A group of well-wishers as diverse as the many interests and issues for which she has championed throughout her life honored West Side legend Brenetta Howell Barrett recently at Malcolm X College. The celebration not only acknowledged her 70th birthday, but also highlighted the cause that consumes many of her waking hours--improving the quality of life for those living with HIV/AIDS.
Indicative of the kind of life she has lived and her concern for others, Barrett asked the birthday party be held as a benefit for the Pathfinders Prevention Education Fund HIV/AIDS program (PPEF). PPEF provides prevention education services in several of Chicago's West Side communities and near western suburbs for youth, adults, people with disabilities and seniors. And Howell, the consummate activist, stands at the helm as the executive director of the program.
Lora Branch, who works for the City of Chicago, was on hand for the celebration.
"Brenetta's work unquestionably makes her a pioneer, especially in light of who she is, what she has done in the past and the institution that she has become," Branch said. "It means a lot to have her doing work on behalf of those living with HIV/AIDS on the West Side. Who else is so widely respected in the broader context of city politics and human rights? Who else can recall the kind of efforts she led on behalf of our former mayor, the late Harold Washington, and yet talk so unabashedly about the needs of gays and lesbians?
"Pathfinders is very quietly making a difference in the lives of so many in our city--we need a community on the West Side to embrace them and celebrate their accomplishments."
In recent years, Barrett has focused her organizing skills, activism and advocacy in the battle against HIV/AIDS discrimination--sexual and gender. And her focus, she says, is to increase public awareness, promote prevention education and develop broader community planning regarding HIV/AIDS.
A steering committee member of the Coalition on Adolescent Risk Reduction, she is also a member of the Walgreen's Community Advisory Task Force. During the evening's celebration, in addition to enjoying a wonderful meal, champagne toasts and a large, icing-covered birthday cake, Barrett made presentations to John Stroger, president, Cook County Board of Commissioners, and Mac Alexander, owner, Mac's Records and MacArthur's Restaurant. Other awards went to several public citizens for serving as advocates for people living with HIV/AIDS and for noteworthy support of Pathfinders' prevention efforts.
"I met Brenetta back in 1968 or '69," said John Hatch, a former Chicagoan who is now a published author living in California. "She was hard to stop once she became an advocate for your cause. And during the Harold Washington years, she really kept his office in line. She's always been one who wanted only the best for her people."
In her 52-year career, Barrett has blazed pathways in the areas of social justice, civil and human rights, political and economic empowerment the poor and people of color, community services and civil liberties. At one time she served as a cabinet member for Gov. Dan Walker and Mayor Harold Washington. Many West Siders remember her outstanding contributions in minority business development from her years as an employee with the Chicago Economic Development Corporation (CEDCO). After only two years there, she organized the West Side Builders Association (11967)--the first successful group of Black construction workers in the city.
Today, she has turned her attention to Pathfinders--an HIV/AIDS prevention program that provides advocacy services for the city's East and West Garfield and Lawndale communities and for the Austin community.
As her daughter, Dr. Cynthia T. Henderson, explained, "she has implemented approach that emphasizes empowerment and personal capacity building as key elements of HIV/AIDS prevention."
While she chose to greet her many guests rather than be pulled away for interviews, it was clear that Barrett remains committed to making a difference in the lives of people of color--and she's not stopping for a long celebration, not as long as men, women and children continue to die from the plague we have come to know as AIDS.