As a young girl growing up in the south, Brittany K. Barnett always wanted to be a lawyer like Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show. But in her small town in rural Texas, “there were no lawyers who looked like me,” she says. “There were no women lawyers even. Becoming a lawyer started to seem out of my league as I got older, and my dream shifted.”
The biggest shift came during her senior year of high school, when Barnett’s mother, a nurse who struggled with addiction, was arrested for an encounter with a police officer. Barnett says seeing her mother in the courtroom, dressed in cartoonish jailhouse stripes, inflicted a primal wound.
Instead of pursuing a career in law, she decided to attend the University of Texas at Arlington and set her sights on becoming a bank VP instead. She worked as an auditor for PwC, but Huxtable’s briefcase still beckoned. Encouraged by mentor Christa Brown-Sanford, a partner at Baker Botts, Barnett went on to graduate from SMU’s Dedman School of Law, get a job in the finance and banking division at Winstead, and then go in-house as associate general counsel at the diversified financial conglomerate Orix. “I didn’t take lightly being in those conference rooms at Orix, a huge Japanese global giant, and being the only woman and the only Black person in the room,” she says.
After some time and some soul-searching, though, Barnett left the corporate world to found the Buried Alive Project, a nonprofit that works to obtain clemency for individuals sentenced to life in prison for nonviolent drug offenses under outdated mandatory sentencing laws. With the help of SMU law students and volunteer attorneys from local firms such as Bell Nunnally & Martin and Jackson Walker, she has freed more than 40 unjustly sentenced individuals. Yet, she realizes there is more work to be done.
“I can’t keep rescuing people from prison and restoring them to poverty,” she says. “I have this vision of creating sustainable liberation. What that looks like for me includes economic liberation.”
“As I worked to free my clients, they were freeing me, too.”Brittany K. Barnett, Buried Alive Project
Barnett is now creating a venture capital fund to help finance justice-impacted entrepreneurs, investing her own resources in small businesses, such as a former client’s food truck. Last year, she founded Trustworthy Trucking with a business partner who was formerly incarcerated. The company hires justice-impacted drivers and offers them a lease-to-own option, so that they can own their own businesses one day. “Trucking transportation is a $792 billion industry, but with all the work I’ve done in the corporate field, transportation is the most outdated industry I’ve ever seen in my life, which means there’s a lot of space for innovation,” she says.
She also took time to write an inspiring memoir called A Knock at Midnight, named by Amazon as its 2020 Book of the Year, with editors praising it as “urgent, necessary, hopeful—and a knockout read.”
Barnett credits her father with encouraging her to put her financial and legal talents to work in ways that fulfill her passions. “I went to see my dad, and he just said, ‘Stop worrying about the challenges and imagine the possibilities instead.’ And that was so powerful for me,” Barnett says. “Because as I worked to free my clients, they were freeing me, too. I just believe that when we do follow our passion and our intuition, the universe will align.”