Fighting for justice

Alumni Profile: Brittany Packnett, AB ’06

Brittany Packnett at Teach For America St. Louis
Brittany Packnett works on social justice issues in education, policing and community relations. (Photo: James Byard)

Brittany Packnett’s commitment to social justice was first learned at home. “My mother is a graduate of the Brown School, and my father is a former adjunct professor in African and African-American studies,” Packnett says. “They were both very adamant, while raising me and my brother, about teaching us that the work of social justice was not over.”

Packnett took these lessons to heart, devoting her career to creating opportunities for minorities and shaping tomorrow’s leaders.

After Packnett graduated from Washington University with a degree in African and African-American studies in 2006, she moved to Washington, D.C., to work for Teach For America (TFA), while getting her master’s degree in elementary education. She then worked as a legislative assistant to U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay (Mo.), eventually re-joining TFA as director of government affairs. She also helped found The Collective, a TFA-alumni-of-color organization.

Today, Packnett serves as executive director of Teach For America in St. Louis. Two additional appointments in fall 2014 shined further light on her leadership abilities, when she was named to the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing and Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon’s Ferguson Commission.

Packnett had risen to national prominence a few months earlier as she labored for institutional change in the wake of the killing of unarmed black youth Michael Brown by a white policeman in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014.

One of Packnett’s formative childhood memories is hearing her father’s account of “being thrown against the hood of his Mercedes and beaten by a policeman as my 5-year-old brother watched, screaming and crying from the backseat,” she says.

“I remember … feeling utterly confused because police officers weren’t supposed to behave like that,” she recalls.

After Brown’s killing, Packnett felt compelled to help organize protests around Ferguson. She helped create a newsletter and appeared in media outlets, such as CNN, NPR and the Huffington Post, speaking out for the protesters and the need for change.

“We were out many nights not knowing what was going to happen, but we knew we had to stand up,” Packnett says. “The night of the grand jury announcement was an incredibly scary night. I was supposed to do a CNN interview, but that never happened because when the tear gas came, I had to run.”

By then, Packnett, a North County native, had already been appointed to the task force, which released its initial report in March 2015 after 74 intense days of hearings and research.

“We had some very honest conversations,” she says. “The report focuses on how we can ensure policing is racially and procedurally just and greeted with legitimacy in the community.”

Packnett’s Ferguson Commission work has a longer time frame, with a report due to Gov. Nixon this September.

“In the report, we’ll see some very pointed language about the debtors’ prisons in St. Louis County,” she says, “And I believe we’ll see a very honest conversation not just about deep racial divides in St. Louis but in America in general.”

No small part of her yen for social justice, which led to Packnett recently receiving TFA’s Peter Jennings Civic Leadership Award, is due to the education she received.

“I’ve been calling on the critical-thinking skills I learned at WashU to ask difficult questions about what’s really happening in our communities to people on the margins,” she says.

“I was an Ervin Scholar, and when we talk about questions of order versus justice, I think of [the late John] Ervin and [the late] Dean James McLeod. [McLeod] taught me to move toward what is right, not what’s easy. There’s a particular legacy of African-American leadership at WashU that was critical to my development and understanding.”

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