Emma Goldman, anarcho-syndicalist, union organizer and general hellraiser, once affirmed, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” Though she was arguably a gentler soul than Goldman, these words nevertheless apply well to Jenny Barrett, a woman who somehow combined a lifelong engagement in social justice work with a quite literal passion for dancing, for gourmet cooking and for baking, as well as a capacity for capturing the subtle colors of the world in her artwork.
Jenny was born in Chicago, only days after her parents had arrived from China. As a schoolgirl she and her sister roamed the ethnically diverse neighborhoods of Chicago, taking in their rich sights, sounds and smells, and developing a lifelong love of the city. Indeed, in the years prior to her death, she had been collaborating with Jim Barrett, her historian husband, on A People’s History of Chicago.
Jim and Jenny met as undergraduates at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where they took part in campus demonstrations, especially in the wake of the 1970 invasion of Cambodia and the Kent State and Jackson state killings the same year. Pursuing a Master’s degree in Asian History from Northern Illinois University, she devoted considerable time to working on activities in support of the United Farm Workers grape boycotts of the early seventies. While briefly working for the federal government at the Railroad Retirement Board, she participated in union organizing efforts there.
Jenny continued her organizing efforts even when she followed Jim to England as he pursued his Master’s at the University of Warwick. She became a shop steward for a Transport and General Workers Union local of university cafeteria workers, and helped to lead a strike against a Heath government pay freeze.
Back in the US pursuing further Asian History studies at the University of Pittsburgh, Jenny helped to organize one of the first efforts to unionize graduate employees. In North Carolina, Jenny and Jim were active in protests against US intervention in Central America.
With a move to central Illinois. Jenny earned a Master’s in Computer Science and became employed as a computer programmer at the University of Illinois. In this capacity she was a central figure in efforts to unionize UIUC academic professionals, eventually succeeding for a subset of them, the visiting academic professionals, within the Association of Academic Professionals, Illinois Education Association (IEA). She chaired this local for many years, and also served on the IEA State Board and Higher Education Committee.
Champaign-Urbana leftists and progressives will also be familiar with the Socialist Forum and the Central Illinois chapter of Jobs with Justice. Jenny was among those who played key roles in establishing these groups, and in the educational and focused union support work they successfully undertook for many years.
Finally, both Jenny and Jim must be credited with helping to guarantee that C–U’s Independent Media Center could open and grow over the many years since its founding. Like many others, they made healthy contributions and signed off on part of the mortgage that secured IMC’s building.
Jenny Barrett was one of a kind and she will be sorely missed by the many, many people whose lives were immeasurably improved—be it through better wages. a scrumptious double chocolate cake or the beauty of her watercolors—through knowing her.