Brenda Berkman


NYU Alumni Changemaker of the Year
(LAW ’78)

FDNY Captain

“Change is a marathon, not a sprint,” says Brenda Berkman, whose 1982 bid to become New York City’s first female firefighter required serious endurance. After initially “failing” the physical portion of the FDNY’s entrance exam, Berkman sued the city, insisting that the test “did not measure the abilities actually required to be trained as a firefighter.” Her legal victory was a watershed moment for women’s rights… but then things really got tough.

Much of the public—and nearly all of the fire service—rallied against Berkman. She received death threats. She was accosted everywhere she went. She was fired in retaliation for her complaints about on-the-job harassment (and then rehired after another successful lawsuit). But Berkman, who calls herself “a very stubborn person,” refused to be intimidated. She rose through the ranks of the FDNY to retire, in 2006, as a decorated Captain. Along the way, she became a paragon of courage and perseverance in the face of social injustice.

But Berkman’s story doesn’t end there. She now serves on the board of Monumental Women, fighting for greater representation of women and people of color in public spaces. She gives walking tours of the 9/11 memorial, sharing her experiences as a first responder on that terrible day. And she’s developed into a serious artist, chronicling the resurgence of the World Trade Center site in an acclaimed series of lithographs. “It’s all synergistic,” she says of her pursuits. And it’s all part of her change-making marathon.