Barbara Barreno-Paschall Fights for a Better World

By: Billy Yost

Barbara Barreno-Paschall is a natural connecter. Whether it’s through her role as a vice chair on the human rights commission for the state of Illinois, a board member of the Harvard Alumni for Global Women’s Empowerment, or working more locally on behalf of her Chicago community, the leader is always working to create more shared connections and new ideas.

Barreno-Paschall shares with The Alumni Society how she won a local school council election by a handful of votes, and just how a person with so much community involvement manages to find time to act on the side.

Could you talk about some of the experience, both personal and professional, that has helped impact you as a leader and performer in your space?

Serving on the board of directors for Harvard Alumni for Global Women’s Empowerment (GlobalWE)—a shared interest group of the Harvard Alumni Association and a nonprofit organization—since 2018 has helped me grow as a leader in many ways. In 2020, I launched a new initiative for the organization called Connect, which brings together members of the Harvard Alumni community and organizations leading the way for women’s empowerment worldwide.

Over the past two years, the GlobalWE Connect initiative has brought together nearly fifty organizations and hundreds of attendees from multiple contents through its virtual Women’s Empowerment Expo and Fireside Chat Series. I also learned to work together with board members living in different countries and across different time zones and welcomed Friends of GlobalWE, who don’t have a Harvard affiliation but support the organization’s mission. Anyone who is passionate about global women’s empowerment is welcome to attend GlobalWE events.

In 2018, I ran for elected office as a community representative for the Kenwood Academy High School Local School Council in my neighborhood in Chicago, and won by three votes. The experience of running for office at a local level taught me a lot about hard work and persistence. My experience serving on the local school council as a community representative was equally instructive because it helped me understand the importance of bringing different communities together from all walks of life to support the school and public education more broadly.

In 2021, as a member of the Harvard Club of Chicago, I helped revive the successful Early College Awareness Program, which aims to engage middle and high school students who may not think college is an option or who might be the first in their family to consider attending college. I built a team that organized a successful virtual event in November 2021 and is organizing an in-person event in November 2022, focusing on middle school students in the Chicago area.

This experience taught me the importance of strengths-based leadership and bringing together people who can contribute to the goals of the program in different ways. It also led to my joining the Harvard Club’s Board of Directors in July 2022.

At the start of the pandemic in March 2020, I was serving on the board of directors for a neighborhood organization called the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference (HPKCC). In response to the public health emergency and uncertainty about what might happen, I co-organized a community dialogue in April and invited elected officials and community leaders to speak with members of the communities HPKCC served to discuss the path forward.

This event turned into a community dialogue series that, for the rest of the year and into 2021, featured critical conversations about such topics as education and childcare, housing, police accountability, and voting rights. This series attracted hundreds of people and built a valuable bridge between people in policymaking and leadership roles with community members during a time of fear and uncertainty.

What type of work do you do as a Human Rights Commissioner?  

As a human rights commissioner, I resolve discrimination complaints alongside my colleagues that are filed under the Illinois Human Rights Act, one of the nation’s broadest civil rights laws, focusing on areas such as employment, real estate transactions, and public accommodations. I also provide information to students and other members of the public across the state about the Act and the Commission.

What kind of work have you done to pave the way to develop future leaders, and what importance do you place on doing this work?

I am the first in my family to become a lawyer and have mentored aspiring lawyers since I served as chair and South Atlantic regional director of the National Latina/o Law Student Association in 2010. It is critically important for people who are underrepresented in the legal profession to have mentors and see people who look like them so they can have the confidence to know that they can achieve whatever they set their minds to doing.

Through my volunteer work, I am always looking for opportunities to mentor or provide support to students and young professionals and make my best efforts to include them in the committees and initiatives I am working on. Extending a hand to help others achieve and paving the way for success on their own terms is critically important to building a fairer, more inclusive, and more prosperous nation.

How does your ethnicity and heritage help you be successful?

I am proud to have mixed ancestry with my father immigrating from Ecuador to the United States in the 1970s, and my mother being born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and having German and other European descent. I have learned a lot about the struggles my parents and extended family faced growing up in poverty and overcoming significant adversity to raise their children and support their education.

My paternal grandmother was an incredibly strong woman, and her toughness and perseverance are values I keep in mind often when I face a challenging situation. My mother is the second of nine children, and I have great admiration and respect for my maternal grandmother and grandfather who dedicated themselves to their children. I would never have reached this point in my life without the foundation my parents and grandparents built and the path my older siblings paved for me and my younger siblings.

What is next for you, your profession, and your industry?

Illinois has one of the broadest civil rights laws, and the state will continue to be a leader nationwide in promoting freedom from discrimination. I am proud to serve on the Illinois Human Rights Commission and the people of Illinois, and I am continually finding ways to strengthen my knowledge of the law and inform the public of the protections afforded by the Illinois Human Rights Act.

Finally, how do you relax?

I enjoy running and biking along Chicago’s Lakefront Trail, watching documentaries, and reading memoirs and self-improvement books. I also enjoy performing with the Hyde Park Community Players, a local community theatre organization.

Conenct with Barbara Barreno-Paschall on LinkedIn.