New Orleans was two years beyond Hurricane Katrina when Johan Barrios, now 28, came to town with undergraduate and graduate degrees in civil engineering from the University of South Florida and a passion to do good and make a difference in the still-battered city.
“There is so much you can do for others when you can build them something, something they cannot provide for themselves,” says the Colombia native who moved with her family to the United States at the age of 5.
In 2007 Barrios began working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers New Orleans District Office. Nowadays she’s assigned to its Emergency Operations Center, which she says keeps a close eye on levees and Mississippi River levels to “prepare for emergency response and maintain public safety.”
Having lived in places where “all the houses looked the same, all the people look the same,” Barrios says she really enjoys New Orleans’ mixture of people and architecture. She worries, though, that crime is “the elephant in the room” that will keep New Orleans from rising to the next level unless its citizens step up and say, ‘This isn’t going to happen in my city.”’
Off the job, Barrios is an avid bike rider, an amateur boxer and an active member of organizations that include the Junior League of New Orleans and Big Brothers Big Sisters. She is also in the 2012 class of Emerging Philanthropists of New Orleans, a four-year-old initiative that says its mission is “to engage the city’s up-and-coming talent in philanthropy.”
Barrios, a member of Engineers Without Borders, returned to New Orleans last spring after she and three other Corps employees spent six months helping improve the quality of life for some citizens of Kandahar, Afghanistan.
She and her coworkers used their skills to route safe drinking water to people whose prior source had been canals where waste had been dumped. They also put up a complex for training midwives and nurses, and they built local farmers a silo and weigh station. Barrios is quick to note that without the protection of military men and women from the United States (many of them her age), her group couldn’t have done its job.
Just as in New Orleans, where she says she came to “save the world,” Barrios learned anew in the Middle East that she can “make a little bit of a difference.” Waiting to board her flight home from Afghanistan, Barrios found herself remembering New Orleans’ potholed street with less irritation than before: “You appreciate what you have a little more.”
Mentor: My mom and dad. They came to this country with nothing but family. They got their GEDs and eventually went back to college. They taught me to live a life of service even if you don’t have much to give.
Defining Moment: In 2010 I had a minor run-in that showcased how bad NOLA’s crime problem really is. It was then that I realized that my work with flood risk reduction wasn’t saving the city. I had come to New Orleans to “save the world” and in that moment I realized that no such thing is possible. I had a similar reaction in Afghanistan and I decided I wouldn’t let this stop me from continuing to try. Even if it’s just a drop in the bucket, it’s something. There’s always going to be issues beyond our individual control, but you have to keep trying.
Advice to Young Women: Be kind and do good. And don’t let anyone get in your way.
Goals: In five years I would like to have developed my skills in the field of emergency management and disaster response. New Orleans is a leader in this field currently, so I hope to develop the skill set to become a subject matter expert. In 20 years, I would like to have an extensive list of international cities which I have helped to prepare for disaster response. I would also like to own an animal sanctuary.
Favorite Things About What I Do: Even though I know I’m not saving the world, I’m making a difference. Some days it’s big some days it’s small and unnoticeable. Regardless, it’s work that goes toward the overall betterment of my community.