Human Rights Champion

Rosemary Barbera, Ph.D. ’03, is honored for her decades of social justice work in Latin America and the U.S.

Rosemary Barbera, Ph.D
Rosemary Barbera, Ph.D. ’03

From a young age, Rosemary Barbera, Ph.D. ’03, found herself beset by weighty questions: Where does inequality come from? Why is it that certain people can have so much and other people have so little?

“That became my guiding question for life,” says Barbera, now an associate professor of social work at La Salle University. “Not just why, but what can we do about it? What needs to be done about it?”

Barbera was recently named individual winner of the Global Social Work Education Commission Partners in International Education Awards, which recognizes exceptional innovation in education for international social work.

“I was very humbled by the award,” says Barbera, who has focused on human rights work in the U.S. and Latin America for many years. “There are so many people doing such great work, and I have had mentors who helped me see the world in an expanded way and then bring that into the classroom and into the work that I do.”

Barbera’s journey to social work began when, equipped with a master’s degree in theology, she took a position with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia Campus Ministry heading up community outreach and engagement. She became involved with human rights work after moving to Bolivia and then Chile.

Eager to hone her skills and acquire more theoretical tools, Barbera enrolled in the GSSWSR, first for an MSS and then for her Ph.D., while returning regularly to Chile to continue her human rights work, which includes working with torture survivors and the family members of the disappeared.

“I’m thankful that my professors at Bryn Mawr gave me latitude to dive into some of this stuff that not everyone considers social work,” says Barbera. “They saw the connections and encouraged me to take an independent study—for example, on social movements—and to take a class at Penn in medical anthropology that tied into my work in Chile, where we were looking at mass graves.”

At La Salle, Barbera is working to internationalize the curriculum by introducing her students to examples of environmental justice (and injustice) in other countries and looking at international social movements and human rights issues. For 25 years, she has also brought students to Chile to meet and live with Chilean families and gain insight into their day-to-day lives and struggles.

For many years, Barbera has been involved with immigration rights in the Philadelphia area as a founding member of Juntos, an organization that works with immigrants in South Philadelphia, and through her work with teachers on immigrant rights. She has also worked to support families living in sanctuary in Philadelphia.

Barbera aims through her work to restore hope and rebuild a sense of community. “One of the things I’ve seen a lot in my work is that though people who have survived torture obviously live with those scars or wounds, that doesn’t have to be overbearing in their lives,” she says. “When people are reconnected to community—whether that community is religion, a political party, a geographic area—that really helps.”

While Barbera’s work brings her into contact with many who are suffering, she finds her own sense of hope buoyed by the young people at the head of the immigrant rights movement.

“They are not documented and not afraid, and they are out there and continuing to push and continuing to question the way things are,” she says. “They’re connecting the dots in ways that movements haven’t done before. And that gives hope.”