Alumni group strives for ‘strength in diversity’

For the alumni volunteer leaders with the James Brister Society, the mission to improve campus for people of color continues.

When Michael Barrett thinks about his time at Penn, his mind often wanders to the undergraduate engineering lectures he sat through—and how intimidating they often felt to him as a Black student in a mostly white room. “I remember sitting in a very large classroom and hearing one of my administrators say, ‘Look to the left and look to the right. One of you won’t be here next year.’ It was a way to weed out students,” Barrett says. “But I’ve always felt that if you were able to get to Penn and successfully matriculate there, why should it be that we think of ways to weed you out?”

Michael Barrett in profile looking forward with his hand on his chin at left, Patricia Martin at right speaking at a podium.
Michael Barrett and Patricia Martin serve as cochairs of the James Brister Society and as Penn Trustees. (Image: The Pennsylvania Gazette)

Now, Barrett ponders that question on a near-daily basis. And as cochair of the James Brister Society, he works alongside fellow cochair and Penn Trustee Patricia Martin and more than 150 other alumni to promote a more welcoming and culturally diverse University.

Founded in 1993 and named after James Brister, the first African American to earn a Penn degree, the group’s stated goals include advocating for the advancement of and improving the environment for faculty, students, and administrators from diverse backgrounds; strengthening alumni affiliations with the University and promoting mentoring and networking between alumni and students; and encouraging the University to utilize alumni from diverse backgrounds as leaders.

Ultimately, Martin and Barrett want to strengthen the pipeline they’ve created for alumni of color to the University’s most influential boards and fully integrate communities of color into the alumni structure. That way, the lived experiences of former students of color can better guide Penn’s approach to issues of social justice.

“We always talk about the phrase ‘there’s strength in numbers.’ But there’s strength in diversity as well—in diversity of thought, diversity of color, diversity of background,” Barrett says. “That’s an important pillar that all of us want to strive for. As we look back at our undergraduate or graduate years here, we ask ourselves, ‘How do we make sure that we’ve left a mark? How do we ensure that the people here today go farther than we did?’”

This story is by Beatrice Forman. Read more at The Pennsylvania Gazette.