The Office for Inclusive Excellence invited Gisele Baretto Fetterman to participate in a moderated conversation at SRU on April 5, 2023. The conversation took place from 5-6:30 p.m. in Miller Auditorium. Admission was free for both students and the general public.
Barreto Fetterman is a social advocate, philanthropist and volunteer firefighter among many other things. Her husband, John Fetterman, currently serves as a junior United States senator from Pennsylvania.
During the talk, she spoke and addressed questions about life as a young immigrant in America, mental health, intersectional identities, work-life balance and more.
Barreto Fetterman described herself as a “dreamer,” which is a term for a child who comes illegally to the US with their parents. She was born in Brazil, where she lived with her brother and mother until the age of seven.
“We lived in a place that was very violent,” she said. “So [my mother] came home with a suitcase and courage and said we were going on an adventure.”
Afterward, Barreto Fetterman spent her days adjusting to life in the United States.
“[M]y mom would say, ‘I love you, have a great day, be invisible’…there was the price to pay. If I wasn’t invisible, my family could have been deported,” she said. Her dream for many years was to be called for jury duty and to vote in a U.S. election.
Years down the line, Gisele Barreto Fetterman was working on a nonprofit in New Jersey. She stumbled upon multiple articles about Braddock, Pennsylvania. She discovered that the steel that built the Brooklyn Bridge, “which [she] was in love with,” had come from this community.
“I wrote a letter to the borough and I shared the work that I was doing that I was curious to visit and learn,” she said. “They handed the letter to John, who was the mayor, and then he called me and then I came to visit…of course, he fell madly in love with me.”
Her husband went on to become lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania before acquiring a seat in the United States Senate. Since then, Barreto Fetterman and her family have been the targets of an onslaught of hate.
“I receive physical threats and verbal threats. I’ve always received more hate mail than my husband,” she said. “It was everything from going back to your country to immigrant hate to eyebrow hate.”
She explained that she handles comments and threats by remaining sensitive rather than developing a thick skin. “No one should get used to harassment or hatred,” she said. “But I’ve learned how to navigate, I’ve learned how to manage.”
Barreto Fetterman has several identities, aside from being an immigrant, that people have attempted to weaponize against her. She is a wife, mother, member of the LGBTQ+ community and holds a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
“[ADHD] is absolutely a superpower… as an artist…it allows me to be really creative and hyper-focus on the things I care about,” she said.
One of the things Barreto Fetterman is passionate about is nonprofit work. She is the founder of Free Store 15104 and the co-founder of 412 Food Rescue and For Good PGH. All aim to fulfill the needs of those who may not have a voice.
“The Free Store was the nation’s first free store. It was a place where surplus and excess goods can be made available at no cost to families in need… it’s a commitment to the environmental impact of filling our landfills, but also meeting the needs for families,” she said.
412 Food Rescue started as a branch of Free Store. Its purpose is to reach more stores and focus on food specifically, whereas Free Store provides things like clothes, diapers, baby formula, etc.
“We’ve rescued tens of millions of pounds of food,” Barreto Fetterman said.
For Good PGH focuses on uplifting women of diverse backgrounds.
She said she was inspired to open a nonprofit because she worked in a community that was a “food desert,” or a place where families do not have frequent access to food.
“I think it’s important to walk into rooms and think, ‘Who is missing from this room? Who is missing from this conversation?’” she said. “Whose voice would we benefit from– who is suffering, and why are they suffering, and how can we fix that suffering?”
Nonprofits are not the only way Barreto Fetterman helps those who are struggling. Her childhood dream was to be a volunteer firefighter, which recently became a reality.
“I was the oldest person in the academy… I’ve worked with some of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met,” she said. “Volunteer Firefighters are truly incredible…I’m in awe of them and what they do.”
She later stated that people are occasionally surprised when Gisele Barreto Fetterman answers their fire calls.
She not only gives back to communities in Pittsburgh but those in the greater Pittsburgh region as well—including Slippery Rock.
A close personal friend, who is also her husband’s Chief of Staff, is an SRU alum.
“I’m so excited to meet all of you and learn from you. I’m really looking forward to today’s event,” she said when asked prior to the conversation if there was anything she wanted Slippery Rock students to know.
During the event itself, students were given the opportunity to ask Barreto Fetterman questions.
“[Students] are literally going to save us. I love learning from them. I love listening to them,” she said.