s such an honor.”

Thirty years ago, the University of Chicago’s public policy school was named for Irving B. Harris, whose generosity, leadership, and commitment helped lead to the school’s founding, as well as ensuring that a long list of the world’s most deserving minds like Barbara would have the opportunity to study public policy there.

“The fact that someone would leave a legacy like that to help educate and train the leaders of tomorrow was something that I greatly value,” Barreno-Paschall said. “He laid the foundation for some of … the best and brightest to study, to challenge their thinking, and to make the world better. That’s highly admirable and worthy of deep respect.”

A return to school at age 30 was “definitely a challenge,” the Southern California native and Harvard graduate said, especially moving from the world of lawyers, who frequently operate in the gray, to Harris and its rigorous Core curriculum and evidence-based decision-making.

“It wasn’t easy at first,” she said, “but I really enjoyed getting to know my classmates,” whom she called “pivotal to my experience and academic success.”

Barbara Barreno-Paschall and family at graduation

Barreno-Paschall’s two years at Harris were also times of personal change. She left Math Camp, briefly, to get married to Vanderbilt Law School classmate Marcus Paschall, who earned his MBA from Booth in 2015 and is director of Cancer Network & Program Operations at University of Chicago Medicine. And daughter Maya, now 3, arrived in time to make an appearance at her mother’s graduation. The family lives in Hyde Park.

Barreno-Paschall thought she was leaving the legal profession when she left the law firm in 2015. But after graduation from Harris she joined a civil rights organization as a senior staff attorney. “I was interested in public policy and public service,” she said, “but underlying all of that is service. I always wanted to serve communities that need help.”

“I found a way that I could return to the law,” she added, “but in a way that I could serve the communities that I wanted to serve and apply the principles I learned at Harris.”

One of her first cases with the organization, she said, was a lawsuit that included results of data analysis. “I did not perform the calculations,” she said. “But the fact that I had been a student at Harris and understood the regressions and some of the statistical analysis that was presented in that complaint … I felt great knowing that I had that education and knowledge.”

From there she was appointed to the Human Rights Commission where, pending confirmation from the Illinois Senate, her term is to end in January 2023.

Outside of work she’s active in a long list of organizations, ranging from the Harvard Alumni for Global Women's Empowerment to the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference to the Kenwood Academy Local School Council, to which she was elected as a Community Representative in 2018. She has been named to  The Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ 2021 Class of Emerging Leaders. And she’s a Harris mentor and serves on the school’s Alumni Council. She keeps up with her lifelong learning via courses on web-based platforms, reading, and watching documentaries.

“Everyone has to decide how they’re going to spend their time,” she said.

“I just want to make the best impact I can whether it’s as a human rights commissioner, as a mom, or as a member of my neighborhood. All these things are really important.”