Angela Briggs Brings African Focus to U.Va.'s Batten School

May 20, 2009 – In 1994, South Africa ended nearly 50 years of apartheid – its system of legal segregation – but the legacies of apartheid continue to reverberate through the nation, as Angela Briggs learned firsthand during a semester abroad in 2006.

Apartheid segregated all citizens into one of four racial categories: White, Indian, Coloured or Black, in roughly that order of hierarchy.

Because of her relatively light brown skin, people assumed Briggs was "Coloured," and her Coloured host family would openly denigrate "Blacks."

"These were good people who were saying these things, but their views were so skewed," said Briggs, who graduated Sunday from the University of Virginia. She was one of 26 members of the first class of the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy's five-year accelerated bachelor's/master's of public policy program.

Witnessing "how absurd and divisive apartheid was," Briggs said, "really broadened my mind about the complexities between race and politics."

From there, Briggs' interest in Africa blossomed, leading to a 2008 bachelor's degree in foreign affairs with an Africa concentration.

This spring, like many students in the Batten program, Briggs spent Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursday as an intern in Washington, and took classes in Charlottesville on Mondays and Fridays.

As one of just three staffers at the Constituency for Africa, she worked closely with the organization's founding president, Melvin Foote, who has participated in five presidentially appointed missions to Africa.

She met a number of senior African leaders, including the ambassadors from Mozambique, Angola and Ghana, as well as Jendayi Frazer, former U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs and former U.S. ambassador to South Africa.

Drawing on her Washington networking, she almost single-handedly organized a U.Va. conference in April on "Good Governance in Africa," which brought together national and international leaders, including Frazer, who led the Bush Administration's sweeping changes in Africa policy.

Briggs explained her ambition for the conference during her introductory remarks: "Today we want to get to the heart of questions that have perplexed the minds of countless scholars, policymakers and students, for years ... complex and multifaceted questions."

Several of Briggs' teachers noted that she orchestrated the conference in the midst of a full class load, her Washington internship, applying and gaining admission to law school at the University of Pennsylvania and completing her thesis-equivalent applied policy analysis project on AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa.

During the conference, Foote joked that he had no idea she was doing so many other things or he would have eased up on her duties at Constituency for Africa.

"She's a joy to work with," he added, "and I see her as a person who, in the future, is going to make a tremendous contribution to Africa and the Africa world."

Eric Patashnik, an associate professor of politics and associate director of the Batten School, echoed Foote's praise. "Angela is a terrific student and leader. She exhibited exactly the kind of dedication and public service orientation that we're trying to instill at the Batten School."

In her master's thesis, Briggs argued that the Constituency for Africa's African American Unity Caucus, a new coalition of 40 to 50 groups that work in Africa and the African diaspora, should focus their support on small-scale AIDS-focused programs in South Africa, because along with one of the highest rates of AIDS in the world, South Africa also is the richest country in Africa. Those resources combined with recently renewed government support for combating AIDS offer a unique opportunity for major progress against the disease.

Closer to home, her conference helped bring together Africa-connected faculty, staff and students from across U.Va., Briggs said. She has pushed for more U.Va. classes and research related to politics in Africa, and has helped recruit more minority students into Batten's master's program.

After law school Briggs plans to practice law for at least a couple of years, perhaps in international law related to Africa. After that, she's not sure how her future will be entwined with Africa.

"Africa may not be my career, but some aspect of my life, like volunteering, will have a connection to Africa. ... I want to leave an impact, and I think that's a great area to leave an impact on," she said.

— By Brevy Cannon