Being a first—in his case the first Black person to be elected chief judge in his Minnesota home county—is not something Toddrick Barnette, B.A. ’88, expected in his life. Not in the 21st century. Yet two years ago, he said, it was a bittersweet moment when he learned he was the first person of color to be elected chief judge of Hennepin County District Court in Minnesota.
“It just baffles the mind,” Barnette said. “In 2020, in one of the most diverse counties in Minnesota, when there were so many other judges before me deserving of the role. How can it be?”
Barnette said being a first adds pressure to his work, where he brings a desire to open doors for those who come after him and to foster diversity within the justice system. With that mission in mind, he often considers the systemic obstacles that can limit individuals from gaining access to opportunities that could lead to fulfilling careers. Like the obstacles he faced while growing up in Washington, D.C.’s Anacostia neighborhood.
“My mom, a single parent, did not want me to go to public schools because, at that time, D.C. public schools weren’t that great,” he said. “So, she struggled to put me in the local Catholic school,” Barnette said. “She also wanted to keep me away from my friends because she didn’t want me to get in trouble like some of the other kids in our neighborhood.”
In high school, five days a week he made an hour-long commute to DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Maryland.
During his junior year of high school, his mother began talking to Barnette about college. She said there was no question he would go, he recalled, but they both wondered how they were going to pay the costs. It was during that same year Barnette heard about a scholarship program at George Washington University.
A GW recruiter had visited his high school and talked about a full tuition scholarship—now called the Stephen Joel Trachtenberg Scholars—designed to attract talented high school seniors who lived in D.C. to GW. He applied for and received the scholarship, said Barnette, who added that the award not only lifted a heavy financial burden off Barnette and his mother but also opened doors to new experiences and opportunities that set him on a career path to do the same for others.
Barnette remembered the support he gained from GW staff who worked with the scholarship program. In August when he was about to start his sophomore year at GW, his mother died. Almost four decades later, he still remembers the crucial help he got during that difficult time from Valerie Epps, who ran the GW scholarship program.
“She was always there with some words of advice. She said, ‘just so you know, you’re not leaving school.’ She was there for me,” Barnette said.
Epps guided Barnette through filling out the necessary financial aid information to continue his education at GW. She is also the main reason Barnette went to law school.
“In her motherly way, she said, ‘Hey, baby, what do you think about law school?’ I told her I was going to grad school instead,” Barnette said. “We’d talk about it, and within a couple of days, she had me convinced I was going to law school.”
She helped him secure a summer job and assisted with law school applications so he could make the dream a reality.
Barnette said she provided similar support for all the students in the scholarship program.
“She negotiated a lot of friendships for us and made a lot of contacts and got us things that led to a lot of our success. There are a ton of people in my group that graduated around the same time I did that ended up in law school. There were a few doctors too,” Barnette said. “That scholarship program, that was our support group.”
After graduating from GW’s Columbian College of Arts and Sciences with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and sociology, he attended the University of Minnesota Law School, where he earned his juris doctorate.
As he started his legal career, Barnette carried his life experiences with him.
“In my decision making, I think it's more along the lines of having empathy for folks in certain difficult positions when they are in front of me on criminal cases, and I’m willing to take a chance on them,” Barnette said. “Maybe instead of sending them to jail or prison, I did something different.”
That perspective Barnette can bring into a courtroom is a testament to why diversity is so important. Now, as chief judge, he works to bring more women and people of color to leadership positions.
“I don't have a small group of people that I only assign or appoint to internal leadership spots. I have taken a position that diversity is good for all of us, and opening those doors is great,” Barnette said.
He’s already seen the change that can happen when diversity and inclusion are made a priority. During an annual judicial retreat, Barnette asked the judges to break into groups to make long- and short-term goals.
"In each group, their goals addressed disparities they were seeing. Each group started working on things they could do to reduce disparities" Barnette said. “I think that was because we had a diverse group."
When he reflects on his life and career journeys, Barnette said one of the biggest lessons that helped him grow, he learned at GW.
“During my time at GW, I finally had a sense of belonging, and it gave me a confidence that I carried all through my profession,” Barnette said. “That confidence. I wouldn’t say I left high school with it. I definitely left GW with it.”
Open Doors: The Centuries Initiative for Scholarships & Fellowships charts a course to increase access to the transformative power of a GW degree. Learn more about how GW is expanding opportunity for the next generation of leaders.