Distinguished Alumni Achievement Awards 2010
Ms. Michelle T. Brown
BA International Studies 1993
Director, Refugees International
New York, NY
|Ms. Michelle T. Brown
Remarks by Dr. Ann Marie Ellis
Dean, College of Liberal Arts
Michelle Brown’s work as a refugee advocate has brought life-saving assistance to people in some of the world’s most dangerous places. Through Refugees International, Michelle has conducted some 30 missions to countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America to assess what refugees need in order to live and to identify human rights violations. Her first-hand accounts of the dire situations facing refugees are used by the United States Government, the United Nations Security Council, and policy makers around the world in meeting humanitarian needs and protecting war-affected people.
Michelle was born in Austin and grew up in San Marcos, her father’s hometown. She did well in high school—she said she often used the SWT library—and she had many choices of colleges to attend. But SWT had such a nurturing environment that she chose to go there. She had a double major in International Studies and history. She was also enrolled in the Honors Program and had a job working in it. In those days, the Honors Program offices were located in the basement of a dormitory—on the men’s side—and Michelle said she had to be very careful around the men’s rooms because she never knew what she might see.
As a child, she lived briefly with her family in Australia and traveled in Mexico. Nevertheless, Michelle says she had no real idea of the world beyond Central Texas, until she got to SWT, where her idea of the world began to expand. Dr. Ron Brown first encouraged Michelle to enter SWT and he mentored her throughout her undergraduate career. Trips she took with friends to Mexico, Guatemala, and Europe sparked an interest in travel. Her international studies courses with Dr. Dennis Dunn and her participation in the Model United Nations program with Doc Augustin in Geography widened her interest in international issues. Under the supervision of Dr. Gregg Andrews in History, she wrote her Honors thesis on the labor movement in Mexico. And she received her first exposure to refugees in an Honors course taught by Dr. Robert Gorman in Political Science.
Michelle said the wide variety of courses available to her and the interest her professors took in her success would have prepared her for any career, but especially for what she is doing now.
After graduation, Michelle spent three years teaching English in Japan. Then, she traveled in Asia, where she volunteered on an environmental education project in Northern India and worked with orphan girls in Mother Teresa’s Hospital for Children in Kolkatta. As a result of this work, she entered George Washington University to obtain a master’s degree in International Development Studies, where she created her own academic concentration in human affairs.
A graduate internship that she held with Refugees International in Washington, D.C., became a fulltime job upon graduation, and Michelle found herself traveling to areas of conflict in Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America to assess human rights abuses of refugees. Her missions took her to places such as Uganda, where rebels were abducting children to fill their ranks; to Afghanistan, where Pakistani refugees had fled conflicts with the Taliban in their own country; and to Colombia, where women displaced by decades of drug-related strife were vulnerable to sexual violence. In each place, Michelle gauged refugees’ access to food, sanitation, healthcare, education, and personal safety. On her return to Washington, her eyewitness accounts of refugees’ suffering became the substance of her reports to Congress, the U.S. State Department, and other agencies—reports advocating for policies to improve aid to refugees.
After several years in Washington, D.C., Michelle was asked in 2004 to open an office of Refugees International in New York City. There, she works with the United Nations members and agencies to improve their response to refugees and to peacekeeping efforts in the world’s danger zones. As she explains, governments increasingly look to UN peacekeepers to protect civilians from genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and other crimes against humanity. But, U.N. member states also fail sometimes to deploy the troops and equipment they promise to send to hotspots where local armies are either ineffective or perpetrating crimes against their own people. In such situations, it’s difficult to affect the plight of refugees, and that’s where Michelle makes a difference.
In the Congo, for example, where 5.4 million people have been killed and another two million have been displaced by what has been called the deadliest conflict since World War II, her advocacy in the U.N. helped to bring more aid to displaced Congolese, and tactics that have proven effective in protecting civilians in one part of the Congo will be employed more broadly in that country.
In Guinea, Michelle single-handedly averted a hunger crisis at two refugee camps when she convinced the United Nations’ World Food Programme to continue stocking the food pantries there. And her years of activism on behalf of Uganda’s women and children have earned her the reputation as the go-to expert on refugee issues in Uganda. She calls her work with Uganda’s women and children the most fulfilling of her career.
Michelle met her husband, Joe LoBello, a public relations professional, on a blind date in New York when she was still living in Washington, D.C. They dated long-distance until she moved to New York to open the Refugees International office there. They married and they have two boys, 1 and 3 years old.
Since the birth of her first son, Michelle has put her foreign travel to refugee camps on hold, but she expects to begin traveling again soon, and her first destinations will likely be two of the world’s most perilous places: the Democratic Republic of Congo, where violence is ongoing, and Sudan, where the likelihood of resumed hostilities between the north and south appears to be escalating again.
But Michelle never feels that she’s in danger in these places. She’s more afraid of being injured in a car accident abroad than in being targeted for mischief. Her dear friend and colleague, Ada Williams Prince, remarks on Michelle’s ability to be unflappable in the face of the kind of work she does. Ada recalls an evening when she and Michelle were alone together on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, a place where it wasn’t safe for two foreign women to be standing around. They were waiting for a ride that was late in showing up. It was nearly dark, when men with machine guns appeared who Ada thought might beat or arrest them. But Michelle was so certain that nothing would happen to them that Ada had to believe her. Sure enough their ride showed up and everything was fine. Later, at a checkpoint in Guinea, Michelle’s quick thinking got them out of a dicey situation when police tried to extort money from them. Michelle pretended not to understand the policemen, who were speaking French. Saying she had to go, she took Ada and eased away from them, waving goodbye.
In 2008, Michelle was honored with the Walter Richter Humanitarian Award given by Texas State University. She shows extraordinary spirit and strength in dealing with situations for which few would volunteer—fighting for people who are vulnerable or forgotten. That kind of passion is rare.
Michelle, in recognition of your creative and tireless efforts on behalf of the world’s displaced people, it is my privilege to present you with the highest honor given by the College of Liberal Arts, the Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award.