To read her list of achievements, you'd think Brenda Duverce comes from a family with deep political connections. She's been a Fulbright scholar, a Gates Millennium scholar, a legislative fellow in the House of Representatives, a policy fellow in the Department of the Interior, and a co-founder and board member of a non-profit that's trying to eradicate HIV in Botswana.
You'd be wrong. Duverce's parents are immigrants from Haiti. When they arrived in Miami, they struggled to make ends meet. Her father had the equivalent of a high school diploma, and her mother never had the chance to get a conventional education. But they always encouraged their daughter to embrace opportunities.
In high school, Duverce dreamed of going to college and graduate school, but she didn't know anyone who had done that, so she wasn't even sure she could.
"April 30, 2016, will be a great day," she says. That's when she gets her master's degree in public policy from the University of Michigan. "I knew that as a first-generation college student, my chances of entering and finishing college were not that high, but I worked hard and met the right people."
One of those people was Krista Johnson, a professor in African Studies at Howard University, where Duverce did her undergraduate work. Johnson mentored Duverce and convinced her that she had a chance at the Fulbright.
When Duverce won the prestigious fellowship, she traveled to Botswana to co-found (with Noam Angrist, a fellow Fulbright scholar) a non-profit called Young 1ove. Its mission is to teach young African women how to prevent HIV by avoiding "sugar daddies."
Launching Young 1ove and seeing it start to make a real-world difference—its curriculum has demonstrably reduced girls' likelihood to have unsafe sex—gave Duverce skills that she plans to put to use improving government agencies.
With her public policy degree in hand, she'll work as a federal consultant to help untangle the bureaucratic hold-ups that plague government agencies. She especially wants to help these offices become more efficient at delivering social services to people in need, and to guide them toward taking a more evidence-based approach to solving social problems.
After doing that for a stint, Duverce plans to run for office, though she's not sure yet whether she'll try for the House or the Senate.
Duverce has a growing passion for criminal-justice reform. "Growing up," she says, "I witnessed many people fall prey to the system for minor offenses. This problem persists in the African-American and Latino communities. I hope to create policy that will reduce recidivism and racial profiling."
What drives her most is knowing how many young people are growing up in the same hardscrabble circumstances that she did, and knowing that they may not have anyone else to look up to.
We'll be publishing profiles of this year's list of the 30 top thinkers under 30 throughout the month of March. Visit this page every day to read about another young person who is making an impact on the social, political, and economic issues we cover every day at Pacific Standard.
"I want to show them that they can be great too," she says. "I have overcome so many obstacles and rejections. Yet I still get up and fight for what I deserve. As a queer African-American woman, I've worked on Capitol Hill, for federal agencies, and for a leading consulting firm. There weren't many people like me in the room. This is my chance to open up those spaces."
In her free time, Duverce teaches herself how to play musical instruments ("Recently I bought a trumpet and played 'Happy Birthday' for a friend in Tanzania," she says), cycling, and trying new restaurants.
But mostly, she's focused on making a difference. "My parents sacrificed so much to come to America," she says. "I'm motivated knowing that they are proud of the work that I'm doing, and that their sacrifices were not in vain."
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