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Humanity ascending

Sudan, December 8, 2009

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Lisa Robbins

Vanderbilt Magazine
December, 2009

From cancer wards to war zones, the passion of a determined few moves mountains.

Jeremy Barnicle, BA’94

Jeremy Barnicle wants your attention.

He directs communications for Mercy Corps, an aid and development organization that operates in more than 35 war-torn and impoverished countries. This work demands resources. Mercy Corps’ budget tops $225 million a year, and it employs more than 3,700 people worldwide. Through his outreach, Barnicle helps bring in the money that makes its work possible.

“I spend most of my time thinking about how to connect with and mobilize Americans,” Barnicle says. “What are Americans doing with their time? What moves them? How can we mobilize this into social change?”

Barnicle grew up in a family that emphasizes public service. His father worked for the government, and Barnicle spent his teen years steeped in the political culture of Washington, D.C. At Vanderbilt he explored the three interests that inspire his professional life: politics, communications and foreign affairs. He wrote for The Vanderbilt Hustler, majored in public policy and traveled abroad. As a volunteer with Alternative Spring Break in Guatemala, he saw severe poverty up close for the first time.

Barnicle worked for a political campaign after graduation and then decided to join the Peace Corps, which sent him to Hungary to teach English.

“While I was there I worked in a refugee camp in southern Hungary for Bosnian war refugees,” he says. “I had the opportunity to work with and get to know people who were fresh out of the war zone. That was incredibly powerful to me.”

After the Peace Corps, Barnicle continued to pursue a career at the nexus of politics, foreign affairs and the media. He worked for a U.S. congressman, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He eventually made his way to the Woodrow Wilson School of International and Public Affairs at Princeton.

In his work for Mercy Corps, Barnicle has stayed on the move. He has traveled to hot spots all over the globe—Gaza, Darfur, Burma and Afghanistan, to name a few—collecting stories to share with Americans back home.

“One thing I concluded from all these trips: There actually is a universal humanity,” he says. “People are way more alike than they are different. They want a livelihood, work, safety for their kids, prospects for their kids. In war zones people still laugh and get married and do all sorts of things.”

He has been floored by the generosity of people with little of their own.

“In Darfur, in ’05, I was at a displaced-persons camp during Ramadan,” Barnicle remembers. “I was walking around talking to people, and I went into one hut where there was a mother with her children. I asked her about Ramadan. I asked why she was fasting, and she said, with a straight face: ‘So we understand what it’s like to be poor.’ I found that very powerful. She was poor, facing unimaginable difficulty, and she was still thinking generously.

“A small sacrifice from us can have a huge benefit for people in the developing world. In Niger, $150 would give supplemental feeding and medical care to 10 mothers and their kids for six months,” Barnicle says. “I don’t want to preach or scold people about not doing enough. I think if people understood the impact they could have, they’d do it. My job is to help them understand.”