March 20, 2007
Photograph of Rye Barcott

Photograph of Rye Barcott

Rye Barcott, founder and president of Carolina for Kibera, will speak at the commencement ceremony for the University of North Carolina School of Public Health, the School announced today. The ceremony will be held on Saturday, May 12, at 2 p.m. in Memorial Hall.

Barcott, 27, currently is a joint master’s of public administration and master’s of business administration candidate at the John F. Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Business School and a captain in the Marine Corps inactive reserves. He attended UNC-Chapel Hill on an ROTC scholarship and received a bachelor’s degree in peace, war and defense and international studies.

As an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, his five years of post-college service included combat tours in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Horn of Africa and Fallujah, Iraq.

But the landscape that may have affected him most powerfully is in Kibera, a district outside Nairobi, Kenya.

In an area the size of New York’s Central Park, Kibera’s 700,000 people, half under the age of 15 and more than 20% HIV positive, face devastating poverty and ethnic violence.

In 2001, while still an undergraduate, Barcott visited Kibera and said he was shocked to see the squalid conditions under which so many lived. Hoping to make a difference, he joined native Kenyans Salim Mohamed and Tabitha Atieno Festo to create Carolina for Kibera (CFK), a nonprofit charitable corporation and program based at the UNC Center for Global Initiatives.

CFK’s core projects include a sports program, medical clinic, and the Binti Pamoja Center, which educates young women, particularly about HIV/AIDS. The organization also oversees a waste management system and other projects designed to improve the health and lives of Kibera’s residents.

By 2005, Time magazine and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had named CFK a “Hero of Global Health.” In October 2006, Barcott was named ABC’s “Person of the Week” for his efforts in Kibera while serving in Iraq, and later was named an ABC “Person of the Year.”

Barcott finds a connection between his military service and his social service. “Whether you’re in a Marine uniform or on a local city council,” he says, “most Americans have in common a drive for public service that seems to hinge on fundamental value systems.”

For him, the institutional values of the military appealed to him in the same way Kibera did. “I like the emphasis on setting goals, on making commitments and keeping them. Personal honor is important–relying on those with whom you work and knowing they can rely on you–and having the opportunity to develop and depend on your own physical and moral courage.”

He is humbled by the stories of people he met in both Iraq and Kenya. “Regardless of where we are in the world and what beliefs or policies bring us there,” he says, “we have to try to make a difference, to create balances of power — not to aggrandize ourselves as Americans or fortunate ones, but so that we can create an alternative narrative [to the one of privilege], so that we can live more responsibly and be more appreciative of what we have.”

The need for public service is a topic he will include in his commencement address. It is our moral imperative to improve the lives of others, Barcott believes, “not by offering handouts, but by making ourselves available to provide a boost to those who want better lives but can’t succeed because of reasons out of their control.”

Barcott’s ties to Chapel Hill run deep. His mother Donna, a professor of nursing at the University of Rhode Island, received a master’s of public health at UNC’s School of Public Health, and a doctoral degree in anthropology, also from UNC.

His father, who served in the Marine Corps for five years, including one tour in Vietnam, received his doctorate in sociology at UNC. In fact, his parents met here as graduate students — in the basement of Alumni Building.

“Alumni Building otherwise would not have been very notable for me,” their son says, “but on my first day as an undergraduate, I had to take a drink of water from the Old Well and then make my pilgrimage to that basement. It helped me feel grounded in the place.”

More than 300 graduates will complete their degrees at the School of Public Health in May. Most of them, and more than 1,000 guests, will attend the School’s commencement program.

To learn more about Carolina for Kibera:

School of Public Health Contact: Ramona DuBose, (919) 966-7467,



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