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MyHanh Barrette moved from Vietnam to the United States when she was 11 years old, and her path to advocacy started with figuring out her own strengths and then helping to elevate the strengths of the families she works with.
One tool she uses in her work is love.
“If I don’t love my community, if I don’t love my country, then I won’t want to change anything,” she says. “If I don’t love an organization, if I don’t love my school, I won’t want to improve them.”
Barrette’s professional story began years ago with a practical question.
“My Mom and Stepfather said, Okay, are you going to be a doctor, a pharmacist, an engineer, or a lawyer?”
Barrette made a practical choice and graduated from the University of California, Irvine, with a computer science degree – which she never used in her work. Instead, she became a court-certified interpreter, helping families who spoke Vietnamese access the legal system.
“Language was used as a commodity, as part of the power dynamic: You don’t have access to language and I do, so I’m going to assume that because you don’t speak English, you’re ‘less than’ in every other aspect,” Barrette says.
“As an interpreter, I was there to remove the language barrier. When I did that, I saw other barriers that these families faced. But even with these barriers, families were thriving in their own ways. They were facing so much, but they were resourceful, and they were strength-based. I learned so much from them, and I came to see myself as a facilitator, as someone who empowers families.”
In her spare time, Barrette helped lead a co-ed Scout troop, which built on her love of children. She went on to raise her own children, and as they grew, she thought she might want to be a teacher. A trip to the library changed that. A career coach, who was volunteering at the library, listened to Barrette and said, You don’t want to be a teacher. You want to be a social worker.
“I didn’t even know the field existed,” Barrette recalls. But once she learned about it, she was excited, and in 2018 she earned her master’s degree in social work from Bridgewater State University. She worked as an intern at the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families and at DotHouse Health, in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood.
“I’m so invested in Dorchester,” Barrette says, “in the Vietnamese population and in everyone who lives and works there. It’s a vibrant, diverse community and we all co-exist really well.”
Barrette connects with young children through her work for Bay Cove Human Services’ Early Intervention program.
“I work with so many families who welcome me into their home,” she says. “They share their struggles. They share their ideas. And every day they teach me something.”
Today, Barrette is the family liaison at Mather Elementary School, the first publicly funded elementary school in North America.
“We understand that to improve student outcomes, we have to bring families to the table and engage with them in a meaningful way, and that’s my work. We really need a strong home/school connection, and we need to understand each family’s strengths. Just because I speak Vietnamese doesn’t mean that I know everything about Vietnamese families. I have to listen to them. I have to learn from them.”
She sees her role as being a cultural broker who is steeped in modesty, because “when you’re a broker of culture you’re aware of your shortcomings. You’re aware of what you don’t know.”
“And it’s not just family engagement, it’s faculty engagement, so we can really change our school culture.”
“What’s really important are the moments when we make human connections that lead to the healthy development of children,” Barrette adds. “I want everyone who plays the role of a caretaker in a child’s life to fall in love with that child, because I know that will help.”
Barrette also wants to advocate for higher pay for early educators so that “they don’t have to worry about things like affording food, and so that they have more time to fall in love with children.”
“I’m like a kid in a candy store,” Barrette says of her Advocacy Network experience. “We are all advocates; we all advocate in different way, but the Advocacy Network introduced me to the world of professional advocacy.
“I really appreciate Amy and Titus and the whole team helping each of us identify our goals and achieve them,” she says of Amy O’Leary, Strategies executive director, and Titus DosRemedios, Strategies’ associate director. “I want to leverage my language capability to introduce advocacy to the Vietnamese American community in ways that let everyone know that it’s doable and easy.”
Barrette’s goal is to tell the stories of the families she works with as a tool to change policy. She recently set an example by testifying at the Massachusetts State House on behalf of the newly released Early Childhood Agenda. She is also utilizing social media to share weekly advocacy opportunities or early childhood information.
Now she’s blending advocacy and her social work background with her love for her community.
“The change that I want to usher in must start with love. It sounds cheesy, but what I think about first is, What’s going well? What works?
“Love helps you focus on solutions instead of on how hard a problem is; it helps you take a strength-based approach, and that’s what works.”