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Activist and high school student honored in annual Pauli Murray Awards

Thea Barrett senior at East Chapel Hill High School poses on Franklin Street on Monday, Feb. 10, 2020. She is one of two recipients of the Pauli-Murray award.

Thea Barrett was in class when she received an alarming text from her best friend. Barrett’s friend informed her that there were reports of an active shooter at her school — Leesville Road High. 

“When you’re just sitting in a class and get a text from your best friend that says, ‘There’s reports of a shooter in the wing I’m in, don’t know how true they are but I just wanted to tell you I love you so much,' that’s a gut punch,” Barrett said. 

The reports of an active shooter at Leesville Road High turned out to be false, but Barrett said she felt overwhelmed and shocked by the news. She used these feelings as motivation to get involved in advocacy work. 

“The overwhelming fear and sadness I felt that day and in the next few days and months was really what pushed me to get involved, so that no one else needed to experience that gut punch,” Barrett said. “Once I got involved in one thing, I wanted to keep doing more. I could see the results of what I was doing and I could see how important it was.”

Now, Barrett and Chapel Hill Carrboro CROP Hunger Walk Coordinator Mae McLendon are being honored by the Orange County Humans Relations Commission. They have been named as the recipients of the 30th annual Pauli Murray Awards. The awards are given to those who, according to their website, “have served the community with distinction in the pursuit of equality, justice, and human rights for all residents.” 

When McLendon heard the news of her recognition, her initial reaction was one of surprise.

“I was in shock,” McLendon said. “I do not feel deserving of an award for doing tasks and activities that I was raised to do: help others.”

McLendon has served the greater Chapel Hill-Carrboro community for decades. She graduated from UNC with a bachelor's in sociology and master of social work, and went on to work with a number of community organizations, such as the North Carolina Department of Correction and Habitat for Humanity of Orange County. She has also been active in local politics, having served positions on the precinct, county and state levels. 

McLendon said her motivation to be involved in the community can be traced back to her mother, Martha McLendon.

“My mother raised (me) to help our neighbors and try ‘to do unto others as you want done unto you,'” McLendon said. “When I see people in need — homelessness, hunger, poverty — I have to do what little I can to make things better.”

McLendon is serving as the coordinator of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro CROP Hunger Walk, which will take place on March 29. The CROP Hunger Walk raises money to support Church World Service, which is an organization that combats poverty and hunger worldwide. 

McLendon said her work is very important to her and she hopes to keep up with it in the future. 

“(I hope) to continue to volunteer and work on issues as I have and make life better for as many people as I can,” McLendon said. 

Barrett’s passions and hopes are similarly rooted in community involvement. Barrett is a senior at East Chapel Hill High School and is involved with a number of advocacy organizations.

Barrett serves as the communication director for the Chapel Hill branch of March For Our Lives. She also started a club at her high school for students to become involved with the March For Our Lives organization.

“I heard that a lot of people I know weren’t really sure on how to get involved,” Barrett said. “I wanted to make sure that that place was available for people to get involved and that they had those options.”

Barrett also serves as the co-president of Youth Against Rape Culture, a club at her high school, and she works with a project from the Poynter Institute called Teen Fact Checking Network, where she corrects information on the internet. She said her commitment to these civic organizations arises from her desire to make a difference. 

“It’s really easy to be lost when bad things happen in the world,” Barrett said. “But just knowing that every single day I lobby for a new bill in the General Assembly, or give a presentation on what rape culture is or debunk something on the internet, I know that I can make a difference in these small ways and that’s really important to me.”

Barrett said she attributes a large part of her motivation to being involved in the community and with civic activism to her faith. She is an active member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. 

“My faith really pushes me into my advocacy work,” she said. “To me, sharing the love of God means protecting our peers from violence, standing up for everyone’s rights and breaking down barriers.”

Barret said the personal significance of her faith makes her feel even more honored to receive the Pauli Murray award. 

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“Pauli Murray was also so motivated by her faith,” Barrett said. “I hope to be somewhat like her. I want to continue to fight for change for my whole life.”

The Pauli Murray awards ceremony will be held on Feb. 23 from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the Whitted Building in Hillsborough.

@DTHCityState |