Sandra Barnhill Interview

Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library
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MORNA GERRARD: The following interview is conducted as part of Georgia State University’s Activist Women Oral History Project. I am Morna Gerrard and I am interviewing Sandra Barnhill. It is August 7, 2014 and we are in Special Collections at Georgia State University. So, Sandra, can you please start by telling me where you were born and when you were born? And, yeah --

SANDRA BARNHILL: And I may jot things down only because it helps to --

GERRARD: That’s fine.

BARNHILL: -- keep me focused. I was born on February 25 or maybe the 23rd, 1959. And I say it was one of those two dates because I used to celebrate my birthday on the 23rd and then when I turned around 18 or 19, I saw my birth certificate for the first time, it had my birthday on the 25th. And so, I vacillate. I always celebrated on the 25th, but sometimes depending on how I feel and what I need in the world, I celebrate it starting on the 23rd.

GERRARD: That’s funny.



GERRARD: You don’t know why that happened? How that happened?

BARNHILL: No. I mean, I think it could be one of two things. Either whoever recorded it at the hospital got it wrong. You know, put the 25th. Maybe they didn’t record it till two days later. I mean, I don’t know. I was born in Evansville, Indiana. Or, my mom forgot the day. I tend to think it might be the first one and not the latter because, while I’ve never been a mom, what I hear, certain things moms do not forget.

GERRARD: That’s definitely one of them.

BARNHILL: That’s what I think it might be.

GERRARD: Do you have any brothers or sisters?

BARNHILL: Yes. I have a sister. Her name is Tonya and she is 18 months older than me. And then, my brother, who is not my biological brother, but clearly -- he lived with us; he was a cousin -- but we welcomed him into our home, into our lives as my brother. He died maybe about -- ooh -- 10, 12 years ago, so.


GERRARD: And can you tell me about your parents?

BARNHILL: Let’s see. My father is still living. Retired military and whole career -- Started out in the Marines at a time when it was very, very racist and difficult for blacks, and so he did his time and got out, then he went into the Army. And I think he really liked the structure of military life. He was a drill sergeant. And, you know, retired and now he’s a minister. And during his time in the military, particularly when we lived overseas, he taught a lot of African-American and African history to the soldiers, you know, in their free time and I think that has something to do with my love -- Well, I think I have a natural love for my own people, but I think that has something to do with it. And then my mom was Southern born and bred, and I consider myself to be a Southern woman. She grew up in a little place called Appling, Georgia and she 3:00grew up -- I think she was about 10 years older than my father -- but really grew up in that racist, segregated South and I think it shaped her in many ways. My mom probably, in her own right, was an activist. I mean, if she saw injustice, she would stand up and she would deal with it. Very proud, very strong woman who never graduated from high school or went to college but moved forward in her life. You know, became a medical secretary. You know, got her GED; went to a vocational school, became a medical secretary. So very much a sense of agency about her own life and she raised me and my sister particularly to be very strong, very proud women because she grew up in an era when women didn’t have the opportunities that we do. So I’d really consider my mom a 4:00womanist. She might not call herself that. You know, but very much clear about how important it is for women to take up their power and live in the world, so...And she’s been dead now, almost 12 years too.

GERRARD: So did your parents talk to you about race and how they felt about the issues that they grew up with and that they were surrounded by?

BARNHILL: My mom more so than my dad. My mom talked a lot about the segregated South. And her family, they were black farmers and they lost their land. It was stolen from them. You know, my mom saw people lynched. So, she shared all of those stories. And, my great-grandmother was a midwife, and she was one of the few midwives at that time. You know, midwifery then was some-- well, it’s a resurgence now. It’s come around. But that was very much a position of honor 5:00and because my family on my maternal side owned land and not many blacks did at that time, they were very well-respected, both in the African-American community and also in the white community. But my mom very much shared this whole notion that at that time, people had their place and her struggle as what her father struggle, was that he could never stay in his place. So, yeah, I very much grew up learning and hearing about that as I did from other relatives.

GERRARD: OK. Can you tell me about your relationship with your parents?

BARNHILL: Well, I think that I had a multi-faceted relationship with my parents. One, I can say unequivocally, that I know my parents, both of them loved me. No question. Can also they tried to do everything they could to give me a better life with more options. In many ways, in that time, being in the military was 6:00considered a good career for an African-American man. I mean, my father went to Vietnam a couple times, but the whole energy of this country changed around Vietnam, around the respectability of being in the Army. So I think he struggled with all of that and I can remember, you know, when he was in Vietnam, writing letters about “Why are you there? Is this war good?” So I think that my parents both loved me. I think they raised me to be what I very much am, which is my own person and very challenging of authority, and so I think that it becomes -- It’s difficult. You love that; you raise that, but then you also must deal with that. And sometimes that was the challenge. And even when they had to struggle to deal with me, you know, I think that there was a bit of pride 7:00there, but also, they raised me to challenge authority and I challenged, growing up, every facet of authority, so my parents had to deal with that. And probably between my sister, my brother, and me, my sister and my brother were what I would call good sons and daughters. You know, of the patriarchy too, but good sons and daughters. Me, on the other hand, I was always rebelling. I was always challenging, always doing stuff and so...I don’t know when I look back -- When I went through it, it was very, very painful because I felt, “Oh, I’m not understood.” But, when I look back on it now, I have to smile because in many ways, what I went through was my training ground as I became an activist and I didn’t understand that at that time.

GERRARD: Did you ever get yourself into trouble?

BARNHILL: Mm-hmm. I was always in trouble, but never for doing anything bad. I 8:00mean, I made great -- good grades, you know, student body president. This and that. I mean, I did all of those things, but my mouth always got me in trouble because I either always had to have the last word, or I always say exactly what I think -- thought, and I can remember one time my mom saying, “You know, you don’t always have to tell everybody exactly what you think. You know, you really don’t; particularly when it’s not even asked.” And if I thought there was an injustice, I was going to speak about it, and so yeah. I think my parents were challenged by me in a good way, you know?

GERRARD: Did you travel? You know, because you said your father was -- moved around the world. Did you go with him?

BARNHILL: We did on most of the trips. We clearly did -- We went everywhere he went stateside. You know, every military base. He went to Korea; we didn’t go there. We actually came South and stayed with my grandmother. And then when he 9:00went to Germany, which was his last foreign tour of duty, we went with him. And he, I think, was initially going for three years or whatever. He stayed like either five or six to give us that experience and I’m so glad he did. We got to travel in Europe. Not as much as I would have liked, but some. But, I don’t know. I think I was eight when I went there, and I came back and I was 14 on the cusp of 15, but those were very formative years for me, and I really think that experience shaped my worldview. Had a lot to do with my strong African-centeredness. I can remember being in -- I can’t remember what grade I was in, but it was in middle school, and I was the only black child in my grade at that school. And I remember saying I wanted a black Santa and I remember organizing the white kids and the black kids who weren’t -- you know, in other levels, so we had a black Santa come. So again, my organizing started very 10:00young, and now I laugh about it. But I mean, at that time, painful and poignant and all of that stuff, but now it’s kind of like, “Oh wow.”

GERRARD: What years was that, that you were in Germany then?

BARNHILL: Let’s see. I came back to the States... Look, I have to figure it out. I graduated from high school in 19-- I think -- ’79. I came back as a sophomore, so I came back in 1976. And then if I subtract -- How many years did I think I was in Germany? Six years. So maybe I was there from, like, ’70 to ’76. I think that’s, sort of -- It may not be totally right, but it’s pretty close.


GERRARD: Was there anything going on in Europe at the time that really strikes you as being important in your -- the way you view the world? Because -- wasn’t it the ’70s, they had a lot of terrorism in Europe?

BARNHILL: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Well, you know, I don’t remember those things. What I remember most was, for the first time in my life, I realized that Americans and America was not loved the world over. Because pretty much when you grow up in this country, you think you’re the pinnacle of everything and everybody loves you and everybody wants to be just like you. And when I went to Germany I was an exchange student, and even before I became a little exchange student, you would go off the base and into -- I lived in Darmstadt, Germany, which is just about an hour or so from Frankfurt. When we would go out into the community, not 12:00everyone loved us, and a lot of people would say stuff like, “Dirty Americans,” and all that kind of stuff, and the dirty didn’t have anything to do with, you know, hygiene, but it was the whole notion of how the U.S. in its own imperialistic way operated in the world and it also had something to do with how Americans, no matter where they are, think their culture is the most important and should always be observed at that time. And so, I think that was one of the biggest things that hit home for me, was that. And then the other thing that hit home for me was the hypocrisy of the military around -- You know, the military talks about, you know, “We’re all one,” and, you know, “We’re all fighting the good fight together.” Whatever their thing is, but there was very much a lot of racism in the military against black soldiers and other soldiers of color. I mean, I remember my father not always getting 13:00promoted and -- I mean there was just -- and I experienced a lot of racism even within the American base and the school and stuff. So I think it was a coming of age around those kinds of things, and I think they were sort of more front and center in my life, and I think they actually have deeply shaped me or touched me in terms of even how I take up my own work. Not so much just the, you know, the social justice issues that I work around, but more about how I take up my work as I work with other people of color, white people, people who aren’t from this country, immigrants and stuff like that, but trying to take it up from a less egocentric place. Yeah.

GERRARD: Did you have mostly American friends, or were you friends with some of the German kids as well?


BARNHILL: I had day-to-day American friends because they lived on base and I saw them, but when I was an exchange student, obviously I went and lived with a German family and I made friends with that family. To a certain extent, we kept in touch. My mom -- I can’t remember where she met this woman -- met a German woman somewhere and our family and their family -- that woman had a husband and children -- became friends and so we would go to their house and they would eat at our house, but it wasn’t an everyday kind of thing. And the other thing too, that is so interesting -- you’re in the U.S., you’re in a foreign country that you have an opportunity -- Germany has a rich history to really learn about, but there was not a push to get you to do that. You know, I mean because a lot of people had a lot of feeling about why do we need to be in Germany, you know. The Berlin Wall hadn’t fallen at that point and all that. So it was just very much mixed messages. I mean, they really wanted the military 15:00base with the school and everything to be their enclave and we were all there, so it was a little different.

GERRARD: Do you feel like the Vietnam War and then you’re in the seventies, you’ve got Nixon and all of the fandangle with Watergate and all that -- do you think that affected how Europeans were viewing Americans as well?

BARNHILL: I think that’s part of it, oh yeah. Yeah, I do. I do. But I also think that we have throughout history conducted ourselves on the world stage in a way that is less than gracious, that is less than flattering about us, and speaks volumes about our inability to both co-lead and co-exist with others. I do agree that the factors that you just mentioned shaped that, but I think it’s been going, you know, for a long, long time.


GERRARD: That just happened to be the -- that moment in time that was at the forefront.

BARNHILL: So if we look at, you know, Israel and Palestine...You know, if we go back -- When I first moved back to Atlanta, I got very involved with what was going on in Nicaragua, the Contras and the Sandinistas -- I mean, there’s so many examples of how we’ve conducted ourselves. You know, I mean, we look at Haiti. I could just start listing, right? And, so here’s the thing. The U.S. basically knows U.S. history and U.S. current events. We don’t spend nearly enough time understanding world events and what goes on in other places and what’s important. And so what happens from that is that people really do know -- in other places, really do know in a great bit of detail about our little actions. We sometimes don’t even know and don’t understand the importance of 17:00what we do, how it affects other people. So I say all that to kind of just, sort of wrap up the piece that -- I don’t know. This country, I live here; I love it; I am happy that I am an American. It affords me many opportunities that other people don’t get, but I would call myself an accountability partner for my country and when I think about the level of accountability we need to be called to -- ooh-wee. Both domestically and internationally.

GERRARD: Was your family spiritual?

BARNHILL: Mm-hmm. And religious too, and that’s a dichotomy. We were religious in that my father at that time wasn’t a minister, but my grandfather was a 18:00minister. On my mother’s side, many of her -- particularly the women -- were mothers of the church or deaconesses and the men were deacons. So -- and it was not unusual for us to go to church every Sunday, go to Bible study. All of that stuff was very much religion and particularly in my mom’s family, they were southern, black Baptists, so that has a lot of ritual to it. So we were very religious in that way. You know, reading the Bible, singing, and all that stuff that you do. But I also found that my family had a strong spiritual center which really, then and now, speaks to me so much more deeply than religion does because religion sometimes gets us involved with all these man-made rituals and customs and rules that have nothing to do with how we really live in the world in a way that’s loving and peaceful and that creates a space for other people. 19:00But, my grandmother was very, very spiritual; my mom too, and that was around understanding that there is a higher power. Understanding that there are seasons and times in life and that yes, it’s very much chronos, but also that there’s a whole kairos kind of feeling around things too. So, very grounded -- and I think that’s also around being farmers too. Very much of the earth and understanding that. Understanding, like the seed time and harvest. So all of that, and those are very much spiritual kinds of concepts that they shared and imparted to me and other members of my family and stuff.


GERRARD: When you were in school, what subjects did you enjoy?

BARNHILL: Well, let me think. I liked writing and English. Reading, I liked spelling. Now this was obviously when I’m in more of the primary grades and stuff like that. In high school, I really liked a lot -- I liked history. I liked civics. And then when I went to college, I was a political science and English major. So there’s always been something to me about being able to use words to express ideas and concepts and stuff like that. And I come -- as an African-American, I come out of a rich oral tradition, and so wanting to take that up. And then also, understanding too, the need for the written word and all 21:00of that, so. Those were my favorites. I was not a good or a big math person. I pretty much felt like calculus, geometry -- while I took them -- On a daily question, “OK, so, what is the relevancy of this to my life, and will I ever use it again?” And you know, maybe I have, I don’t think so, though, but probably. I don’t know.

GERRARD: Now you said -- So you had -- Your siblings, there were boys and girls. Were you treated equally?

BARNHILL: Mm-mm. Well, first of all, so he was older. So that was -- He was already in his teens -- You know, he was a young adult. He was about ten, maybe almost 15 years older than us. I can’t remember, but it was a lot of years. But, I mean, my mom was a good daughter of the patriarchy and my brother took out the trash and we cleaned up. And we did everything else and we -- You know, 22:00I think that -- There was a saying -- and I don’t know if it’s the world over, or even if it’s only in the black community -- but we have a saying that “Mothers love their sons and raise their daughters.” And that’s very much how it was. You know? And when I was really young, it almost didn’t bother me because I just thought, “Oh, well. Well he’s older and bigger than me.” But as I got into high school and stuff, I was like, “Wait a minute.” You know? I began to really see the inequalities. And then when I looked at my mother’s life -- who, she was just this brilliant, creative woman who never fully got to experience that -- I think a part of her really struggled against that. Which is why I think that, you know, this whole notion of playing the game in life and raising the stakes? I got acquainted with that early and I think one 23:00of the ways she played the game was to, you know, let my brother do his thing, and my dad. And you know, they only took out the trash, but she raised the stakes by saying to us, “You need to be able to make your own money. You need to be able to make your own decisions. This is your body. You need to take care of it. You need to love it.” So I think that is her way of having dealt with that.

GERRARD: Yeah. I think you see that with a lot of women --


GERRARD: Of that generation.

BARNHILL: Mm-hmm. I agree.

GERRARD: What were your parents’ aspirations for you?

BARNHILL: To become a strong, independent woman who could take care of herself. I mean, it was a given in my household that you were going to have a college education. That wasn’t, you know...My mom didn’t go to college. You know. She got her GED and went to a technical school. My dad went to college playing football for Kentucky State at that time, which was a historically black college, and -- I don’t know -- something happened. Drinking or something -- whatever -- so he got kicked out, so he never finished his degree. But both of 24:00my parents had a love for education and it was just like, never any question. You’re going to college. So.

GERRARD: When you were younger, did you have any idea what you wanted to be?

BARNHILL: Yeah. So I wanted to be three things in my life. I first wanted to be an actor, but my mom was like, “Mm-mm, and they don’t make any money.” But there’s just something about me that -- I don’t know -- I have a lot of different personalities or characters or whatever. So I wanted to be that. And then second I wanted to be a psychiatrist, which she was not opposed to, but -- because, you know, anything connected to “doctor, M.D.,” people like that. But when I was in high school and I began to research it and I found out that psychiatrists -- at that time; I don’t know if it’s true now -- they had the highest suicide rate? I was like, “Oh hell no. I definitely cannot be that.” Because I love life and I plan on being on the planet for as long as I can. So then I started thinking about what I could be and, you know, people always said, 25:00“You should be either a lawyer or a reporter,” because I asked a lot of questions. And I already knew I didn’t want to be a journalist. So then I thought, “Okay a lawyer is acceptable, respectable. You know? It’s only three more years after college as opposed to med school, which is a lot.” So that’s kind of how I, you know moved into a -- And back in that time, like, in the, you know, late seventies and stuff, we really -- while people were activists and we had the image and the examples of activists, civil rights activists, we as a society had not embraced that as a true profession yet. You know? We thought it was something you did if you were a minister or if, you know, you were wronged, but it really wasn’t what you built your life around or trained yourself to be.

GERRARD: So, well, you went to Georgia State University.

BARNHILL: I started at Agnes Scott --

GERRARD: You did?


BARNHILL: Which was a women’s college. Mm-hmm. And I got a scholarship there, and -- I mean I stayed two years, but pretty much, after the first six months, I figured out a couple of things. One, it was what I call a finishing school because there was a much bigger focus on getting your M-R-S degree at that time that meeting a guy from Georgia Tech or Emory and there were very few black guys at that time at those schools anyway, but it wasn’t -- Clearly it was a well-rounded liberal arts school, but for the preparing me for law school and for the kind of future I thought I was going to have, it wasn’t the place. But I stayed an additional year, and then I left there and I came to Georgia State and finished and then I got my law degree at University in Texas at Austin.

GERRARD: So you were here, Georgia State University -- I think you graduated 1981 -- Can you tell me what the campus looked like at that time? It’s changed a lot.


BARNHILL: It didn’t look like this. Of course, we didn’t have any dorms.

GERRARD: So where were you living?

BARNHILL: I lived in apartment with a girl I went to high school with -- two other girls, I think. And they both came to Georgia State too; went to Georgia State too. But -- let’s see -- there was Kell Hall. There was the Urban Life building. There was Sparks Hall. That was it, I think.

GERRARD: And what was the level of diversity on campus at that point?

BARNHILL: It’s not nearly as diverse as it is now. It was probably [merely?] European-American students with African-American students. The international student community was really, really small and there were not that many Latin Americans either. Yeah, so it was like so much of Georgia used to be. There were only like two races, but very different. The average age of a student was probably 26, 27. A lot of people were in the night program. Like, they had a 28:00full-time day job and they did the night. And on campus now, there’s much more of a sense of students and student energy and student activities, and it wasn’t like that. I mean, it was a place where you came, you went to class, and you left.

GERRARD: So you weren’t involved in any, like, student organizations or anything like that?

BARNHILL: A few. I’m not in a sorority. I think that sororities play an important role in our society, but my personality, that doesn’t mesh for me. So I co-founded on campus the Georgia State chapter of the NAACP. I co-founded a group that, at that time, there were a lot of murders of black children here in Atlanta, the missing and murdered children, and I co-founded a sort of chapter, or organization and we went out on Saturdays and scoured the fields and, you know, grassy areas, looking for the children, missing and murdered children. So 29:00I only, which has been the -- What? What? My whole life, my pattern, I think that social connections are very important, but I generally make my social connections through doing movement or important work. Because I think the way that we deal with racism and sexism isn’t always to get into these long dialogues and have a seminar. Sometimes it is for us to work together around an issue that is crippling us as people, and it is in those moments that we learn how to deal with our racism and deal with our sexism and how to come to a common table with other human beings because we come from a place of respect. And it’s very hard, if I have no respect for you, for me to, you know, really engage with you or treat you right or whatever. So it’s -- that has been the way that I’ve always operated. In law school, if it really wasn’t about a cause or something that was going to move an agenda forward, I never joined any 30:00of those social things -- You know, those little groups either.

GERRARD: Now the NAACP group that -- at Georgia State, did you -- Were you active? Did you -- What was going on with the group?

BARNHILL: Well, the reason why we started it was because the NAACP, at that time in Atlanta, was very active around this missing and murdered children thing. Because they began to call into question, you know, the police chief, the police -- What are you all doing? Just, they really -- The city was in an intense moment. And also Maynard Jackson was running for the first black mayor and so the NAACP was political and all of that, and so I joined that. But as a student in the city of Atlanta, where all the civil rights icons -- the majority of them were still living -- they ran all that, and students could come but we really had no voice. And so the guy -- Victor; I cannot remember Victor’s last name 31:00-- I believe both his parents -- He’s a native Atlantan -- were really big and involved here in the NAACP in Atlanta. And so he and I just used to talk all the time, and we started talking about, “OK, well maybe we need to create a student, college chapter on campus.” Because there were other ones across the country, and so we did. And, I mean, our rule again was political, one. We of course went out and tried to draw visibility around the missing and murdered children. We began to call Georgia State into question around its own practices. There were very few black faculty or administrators there. And there was this thing at the time -- I don’t know if they still have it, but Georgia State would admit you, but you were kind of like a -- I call it a remedial student or something like that, and you had to take some test. Everybody had to take this 32:00test when you first came. And if you didn’t pass the test, then you couldn’t get into the regular course load. And so we found out that there were scores and scores of students, majority African-Americans who were not passing whatever this little test was. So they were spending four years at Georgia State paying all this money, and they weren’t able to graduate. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. So, anyway, we challenged that a lot. I’m trying to think. There was an organization -- something around black student life -- who dealt more with sororities and fraternities and all the activities. So we really didn’t do that, but our whole role was to call attention to the -- what we thought were injustices, either in the community or in the campus community that needed to be highlighted.


GERRARD: Do you think that at that time -- Because it sounds like you, all your life, you’re moving toward where you’re coming -- but that -- Was that like the beginning of really focusing your philosophies and your thoughts around race and children and...?

BARNHILL: No, I think that came when I -- Well I organized when I was in, you know, law school. I think I was a campaign manager for the first black law student body president. I mean, so I’ve always done, you know, these kind of things. But I think what happened was, when I came back to Atlanta, I took my first job as a lawyer. I mean, that’s really -- And I experienced a lot of both racism and sexism in my job and the treatment -- My own personal treatment, even though as a lawyer, and I started out doing death penalty work, and the treatment of the clients, too. So I think that really crystallized it, because I shad started thinking, you know, “Here I am, highly educated, but yet there is 34:00no place for me. Right? There is no place for me. No place for me as a woman. No place for me as an African-American, and so I think that was the --

GERRARD: Tell me about that. I do want to go back and talk a little about why you went to Texas and all of that, but, while we’re here talking about this experience -- so you were working on the death penalty cases. How did you get that job?

BARNHILL: Let’s see. When I was in law school, I did -- they have all these different little clinics that you can do, and I did a clinic that was a legal assistance clinic, and I actually -- this is terrible -- I picked it because I thought it was going to be really easy and not require a lot of me, and I was -- you know, your first year, you couldn’t work. So this was my third year, and I had to work, so I was like, “I need something easy.” So I thought, basically, the description of it -- and it was more than this -- was that 35:00prisoners would write letters to you or to the clinic asking you to research legal issues and send in the information into them because many prisoners become kind of what we call writ writers. You know, they really get active in their own case and helping other people advocate. But at that time, I think Bounds v. Smith, which is the legal case that said, you know, there must be adequate libraries in prisons -- I don’t think they had that yet, so a lot of times there wouldn’t be law books, or -- anyway, so the prisoners would write law schools to get -- so I signed up for this. I was like, “Oh, this is going to be easy. I don’t have to go anywhere. I just go up here into the office, get the letters, look up the law, and send it back.” Well, of course, nothing ever works like that. So I read a letter -- and he’s dead now -- from a guy by the name of Charlie Brooks. He was on death row, and he had asked some legal 36:00question that dealt with ineffective assistance of counsel. And so I remember looking it up, and I remember sending it -- whatever, the information -- to him, and that began sort of the beginning in some ways, because he wrote back and started talking about -- he had a legal defense team, and they were working on his death penalty case. And you know, in the correspondence, he told me that he and another guy -- his codefendant was white -- they robbed a 7-Eleven, you know, to get the money, and Charlie was driving the car. The guy went in to rob, you know, the money out of the till, and that was the plan, but the guy actually shot the 7-Eleven attendant, and the attendant later died, I guess, on the floor or whatever, and they got caught very quickly. They divided the money, which really wasn’t very much money, up. I think they pumped gas, and somebody saw 37:00the license -- I mean, just crazy stuff. So they get arrested. Charlie gets a public defender. His codefendant, his family was wealthy, and they got a high-powered lawyer. He got life in prison, you know, with -- I think, at that time, it was without the possibility of parole. I can’t remember. Charlie got the death penalty.

GERRARD: Even though he was just the driver? He wasn’t the one that pulled the trigger?

BARNHILL: Right, but, I mean, he still was there in the commission of the crime, and, you know, you still get held accountable whether you killed that person or not because you came there to commit, you know, a crime. And I mean, I have no problem saying I think that you have to be held accountable for your actions, so I actually think that, yes, he should have been in prison. I just didn’t happen to think that he should have died, right? So, anyway, I think a couple of things happened. One, I think the codefendant who had the high-powered lawyer, 38:00his lawyer was smart and cut a deal, and he, of course, testified against Charlie and all of that kind of stuff. Charlie had a young public defender and whatever. But I remember -- and Charlie was at the very end of his appeals, and, while the law has changed now and you can’t, you know, appeal stuff for years and 20 years, but, you know, he’d been on death row a long, long time. But anyway, it was at the end, and I remember going to the vigil the night he died. They executed him in Texas. Texas executed a lot of people. And that really, in a lot of ways, was the beginning for me, because I was like, “Oh, my goodness, I think this is some work that I want to do not because it’s sexy,” because it’s really not, “or any of that, but because people are not willing to do it, and this is a good fight.” And you know, I’m not an abolitionist in that 39:00I think there shouldn’t be prisons. I don’t think that. I think there are acts that we commit that cause us to be separated from our community and our family. You know, the hope is that you will get treatment, you will get better, and you will, at some point, be able to come back into the community. And if that is not the case, wherever you are confined, I want it to be humane. So, anyway, that was the start of it. So I said, “You know, I think I’m getting ready to do some death penalty stuff.” And as I started reading up on the death penalty, most of the cases are in the South and in the Deep South: Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama. Texas isn’t the Deep South, but -- anyway, so that was the start. So I said, “OK, I think I want to do this work,” and I started only interviewing with organizations that did that. And I knew I wanted to come back to Atlanta. My family was in Augusta. I wanted to be close, but I’m not small-town girl material. I need to be in a bigger city, so I was -- and I had gone to college here, and I liked it. So that’s kind of how it all came together.

GERRARD: Let’s go back quickly and talk about -- why did you choose to go to 40:00University of Texas?

BARNHILL: Nothing deep. They recruited me. It was, at that time, a top-10 law school, and they said, “Hey, between work-study and scholarship, you’ll get a free ride.” I mean, I was already committed. I had already -- excuse me -- accepted admittance or whatever into the class of -- whatever year I graduated, ’83, ’84 -- I guess ’84, at University of Colorado in Denver. I mean, I really didn’t pick law school based on -- I loved to travel. I hadn’t lived in Colorado. I thought, “Hey, you know,” but on the -- at that time, I don’t know. I guess, probably still, on your LSAT you can check a box that says, “Do you want schools who are interested in people in your demographics 41:00and your GPA,” or something like that, “and scores to contact you?” So I checked it, so a lot of schools contacted me. The University of Texas contacted me late. Well, at that time, I didn’t know that they had been sued in the [inaudible] decision, and they were under court orders and all of this stuff. You know, they had to admit more African American students. I didn’t know that at that time, but they contacted me, and I told them, “I’ve already accepted.” I mean, they pursed me hard, hard, hard, hard, hard, hard, hard. When they said, you know, “This will be -- you won’t have to take out any loans. This will be for your three years a free ride.” I mean, it didn’t end up being that. I ended up having to take out a loan because, you know, things changed, but I don’t know. I just -- I had never been to Texas either, and when I kind of added it up -- I mean, I felt like I just needed to go someplace where I would get a quality legal education, and I felt like I would have gotten that at University of Denver. I mean, I’m not a -- what is this thing -- I’m 42:00not an Ivy League school person. That has never been, like, my motivating factor. I just believe that, if you get a quality education and if you bring who you fully are to that education, you can succeed no matter where you go, and I think that’s an important thing that we don’t teach our young people but that we should, you know, because we live in a country where you’re spending $30,000 to $40,000 a year for college. You come out and you can’t get a job. You get devastated because some of it is a sense of entitlement. We almost have a culture in this society that says, “If I go to an Ivy League school or something,” whatever, “very prestigious, it then entitles me. That is my passbook into my station in life.” And I think that’s very much not true, you know. And I also think there’s something really wrong with us thinking about life in that way, but I also think it’s a carryover from being 43:00colonizers and an imperialistic mindset, to be quite frank. You know, so that all goes together.

GERRARD: Now, when you got to the University of Texas, you start your law degree. What kind of law, at that time, did you think you were going to be practicing?

BARNHILL: Oh, I didn’t know. I said, “Well, I might do oil and gas,” because it was big there. “I might do business.” But then, I pretty much really quickly realized, “That’s not me.” You know, I was the president of our black law student association, and, you know, some folks had sued the university over, you know, their racism around black students and stuff, and so -- I mean, those were kind of the issues I began to address and what became -- and then, I took a class -- I think it was at the end of my first year, I think, I took it, but maybe not. I think it was -- whatever. It was called Civil and Political Rights, and that really helped me crystallize, “OK, this is the 44:00direction Sandra Barnhill is going to go in,” and that was even before I worked on the Charlie Brooks case. I already knew that whatever I did -- you know, because in the back of my mind I had these thoughts. “I’m going to be the first female Thurgood Marshall.” I mean, you know how you go through all that. So I just kind of pretty much had figured out my fight was going to be something around justice and, you know, access through the law for disenfranchised people. I kind of knew that by the end of my first year.

GERRARD: OK. So when you come -- you graduate. You come back to Atlanta, and you start working on the death penalty cases. Were there any cases that jump out that you remember vividly?

BARNHILL: Yeah, one in particular. There was a guy who I went to high school with in Augusta, and I didn’t really know him or hang around with him because he was considered, like, bad, got high, drank, smoked weed -- I don’t know, 45:00whatever -- cut class, and pretty much, you know, I was kind of like the little -- well, I was always challenging stuff. You know, I was a straight-A, you know, all that, but I knew of him, but I never really associated with him. And when I first started practicing death penalty, one of the first cases I got was his case, and I read his name, and, you know, I was -- in my mind, “Hmm, that name.” You say, “Wow, that name sounds familiar.” I look at the transcript. I see it’s, you know, Augusta. He was not in school at that time. He had dropped out. But anyway, I remember the first day I went down to Jackson and saw him on death row, and I looked at him and I knew him. And I remember how hard that was for me, you know? Yeah, so I think that probably is one of the 46:00most poignant for me.

GERRARD: Well, that really humanizes it, doesn’t it?

BARNHILL: And the guy who was his codefendant, I knew him too. He didn’t go to our school. He went to one of our rival schools, but he was another badass, right? And his mom was an educator and his family had a little money and they got him a good lawyer, and he got life without the possibility of parole and my guy got the death penalty. I’m happy to say that, you know, long after I left practicing law, a group of lawyers really worked that case, and my guy ultimately got life in prison without the possibility of parole, so he did not get executed. But anyway I think it was that, because when I would go visit him to talk about his case, we would also sort of slip back and start going down kind of like Memory Lane and talking about stuff at school and parties and dances, and it was very -- that was probably one of the hardest ones. And then, 47:00the other hard one, for me, was -- well, two others -- one was representing a guy who had, I mean, just real issues with women, misogynistic and had brutally killed a woman, and I think she may not have been the only one. And so that really brought everything into question for me, right, because the question is, do I represent someone because I think that they’re innocent, or do I represent someone because I think that, regardless of what they did, they should get the very best legal defense. And so that became a moral question, right, that I had to struggle with. But anyway, the thing about this particular guy was -- I went down to see him with one of the other lawyers in the office, an older 48:00male lawyer. And when we got there, the male lawyer, you know, who had been working on his case and was going to be transferring it to me, did the initial talking and stuff like that, and I listened. But then, I began to ask questions and stuff like that, and I remember the guy looking at me, these deep eyes, piercing eyes, and basically saying, “I don’t want this woman working on my case. I do not want a woman.” And so then, when you go back and read the transcripts and the stuff, you realize that this guy, for whatever reasons -- I can’t even remember now what happened in his childhood, but he hated women. And so I thought, “Oh, my God, you are on death row. Your behind is about to be executed. I am a potential lifeline and because of my gender, you say no.” I mean, ultimately, I’m glad he said no, but you know, that was a real defining time for me, too because it made me realize how deeply ingrained some 49:00of these -isms are, I mean to the point of being counter to your own survival. You know, that’s really crazy. So that one and then the third one and the final one was --

GERRARD: Before you do that, what happened to this one? Did he -- was he reassigned another person?

BARNHILL: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.


BARNHILL: A male, yeah.


BARNHILL: Yeah, because you can’t re-- if the person doesn’t want you to represent them, you can’t. You know?

GERRARD: Was he -- were you successful in preventing the death penalty?

BARNHILL: I don’t know whatever happened to him. I can honestly, just in terms of being transparent -- that thing pissed me off so bad, I was like, “Who cares what happens to you?” And to be honest, I never really ever tried to -- like, the other guy I kept with or some of the others, but him I never really did. But, I mean, I remember when he really looked at me because, before then he might have glanced my way, but he was really looking at the older lawyer who was talking about, “This is what’s going on in your case. This is what we’re filing.” And then, he was like, “And this is Sandra. I’d like to introduce 50:00her. Your case is at a stable point --” because, at that time, they weren’t executing people as quickly, “-- she’s going to be taking over.” And then, I said, “Hi,” and I started asking probing questions and I mean, he never, ever -- other than that moment, he did not address me or focus on me. He looked at the other guy and said, “I do not want a woman representing me.” But anyway, so I never -- I don’t know. I don’t know. But you know, how sad that we live in a world that you can have such hatred and -- I don’t know, anyway.

GERRARD: Willing to sabotage yourself just for -- to reinforce that hatred.

BARNHILL: Yeah, so that, all that stuff, runs very deep, and --

GERRARD: OK. There was one other one you were going to talk about.

BARNHILL: -- oh, that’s a young man that came from Atlanta, actually lived in the community where the missing and murdered children were, and got interviewed 51:00during that time. But anyway, he got convicted and, I think, to this day, wrongfully, but he got tried as an adult. He was diminutive in size and I mean, was brutally, brutally, brutally, brutally, repeatedly, repeatedly, you know, raped in prison, and he really lost his mind. And that thing was so -- that really took me out because it really made me start thinking about, you know, what prisons really are and what the conditions are. And I firmly believe we have to hold people accountable, but there’s something about, even in the most -- places where -- you know, death row or wherever it is that you’re locked at, there needs to be some level of security and safety, you know, because this 52:00was a very young guy, you know, 17, very small. It was very clear just meeting him that he was so afraid, you know, just so afraid. And I mean, you know, we’d get reports that he was in the infirmary, and they were sewing up his anus, and, I mean, just repeatedly, and he really -- his method of self-protection is that he lost his mind and went to a whole other place, and he never came back. And so he, you know, spent his time getting -- being on meds. And I think, in this world, we self-medicated as a society. Clearly, in US society, we do, through our alcohol, through our prescription dru-- I mean, there are so many ways, through our shopping or whatever. But that thing just really, you know -- I don’t know -- it touched me deeply, and it also made me say to every mother who has a son or a daughter who they think is un-corrigible -- or “incorrigible,” I think, is the way you pronounce that -- and that 53:00child gets arrested for drunk driving or for smoking marijuana or for whatever, and you think letting your child stay in a prison is going to help, I’m here to tell you that is not the way to do it. I think, yes, you’re right; your child needs help. And yes, this is a moment of intervention, but the intervention isn’t, “I’m just going to let you stay there,” you know, “and let you learn your lesson and stuff.” And even in my work now, you know, I hear that sometimes, and I’m like, “No. I agree, point of intervention, they need to learn a lesson, but letting them stay locked up inside a prison or a jail is not the way to help them when they’re underage and all that kind of stuff.” So anyway, I think those would be it, but what I kind of realized, too, a couple of things -- one, the law wasn’t the answer. It’s part of an answer, but it’s really not the answer. We’re the answer, right? Until we change this society so that we don’t need so many prisons and 54:00we, you know, figure out how we help people get skills so they can have a quality life, you know -- until we do that, I don’t care how many lawyers and judges you have. Things will never be right. Look at what’s happening in this country now. The crime rate is down significantly, but, yet, more and more people are going to prison, so that tells you there’s something wrong. So that was one of the things I realized, that my work, in many ways, was at the wrong place in the chain, right? So I realized that. I also realized that we all have different roles in life, but I need my role to be a role of a healer, and doing that work was important. I saw a good number of my clients executed and arguing before the parole board and hearing they didn’t really give a damn and, I mean, just so many different things. There was not a whole lot of healing, you 55:00know, going on, and I realized that that probably, for me, wasn’t the place. For some other people, they -- and I had many colleagues who could do it, do it well, and they could go home and sleep at night. And you know, I couldn’t really do that and just -- I never -- and I also was really worried because I had several clients who said to me -- and this is my own selfishness -- you know, “When they’re going to execute me, I want you to be there, because I want you to be the last person I see,” and I realized that I couldn’t do that. So I just realized that that can’t be my role. And then, the other thing I really realized is that, in this life, if I was ever going to have a place where I could be respected, where I could grow and be valued, it was going to have to be a place I created.

GERRARD: Because you -- I mean, you’ve said -- I don’t know if you want to talk about it -- but that you’re working on very progressive issues, but that, still, you were dealing with sexism and racism within a really progressive group 56:00of people.

BARNHILL: Right. And sometimes, I actually think that we liberals are worse than the conservatives and the people who don’t even say they are liberal, because at least they know who they are. For us, I think we get caught up in so many things, and I think we move into the martyr place very quickly. “Oh, you know, look at me. All the other people, they’re not do-- look at what I’m doing.” And we do that from a place of superiority, which is, itself, oppressive. You know, so I think, yeah, we’re always looking for a place where we can pass, take a pass, you know, “Not me, everybody else.” And so those of us who do this work, unless we are very vigilant, we become some of the biggest perpetrators of racism, sexism, elitism, all of that, you know, and we do it under the banner of doing good work, and it’s as if to say, “This good work that I do in the world, you know, absolves me from being a good, righteous 57:00person day to day. Just so long as, when it’s necessary, I get out there, I raise hell, and I fight the good fight, who cares how I’m living, right, or how I treat my neighbor or my coworker and all of that?” And so -- and I find that to be very scary, and I also think it gets scary when we put ourselves in places where we’re always passing judgment on other people and never examining ourselves, you know. And sometimes, the people that you represent or that you work with help get you to that place because they tell you how thankful they are for you and what you’ve done, and, you know -- but I think it’s very easy to move to an ego place. I think you have to be so careful, and our society is very much set up on hierarchy and on -- there’s always somebody who’s the top person, and we cater to that person, and everything is built around them. And so those are structures, right, that we have in place often in our homes, in our 58:00work, but it’s also a structure that’s very much in place in our larger society, so I don’t know. I just think you have to be careful. But the thing about Forever Family or Aid to Children of Imprisoned Mothers , where I work, is that I got to help shape the culture there, and I got to help shape it -- we have a list of principles that every staff-person has to sign, and, every two years, we reevaluate them and change them. But it’s, you know -- it talks about that our work is not hierarchical in nature. It’s based on a womanist, feminist model. We talk about that. We talk about how you share information to edify but not to gossip, how we assume the best of one another. I mean, we have all these principles that, you know, we say, and we commit to living as best we can an anti-racist, -sexist, -elitist lifestyle. So we have a lot of those 59:00principles, and we talk about how we are copartners, co-laborers with the community, how we don’t know what’s best for our families. They know what’s best, but what we want to do is to put ourselves in a place to help them find the information and the tools they need to craft a better future for themselves. And so, I’ve been a part of that. We had a socially-responsible policy -- and still do -- about who we’ll take money for. I remember in the early years when we were so broke and Hugh Hefner’s daughter took over Playboy, the foundation, and she came to the South and really went hard for groups that worked with disenfranchised women to give them money. Well, OK, yes, I understand that you want to do that, but part of it is because some of the biggest people you make money off of, right, are these women, you know, 60:00low-income, poor, women of color who you exploit, and I remember there was never a question for me that we were not going to take her money. But I remember, you know, having the board vote on that policy that we’ve lived with, or we don’t take money from alcohol and tobacco companies because those are two industries -- particularly alcohol -- that have had such a devastating effect on the communities that we serve. And so, in that way, I feel like I’ve been able to help shape that kind of culture. And back in the day, when we did that in 1987, that was kind of unheard of -- what -- yeah, the socially-responsible policy about how you raise your money and stuff. I mean, that’s very common now, but back then it wasn’t, and so putting those kind of measures in place allowed me to be at a place that I felt spoke to who I was and what I wanted to be about in the world. And so, I mean, I thank every day that I have a law 61:00degree because it provided me -- having that high level of education provided me a crack or a gap or a window of opportunity so that I could do something different, you know?

GERRARD: So let’s go back to, like, 1987, and you said you realized you needed to create an organization. What was the -- why did you decide -- how did you decide this was the organization you were going to work with, women in prison and their children?

BARNHILL: Well, when I was practicing with this nonprofit legal group, we did death penalty cases and prison condition cases, and, while I was there, I noticed that they did all these -- suing all these prisons in the South, but they’d never sued any women’s prison. And I looked in this drawer where they had all these letters from prisoners, and none of -- there were all these letters from women, and nobody had ever answered them. So I started answering them, and I found that -- there were many more men in that nonprofit legal group 62:00than women, but I found one of the more established women lawyers and said, “Hey, look at all these letters. I really think we ought to try to figure out how to do a prison condition case for women.” And she was like, “I’m with you. [I’m fine?]. You know, I’ll support you. You’re going to have to do most of the work, but I’ll help.” And I remember going to our boss and sharing that with him, and he was like, “Fine, but you’re going to have to find the money to do it.” So I wrote my first grant to a foundation that supported women’s work and said, “I want to do a prison condition case, class action,” and they funded us, and we did it. And that’s how I started doing legal stuff, and then we went on to sue -- that was in Alabama, and then we went on to sue Louisiana. And I ultimately left the organization before -- well, the first one, the case in Alabama, we entered into a consent decree, and, before the ink was dry, women were like, “Well, yeah, that’s fine. Now, I’m going to get better medical treatment. Yeah, that’s fine now that,” 63:00because we sued over issues of parity. Men had so many more vocational and educational opportunities than women did, and they were like, “OK, yeah, that’s great. That’s fine. But do you know what? I haven’t seen my kids in blah, blah, blah, and I don’t even know what’s happening with them.” And so, I think that all of us kind of have moments of -- I don’t know if this is the right word, but convergence, where many things in our lives come together, and that’s a moment of opportunity. It usually is precipitated by a moment of crisis. [laughter] I had started organizing the women in the office because we got the worst cases and we made the least pay. There were more women in the office but not women lawyers, but, when you took in all the others, the support staff, it was more women. So I began organizing them and having meetings on Sunday, and you know, a woman who infiltrated and went back and told -- I mean, I was just getting such good organizing training -- went and told. My boss said I was an agitator, and I remember crying, and I remember one of my friends said, 64:00“Girl, he just paid you a compliment.” Isn’t it interesting how life -- you know, that’s what you’re supposed to be doing. So anyway, I knew I was going to have to leave there. I was either going to have to quit or get fired. I mean, it was just pretty much going to be that. And so, really, this is where my spiritual life came in. I began really just sort of praying and saying, “OK, God, there’s so much confusion here. You’re not a God of confusion, so there must be -- something is going on.” It was so funny. My pastor, who was a woman at that time, began preaching this series about living out your calling, and she talked about that there are two places that you can be with God. You can be in the permissible will of God or the perfect will. And she said the permissible will is where you’ll be in the world. You’ll do some good stuff, and things will go well. Nobody will say you’re a slouch or anything like that. But she 65:00said, then, you could be in the perfect will of God, and that will be the place where you will be most challenged, where there will be the most controversy around you, but you will do the greatest exploits for the Kingdom. And I take my faith very seriously, and so I began to pray about that thing. And I was like, “OK, God, I’m in your permissible will, but I think I want to go to that perfect will because I know --” and I do believe that our God is a God of justice, and he loves justice. And you know, I mean, he’s merciful, too, but he really wants women and men and people of all races to be treated fairly. I believe that, and I think everything that I read in my faith tradition supports that. So, anyway, I just started praying about it, and I was like, you know, “I want to go to that place. I want to be in your perfect will.” And I think, when we really -- I don’t know if you’ve -- Paul -- oh, what is Paul’s last name? There’s an author, and, anyway, he wrote this little book, 66:00and one of the lines in the book is that, when you really want something, the universe conspires to give it to you. I’ll have to think of the name of that book. It’ll come to me -- The Alchemist, Paul -- what is his last name? Anyway, I can’t remember. But anyway, I just think that, because I really wanted it on that spiritual side, the universe -- or, if it’s your religious side, God or whatever -- opened up to give that to me. You know, I wanted to be, you know, in a different place in my life where I accepted a challenge, you know? And it was very hard for me because -- I didn’t realize it, but, in my own way, I very much was a good daughter of the patriarchy. I was used to people approving me, telling me what to do, you know, checking with somebody all the time just to make sure. Well, when I left that thing, there wasn’t -- I was 67:00doing something nobody had ever done. People were not validating me, let me tell you, and there was not anyone to tell me, “This is right. This is wrong.” But that was probably the best time for me because two things happened. One, I developed a moral compass, center, that I’d never had before, and I also developed a sense of boldness that I never had before. And so, you know, that’s just kind of how all of it sort of came together, and I realized that I was at the place -- it was a place of struggle, a place of, you know, pain and all that, but it was a place where I saw a lot of transformation in my own life and in the lives of others. And I think, ultimately, that’s what’s supposed to be happening here on the planet, you know? I mean, we all come in -- depending on what our work is -- at different ways, but I do believe that the nature of our work is to be ourselves transformed and to be involved in the transformation, you know, of other people.


GERRARD: So what, though, would -- why women and their children?

BARNHILL: Well, I guess it’s because when I met women in Alabama -- women in Louisiana, too, but more in Alabama because I spent the most time there. I think it was an 18-month investigation I did before we finally got into court and stuff like that. I think those women really touched me and challenged me and talked about, you know -- because I would always say stuff like, “Well, what can I do for you?” And you know, I mainly was thinking about legally or whatever, do I need to call your family so they can put money on your books. And they’d say stuff like, “I really want to see my kids,” and so, see, that was the seed then, but I didn’t realize it. So I think, when I began praying about it -- I think what God did was to take all of these factors or all of these different things, and I think She put them together to say, “This is it. 69:00This is the thing that you could do.” You know, in the South, this work wasn’t being done. It was primarily being done on the West Coast, but not a whole lot of it, so I think, you know, that was how it just kind of came together, because I woke up one morning, and I knew that the organization was going to take children to see their moms in prison. You know, I didn’t know the name or anything, but I woke up one morning, and I had that really clear. I just knew that. And so that, knowing, I think is coming from God. I think She, He, whatever you choose to call our higher power, just said, “This is your work.”

GERRARD: So tell me, how do you go about establishing an organization like that?

BARNHILL: I don’t know. [laughter] Well, let me just say that I didn’t establish it based on all those things I read in the books, but half of what I read in books doesn’t apply to me anyway as a woman and as a person of color, so that. But I mean, I went and read all the little books and stuff and, “You do this, and you do that, and you get this board that, you know -- all these 70:00presidents. And they make all these millions, and they give to your organization.” Well, yeah, maybe in a different world, but, in this world, when you’re working on a controversial issue, you’re black, and you’re a female -- I mean, look at the -- the Council on Foundations put out this survey that said that organizations that work around issues of black people and people of color that are run by a person of color, and if she’s woman, they get the least amount of philanthropic dollars. It’s that triple quandary, right? So, anyway, I mean -- so I tried to start it by reading those books and going to those little foundations or workshops and, whatever, nonprofits and their workshops, and none of that worked for me. You know? I couldn’t get the president of Coke to want to be on my board, and he doesn’t or she still doesn’t -- I don’t know, male or female. But anyway, what I quickly realized 71:00is that I was and am a grassroots organizer, and I knew how to mobilize people, and I know how to bring people to a common issue, right, by peeling back all that crap and just making it real. It’s kind of like, “Who funded us the most for so many years? Mothers, professional mothers, black and white, who know what it --” you know, they understand intimately what that means to have a child, and when they think about being separated from their child like that, what would that -- you know? So, anyway, I just left all that textbook stuff alone. I quite going to the seminars and taking the notes, and then I just started thinking, “OK, I’m an organizer. I know how to bring people together around an issue.” And I ran Forever Family as a grassroots organization, and “grassroots” isn’t that it can only be a certain size. Grassroots is about the philosophy of how you take up your work and how you engage people, and so 72:00that’s really what I did, and I’m sure I’ve broken every, like, one of the little rules, the nonprofit rules, which is part of why I’m writing a book now and interviewing activists who have done it a different way and lifting up these new models, because people need to see that the -- you know, I have nothing against doing it the nonprofit, cookie-cutter way. If you have a United Way or a Salvation Army or Red Cross or whatever, by all means do it like that. But if you’re working on a controversial issue, if you are considered a minority or a disadvantaged group or whatever, you can’t do it that way. So, you know, my book is about lifting up other ways of doing it and inviting people both in those disenfranchised communities but in our larger communities to say, “Hey, there is another way we can get this done.”

GERRARD: Now, Forever Family started off under a different name.

BARNHILL: Mm-hmm. It started out as Aid to Imprisoned Mothers, which we changed 73:00to Aid to Children of Imprisoned Mothers. We had the same acronym, AIM, but we had somebody on our board who worked for one of these Big 10 consulting firms, and he thought the reason we weren’t getting any money is because we didn’t focus enough on the children. I’m like, “But we do focus on the children,” and he said, “Well, you’ve got to focus on it in the name.” So we added that in the name, but it really didn’t change things. And then, we changed, right at our 20th year, to Forever Family because we began to work with children who had a mom and a dad in prison. And we started out going into the women’s prison and saying to moms, you know, “So many of your kids, their dads are in prison, too, and there are a lot of kids out here,” you know, women are only six percent of the prison population nationally, “but there are a lot of kids out here who have a dad in prison. What do you think about that?” And to a fault, you know, we did a lot of focus groups with women inside. They said, “Hey, I might not want to deal with him, but my son, my daughter, they need their dad.” Yeah, and so I have such admiration for women prisoners understanding in that deep way, and they were like, “We support you, whatever 74:00we need to do to help you.” And I said, “Well, I needed your permission, because I started this because you asked me, and I felt I owe that to you.” So we did that, and then we started having focus groups with men in and out, you know, saying, “OK, if we’re going to change this, what seems important to you?” And pretty much all of them said, “We love the name AIM. We understand the power of it. We love the symbol that has the mom with the baby in it, but, when we think of ourselves, we can’t see ourselves in that.” And so, then, we started looking for names, and Forever Family has so much appeal. And it was so funny. We had a list of, I think, five names, and we didn’t tell -- you know, we vetted it with a bunch of different groups, but we vetted it with our kids and the caregivers, their caregivers, separately: 100% of the kids picked Forever Family as the name.

GERRARD: That’s interesting.


BARNHILL: And it was 100% of the caregivers, but it was really high. And the kids said stuff like, “Well, yeah, forever, that’s my mom. That’s my dad. That’s my family.” You know? And as we’ve, over these seven years, moved into the name, a lot of the faith community really embraces it because --

GERRARD: The word “family” is really important.

BARNHILL: And they also take it from their spiritual or religious perspective of forever. We’ll reign with Him forever and ever, all that kind of stuff. So it’s really funny because it’s a name in which people see so many different things, and there’s a power, I think, in that, too, you know. So that’s how we got there.

GERRARD: Names are really, really important.

BARNHILL: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

GERRARD: So what did the organization look like when it started?

BARNHILL: Let’s see. For the first 10 years, we just did prison trips. Well, the first five years, we only did prison trips every -- two weekends a month. Then, after our fifth year, we added a weeklong summer camp, and then we did 76:00that from ’87 -- you know, from the inception -- to ’97. In ’98, we did a pilot -- a former or a retired NBA player gave me some money to do a pilot of an afterschool program because the mothers pretty much -- you know, the camp was my idea because I grew up going to camp and, you know, was a Girl Scout and all that. And there was something -- as there is about the water -- there is something very healing about nature for me, so I always wanted to camp. But you know, the moms started by saying, “Hey, bring my kids to see me.” Then, they began to talk about, you know, “My kids are struggling in school, and they need homework help, and their grandmother -- my mother -- she doesn’t really understand this new math.” And the caregivers were saying the same thing. “The kids need help with homework, you know, and they need it in a safe 77:00environment where people understand, you know, where it’s OK if people know that their mom is in prison.” And so we started an afterschool -- we piloted it for the year with that NBA guy’s money, and then it went well, and we have now done it for 15 years, and we are actually this year transitioning out of afterschool. And I’m so excited, one, because this issue of children with an incarcerated parent has so changed in the world, right, so there are many organizations who know that there are people in their programs who have parents in prison, and they treat them differently. So we’re spinning that off. We just had a meeting with our offices over in MPUV, our program site, the national offices. But we had a meeting with another afterschool service provider saying, “Hey, after 15 years, we’re not going to do this anymore. We want to support our families around connecting with other afterschool programs. We want to tell 78:00you about who we serve, what’s important.” So we did that, and we’re helping to make the link to get them connected. And now, we’re about to focus -- because we’ve also taken on -- we’re doing fathers in prison, and there are, like, 100-something -- no, what was it -- 66, I think, male prisons in Georgia, and we don’t do actual visits to male prisons. We do the video visits. So we’re about to increase the number of video visits. There are now -- there are no longer two women’s prisons. There are now four. So we are about to move our efforts back to a greater focus on where we began.

GERRARD: Can you talk a bit about the logistics of getting kids into the prisons to go see -- because it’s not a simple thing.

BARNHILL: So we, you know, pick up kids at home. Those people who have a car, which is very rare, they, you know, come and drop the kids off. But, like Saturday, we’re going on a prison trip, and I have to open the office, so I think I have to be there at 4:30. Our first bus leaves, I think, at 5:45 79:00a.m. So I have to get in there, get breakfast set up, the kids come and stuff like that, and then we get ready. And then, they get on the busses that we use, and the first bus leaves at 5:45 a.m. because we go down to Hawkinsville, Georgia, so that’s two and a half hours one way. And then, kids stand outside in line to get processed in. You know, you can’t wear shorts. You can’t bring in certain stuff. We are lucky -- or not lucky -- I’ll just say we’re fortunate, and I’m glad the department does not strip-search our children. In many places, mm-hmm, and they do extensive pat-downs too. For us, they don’t. It’s only one, because we say that the children we bring we’ve already checked. There aren’t any issues about them bringing in contraband drugs and this and that, but, in many places, they have to go through that, and you visit in one of two areas. You visit in the children’s center, which we are the 80:00pioneers of and got those started here in Georgia, which is a room maybe twice the size of this with games and toys and rocking chairs, and you can be -- and a changing table. Mom can change and interact with her kids, or you visit in general visitation, which is usually the gym, just, you know -- they’ve now put chairs and tables, and you sit around there, and there are vending machines, you know. And you sit there for five hours and the guards watch you. In the children’s center, the guards aren’t dressed in their guard uniform -- I’m sorry, “correctional officers” is actually the correct term for them. They’re not dressed in that. It’s a different atmosphere. So those are the places you visit, and then, at the end -- well, the mom is strip-searched when she comes down before she sees you, so she’s already gone through that, and she sees you. And then, you leave, and there are all these tears and hugs, and the mom gets strip-searched again, and she goes back to her cell. You know, and there are many people -- well, not so much now as it used to be -- who felt like it was wrong to bring the children into a prison environment to see their mom, 81:00which is part of why we fought to get the children’s centers, where it’s more humane. But I’ll tell you my experience, and I’ve worked with over 20,000 children, there is something healing about being with your mom and being close to her, and I don’t care where it is, in a prison, in the middle of the street, in the house. But there is something about the power of that love and that relationship that outweighs whatever physical environment you’re in. And I mean, it’s transformative for the kids and for her, and I’ve just seen so many opportunities because I think what happens is, in that place, in that time, kids know, without a shadow of doubt, “Mommy didn’t abandon me. She didn’t forget about me, and most importantly, she still loves me.” And love is the most powerful and most healing force in this universe. I believe that. I really do.


GERRARD: I completely agree. Now, so you were the first to get these centers established. Was that easy? Was that an easy fight, or was that -- did you struggle with that?

BARNHILL: So we struggled with it and I think that there are a lot of reasons for that. One, the primary purpose of prisons is not to rehabilitate, but it is to, you know, incarcerate people and keep society safer or whatever, so their budgets are focused on that. And you know, it was about, “OK, so where do we get this money from to have this center? And OK, then how do we pay for, you know, people?” You have the correctional officers who work in the regular facility, but then, if you’re going to be in the children’s center, you need, you know, training and different -- and so people had to give up -- correctional officers in the early years volunteered and gave up their Saturdays once a month to make it happen. And so that’s the other thing that I’ve learned, that even in the most humane place, there is humanity. There is. There 83:00just is. And so -- and I think, sometimes, in the fight, we get confused because we think it’s us and them. It’s like us, the activists, against the correctional officers, but that’s really -- I’ve just learned -- that’s really not what it’s about, but I’m just saying that’s how it so often is manifested. But anyway, so along these 27 years, I have had quite a number of correctional officers and [line?] staff and even people up in correctional administration who have understood the importance and the need for this, and, in their space and in the arena, they could maneuver and did what they could. So I can honestly -- I mean, I have to give them that. So, anyway, I digress.

GERRARD: So how did they get them funded?

BARNHILL: Well, at first, they weren’t, right? It was just a room. They had a spare room. We donated paint. They had the inmates paint it. We got toys donated. They got toys donated. I mean, the first playground that we got 84:00equipment for Forever Family and a group called Prison Ministries with Women, which is defunct now, we raised the money to get that playground equipment put out there for the kids. And for many years, Forever Family paid for the lunch. You know, we would either send the money to the prison and they’re go shop, or, you know, they’d order the food through one of these companies like Sodexo or whatever they are, and we paid the bill. And so, for many, many years -- actually, up until 2013 -- we did that, but our resources have gotten strapped, and so, you know, we don’t do that anymore. But there have been years when they’ve written grants and gotten special funding. There have been years when -- and I don’t know if this is true -- I won’t say a surplus, but, when the state budget was more robust and there wasn’t so many cutbacks, that they could figure out how to do it. So it’s been, you know, off and on. I mean, what really needs to happen is that we need these centers at every prison in 85:00Georgia, male and female, you know. And that is hopefully one of the things, before it’s all over, that I want to be about doing.

GERRARD: Is there currently, then a center at each of the women’s prisons?

BARNHILL: No, just two of the four, yeah, yeah.

GERRARD: Are there any other states that are doing this?

BARNHILL: Mm-hmm. A lot more states are doing it now: on the West Coast, a lot more prevalent; New York; not too much in the Southern states. But you know, I helped started a group call AIM, Aid to Inmate Mothers in Alabama, and Tutwiler Prison was one of the prisons that I sued. But anyway, they -- life is so funny -- they have been able to get that established, so here and there, yeah, they are. There’s a -- you know, we have a loose national group, but we haven’t be able to make the kind of headway, you know, I’d like to see us -- I mean, like, the Federal Bureau of Prisons doesn’t have a mandate that all of their 86:00facilities have that. They don’t, you know, so it’s not at that level, but I wish it was.

GERRARD: So, because you’re officially a national organization -- and you have an office in Kentucky, don’t you?

BARNHILL: We closed it. It was open for five years. We closed it August 2013.


BARNHILL: Yeah. We felt that we’d made a good run, and our goal was that, in five years, we wanted to see the local community be able to sustain it and to embrace it, and there our work was only with men because, years and years ago, a woman who retired -- a retired professor from Spelman who was from Kentucky -- met with me before she left and got all the information about Forever Family and said, “I’m going to start this in Kentucky.” I can’t remember what she ended up naming her group, but they were able to establish -- there’s one women’s prison there, so they were able to establish a center and stuff there for women. So that work is going on, and our feeling when we expanded is, “We 87:00only want to do what is not being done,” right? So, often, you see all these groups that are all doing the same thing, and I’m like, “Oh, my God, there’s so much to be done, so, OK, let’s do something else.” So we realized that our work was also with men, and we started with men in transitional centers, and we did that simply because, in prisons, many of the prisons, there are not -- or states -- there are -- what do I want to say? Sex offenders are throughout all of the prisons, and so, I think, there has to be a lot of work done to both understand sex offenders and, for those that have children, what that means and all of that. And I just decided that that wasn’t the political fight I was going to fight, so we did transitional centers because none of the sex offenders are there. So, anyway, we did that and worked with a transitional center, and it was a privately-owned one. They put some money in the metro -- Louisville metro, the county area -- put some money in and stuff, but the community really didn’t embrace it. When I say “community,” I mean 88:00the funding community and stuff. So we just made a decision that five years was a good run, so we ended it last August at our board retreat, but I think it was five years of good work. I hope another organization, you know, will pick it up, but, after 2008, we kind of changed our model, because our model initially was two things: one, going to other cities and establishing other Forever Families, like we looked at Forever Family San Antonio, Forever Family Austin, Forever Family Seattle, and all that. So that was one, and then the other one is through our practitioners’ institute that happens every three to four years, training people across the country in the model. And so, where we are now, after 2008, is realizing that what we can sustain is having these gatherings where we train other people, and then they can either put it through their existing organizations or, you know, something like that.

GERRARD: Now, how do you get funding?


BARNHILL: Any way I can, any way I can -- I mean, our funding is diversified. Individuals donors play a big role. We get grant support both locally, state, and national. We have what I call a service -- fees for service through -- we get funded through the state like TANF and DHS.


BARNHILL: You know, that way, corporations give us money. We get federated funds, United Way, in-the-workplace campaigns, increasingly through social media, so every way you can think of. You know, I’m waiting for some wealthy person -- maybe it’ll be Russell Simmons, since he has a campaign now out in California about, you know, children visiting in prisons and stuff -- but we need somebody like that to write us a couple-million-dollar check to keep us afloat for a long time.


GERRARD: Have you noticed any kind of change in attitudes toward what you’re doing from the time that you were established until now?

BARNHILL: Yeah, I see a greater level of understanding of the kids, a greater level of visibility around this issue, and it’s not such a stigma and such a taboo. But, I mean, there’s still a long way to go. Our country as a whole is now into this whole notion of reentry, and that’s good, preparing people to reenter and then giving them support when they do reenter. But the issue with that is that they forget about the kid and family piece, and what the research tells us -- and what I know experientially -- is that there are two things that keep people out of prison: family and employment. And of the two, the research says family is the strongest because that’s that network. They may help you get a job. They’re going to be your transportation. You know, they’re going to be your connection, so I’m very upset around the fact that the reentry 91:00movement has not fully, you know, embraced that. And part of my national advocacy work has been around that. I put together a sort of concept paper for the White House. I did some testimony when Joshua DuBois was at the White House over neighborhood transformation, about the importance of family, when you start talking about bringing people back to the community. And there is the council of state governments; I was on their advisory board where they put together a document about what communities could do, what states could do, around -- for children of incarcerated parents. So, on the higher level, which is the advocacy, trying to shape policy level, you know, that’s part of where I do my work. We’ve been, you know, trying to make an inroad, but it’s very hard. 92:00It’s very, very hard. We are anti-family in this country, and I’m not -- we’re anti-prisoner, too, and anti-prisoner-family, but I mean, just in the larger context, we are anti-family in this country. I don’t care how much we talk about family values and we love family -- we don’t really. That’s another example of talking out of both sides of your mouth. We don’t really live that out, you know, so it becomes hard. And if we’re not anti-family with the families that we think are the normal, good families, we really ain’t trying to figure out, you know, for those families that we think are deviant or whatever, you know, because there’s a whole notion about, you know, when a parent goes to prison -- and particularly if it is a mom -- it’s like she’s not just a criminal, but she’s also, just by the mere fact that she or he got locked up, “unfit,” and I think we have to really unpack that and look at that, because I don’t think that’s actually the right analysis.

GERRARD: So have you had anybody actually oppose what you’re doing?

BARNHILL: Oh, yeah, all the time.

GERRARD: What kind of people are --


BARNHILL: Well, the biggest opposition has been from individuals who feel like kids shouldn’t visit inside a prison. There’s not an organized movement against that. We’ve had some pushback, but we partner with Healing Communities USA, from the victims’ rights groups, right, because here’s what so often happens -- and Healing Communities USA is a national nonprofit that is leading the discussion inside the faith community around, in your congregation, you have the victimizer and the perpetrator or the perpetrator’s family, and how do we reconcile, right, and restore, because, you see, they’re all victims: the person who created it, the person who suffered from what was the wrong that was done. So there has been some of that. And nationally, victims’ rights groups have organized most around domestic violence and have been quite, quite 94:00successful. And ultimately, a lot of people who commit the domestic violence do end up going to prison, but they haven’t -- victims’ rights groups haven’t -- organized around just this issue, but it becomes an issue that it’s in tandem with. Those have been the biggies, you know. And then, there’s the whole segment in our society who, you know, believes that criminality is genetic, so there’s -- it’s very, very interesting, mm-hmm. There are a lot of people who believe that, you know, that there’s something in your genes and that crime is always intergenerational, and, if you went to prison, then the likelihood that your child is going to go to prison is strong. And you know, there’s -- there used to be a statistic that said children with a parent in prison or a mom in prison, I think, it was seven times more likely to go than other kids. And we used that for a while, and our experience didn’t bear it out. But I can’t remember who -- maybe about 15 years ago [inaudible] the KC 95:00foundation. They really tried to figure out, what study did this come from, how rigorous it was. And I think it was something like they interviewed 25, and so that study has now been, you know, invalidated, and so now people just say, “They’re more likely,” not necessarily that they’re seven times or five to seven or whatever the -- you know.

GERRARD: But it’s still hard to get away from that sort of old notion, because people, they hold onto that. It makes them, you know -- once that’s out there, it’s really hard to move away from it.


GERRARD: How do you deal with this, your own position? How do you, I mean...?

BARNHILL: Well, probably not in the most effective way. I generally don’t tend to focus on them. I guess I’m of the opinion that I could spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to change people’s minds or the mindsets of people 96:00who are not open to be changed. And I think that’s probably good work, and that’s somebody’s work, but, again, my work is around healing, and so I don’t even focus there, you know. I don’t discount them, and I understand that they’re real, but I spend my energy on this other piece of being in relationship with and providing tools for people to change their lives, and I think that’s more important because, ultimately, we can make more of them than we can of these, the people who oppose.

GERRARD: Now, the people who you -- because I have talked to people in a number of different kinds of organization where opposition -- there are different levels of opposition. There’s, like, the reproductive justice, where they’re --

BARNHILL: Yeah, mm-hmm.

GERRARD: -- in your space and in your space. There are maybe people writing to you. I mean, do they -- do you have people -- your opposition is probably more that they’re talking bad about you kind of thing.


GERRARD: It’s not like they’re intruding.


BARNHILL: Or the way they treat the kids once they know. And the other thing is, we did a series with this organization, Healing Communities USA. I did a four-part webinar series, and that’s probably -- people heard the webinar and then had the opportunity -- the email was up there -- could email me and that kind of stuff. That, I did that, I think, maybe two years ago. That was probably the most I had gotten in writing, you know, because people were listening to the webinar and could write comments and stuff. But generally, I don’t really deal with that. I don’t go necessarily or -- I don’t put myself in situations with groups that I know are very oppositional. You know, again, I think that’s important work, and there’s somebody who ought to do it, but that’s not my work. And I also know that the way I’ve been able to do this work for 27 years -- I don’t have cancer; I’m not almost dead; I am generally optimistic -- is 98:00I have really guarded and protected my spirit. You know, you just have to. I was having this conversation the other day with somebody, and I was saying how what I figured out for me is that my private life, my home, and the people who are closest to me, that’s sacred, and that’s my sanctuary, and that’s the place that I go to be recharged, so I’m very careful about what interacts with that, and I’m very good with keeping the boundaries, you know, because this work or any work around justice -- particularly when it’s controversial and stuff -- it could just eat you alive, you know? And I know a lot of my colleagues, both in this particular field but in other fields, are very bitter.

GERRARD: Very bitter.

BARNHILL: You know? And from a spiritual, religious place, I would say the joy of the Lord is my strength, and, using that scripture, what I’m saying is the 99:00fact that I do believe there is a higher power who sees it all, who rights every wrong, who loves justice and mercy, that keeps me hopeful and joyful about the work even when my human eye doesn’t see sometimes a lot of change. But I think it’s that, and, I mean, I just really -- I choose every day to focus on the good and the positive. I mean, I have a lot of setbacks in this work. I’d be lying if I say folks who get out and may even have been in 10 and 15 years don’t go back; they do. Recidivism rates are high. That happens. You know, I have kids who come through our program, and we have 97% of our kids who don’t get involved with the justice system, but the 3% can be hell on you, right, just experiencing that, knowing that. I’ve had kids get killed. I’ve had kids end up going to prison themselves, you know, or I’ve had kids who came through my program and went to visit their mother, and they are now in prison, and I’m 100:00taking their kids to see them. So I’ve had all of that, all of that, all of that, but I choose -- and I’m not Pollyanna. I know that, and I see that, but I choose not to dwell there. I dwell over on this other side, you know, because I believe light is more powerful than dark in the sense of good versus evil or whatever you want to call it, but I don’t know. I just think you have to make a decision. If you want to do this work for the long haul, you have to know that there -- it’s complex. There are contradictions. There are all kinds of things. You just have to accept that, but you have to really just make up your mind. This is my path, and, as long as I can, I’m going to stay on it, and, when I can’t, I’m going to get off. It’s kind of like -- I’m a 30-something year vegetarian, and I was recently talking to someone about that, and I said, “You know, tomorrow morning, if I woke up and I felt like I wanted 101:00a hamburger, I would drive to wherever and get a hamburger, and I would eat it.” They were like, “Oh!” And I said, “Yes, because, if I decided I needed a hamburger, that meant that, at that moment, being a vegetarian no longer suited me.” And I think that’s the thing that, I think, both kills and corrupts people in our society, is that we think that, if something fits for this moment, it fits for all time, and that’s not really true. It’s not really true. This, being a vegetarian, has been a great fit, and it works for me, but the moment it stops working I need to change and find the next thing that is going to work for me, be thankful that I had 32 years when I did this and it worked, but say, “Hey, that’s not working. What is the next thing that’s going to take me to the next -- for the next 32 years?” And so that’s how I think about the work too.


GERRARD: And thinking about this whole world that you are in, is there something you think could change for the better, the situation of, like, preventing women ending up in prison or, you know, your big sort of philosophical -- how do we change all of this?

BARNHILL: I think that we live in a world where we decide that it’s a world of abundance and not scarcity and that there is enough for all of us. I think things like greed, corporate and otherwise, have created a world based on scarcity. “There is not enough to go around. There is not enough for all of us, so I want to make sure I have mine, and sometimes the best way I can get mine is to have power over you or to remove the ability for you to get it.” But there is no reason in this country, in this world, why we have such poverty and all of these things, right? There is more than enough wealth to go around, but we have to create a society where people are willing to share, right, and 103:00where people see a benefit from their neighbor having it. And we don’t live in that world, you know, so that’s what we need to be busy creating. You know? I mean, really, if we want to do something, that’s what we really -- no, all of us can’t do that, but there needs to be a group of people who want to be in the academy, which I don’t want to be, because the academy is very corrupt, too, people who want to be in the corporate boardroom who understand this notion of, “There has got to be equity.” There has got to be equity, and equity isn’t about equality, about everybody having the same, but there has got to be that opportunity. And until we have people in key places understanding that notion of equity, I think, you know, we’re going to have all these issues and more.

GERRARD: On a more practical level, how do you think the prison system needs to change?


BARNHILL: They need to figure out what their mission is, because somebody I feel sold them a bill of goods and say, “The mission is to keep these people locked in here, away from society, and they’re never going to get out.” But what we know now is that most people who go to prison return to the community, right, because we’ve built so many pri-- we can’t build enough prisons. So if the notion isn’t any longer that I can put you in this place, this dark place, and you’re never going to get out, right, if that’s not real, if the reality is that you’re going to come to this place and be held accountable and then you’re going to reenter society, then we have to start thinking about what has to happen inside that place that we’re holding you accountable.

GERRARD: Now, you talked a while ago about the fact that you’re -- everyone you work with, there’s -- you really are very focused on being harmonious with one another. Have you ever had any problems?


BARNHILL: Every day, but it’s a choice that we make. I mean, I’ve had people who work for me who are very cantankerous and who, you know, created a bunch of conflict and disharmony, and I’m sure, because we’re all human beings, that will come to me again. Nobody in the interview says, “I’m hard to get along with. I’m disagreeable.” Who does that? Nobody does that, right, nobody, because, if you did, what -- you wouldn’t hire them. But we’re human beings, and inside each of us there is the propensity for good or for evil. I mean, there just is. And so, yes, I have that all of the time, but what generally happens is, if you are a contentious person, you can’t last there, because we’ve created an environment where, when there is contention, we bring it up, you know. In the African tradition, when there’s something that affects the community, it is discussed among the whole community. I operate that way. 106:00There’s no need for you to think that you’re going to say something about me to Sally, right, and then Sally is going to come to me and tell me, and then Sally is going to say, “But don’t tell her.” I don’t play that. You te-- we meet. Everybody knows, and so that creates a culture that means, if you want to do those kinds of things, it’s going to be difficult on the long term to be able to stay here, right, because we can do the little covert things and keep it going for a while, but when it gets big enough so that everybody knows about it, they know my style is that I’m going to bring it up, and we’re going to have a truth-telling sessions. So, yeah, oh, yeah.

GERRARD: That’s awesome.

BARNHILL: Yeah. We always -- I mean, because we’re human beings, and we have been socialized in this racist, sexist, you know, elitist -- we all have been affected by it, all of us. Some of the biggest perpetuators of sexism are good daughters of the patriarchy, I mean, so, yes, you know. Yes, egos flare up, mine and others, but I think that what helps us is, one, I really encourage 107:00transparency, and then I really encourage people just saying, “You know what, I messed up. I really messed this one up, so where can we go together from here?” And that’s the way we try to do it. It doesn’t always work.

GERRARD: I like your -- the way you do things.

BARNHILL: But we have two types of people, people who come and who stay five, seven -- you know, I had a lady that was with me for 15 years before she died and retired -- or we have people who come, may stay six months, may stay a year, 18 months, you know. So it’s two types that come, and, I mean, we have a lot of students -- not students, but they’re recent graduates from college who come and stay about two years and then go on and get their master’s, so I’m not talking about them, but I’m talking about the other people who come, and they leave very quickly, right, because it’s kind of like when you go a place, and you might not immediately be able to tell if it’s your kind of place or if 108:00it can work for you, but, pretty quickly, you can figure it out, and it’s -- you know, you generally leave. So it’s kind of like that.

GERRARD: Now, before -- I want to talk a little bit, briefly, about other things that you care about.


GERRARD: But before I do that, I want to talk very, very briefly about your adult personal life. So you don’t have children. Have you ever been married?

BARNHILL: Yes, uh-huh. Yeah, I was married for about eight years, I think.

GERRARD: OK, and do you have a partner now?

BARNHILL: No, I am in the early stages of what I hope will become my next long-term relationship. I was in a relationship, my last one, for about three, three and a half years, and that ended. And unlike what our society says, I actually think that, when you’ve been in a long-term relationship, you need a break, you know. We’re such a couples society, whether it’s heterosexual or 109:00homosexual. Everything is about a couple, so I have personally taken a break, a little over -- almost two years now, because there was some stuff I needed to work on. You know, I’m a firm believer -- if something either works or doesn’t work and there are several people involved with it, everybody has a part in it. So, anyway, I’m in the early stages of what I hope will be a long-term relationship. I really believe that part of what is also wrong in our society is that we put too much emphasis on romantic love. I think there is, ought to be, friendship in the love relationship, friends and lovers, and I also think that we ought to develop different types of love for one another. I mean, romantic love, there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s a good thing. It’s a beautiful thing, right? But there ought to be that agape love, too, which is, “I wish the best for you,” the goodwill that I want to see happen to you. I think we need to figure out how to develop that, and I also think in our culture 110:00we clearly haven’t taught people how to be in love, romantic relationships with each other, right? We have this whole notion that, “I fall in love,” all that stuff. I mean, I believe that loving people regardless of if it’s romantic or platonic or whatever, it is an act of the will, and I think that part of what is wrong in our society is that we aren’t honest about that, and we don’t talk about that, you know. So, yeah, I think that.

GERRARD: Yeah. Is there anyone at any point that you would consider one of the most important sort of influences or a mentor to you?

BARNHILL: Well, mentors, no, because one of the sad things about my career is that I’ve not had mentors, and I guess that’s why I’m so focused on mentoring now because I didn’t have it, and I want other people to have it. And some of it was because I was breaking new ground, but also some of it is 111:00because, unfortunately, in our society, we still have this mentality, “Well, I figured it out. I got mine. You get yours.” And we really are so insecure. You know, we don’t really want to share. So I didn’t have a mentor, but I’ve had a group of men and women who have walked with me all 27 years, sometimes right up front beside me, sometimes their hand on my back pushing me, sometimes way back, but I’ve had a group of people that have been with me on this journey, and, you know, I think they’ve been the biggest influence on my because they’ve held me accountable. “You need a personal life.” You need a personal life to be balanced, accountable, “OK, are you really walking your talk?” So I’ve had people like that, and I’m grateful for it.

GERRARD: Are there any people that you admire greatly?


BARNHILL: Oh, a lot of people. I admire anybody who is in prison that gets up every day and is still trying to figure out how to live in the world, live positively in the world -- let me say that, right -- live positively in the world. I admire the people on the outside who care for their families and care for them. I admire their children. I mean, I just, in general, have great admiration for people who, against all odds, continue to make a healthy, productive life for themselves.

GERRARD: Let’s quickly talk about life outside of Forever Family, because you have been involved in other organizations. What issues are important to you?

BARNHILL: Well, the issue that I’ve worked probably the most around is domestic violence because that so intersects our work. I mean, I think there are points of intersection, you know, that lead people down the road to prison, but that’s been a movement that I’ve given the most of my time, working very 113:00actively with Men Stopping Violence. I think that’s been the biggest. I’ve given some of my time to some of the reentry movements that have been led by prisoners, male and female. I have given some of my volunteering time to work against -- or work for cures, changes around HIV and AIDS, because I think that is another really, really big issue, and then I’ve given a lot of my time around working around anti-racism movements and activities. And again, all of those kind of intersect both on a personal and a professional level.

GERRARD: I think an organization like Men Stopping Violence, it brings all the -- because the sexism part of that is -- I think it’s an amazing organization.

BARNHILL: I do, too, and I was on their board for many years. And when they -- 114:00when Kathleen Carlin died and then they had two men as the co-E.D.'s, I, along with another woman, was their accountability partner. We worked together, rather, their accountability partners and stuff. And so I guess I had been drawn to that organization outside just the domestic violence issue, but drawn to it because there I see men actively working. And, in a lot of ways, we give men in this society a pass. If a man does good work, it’s kind of like if a man -- unfortunately, in some situations, if he has the kids for the day or the weekend, he’s “babysitting,” right, and we’re lauding him and applauding him because he’s babysitting. Well, no, you’re not babysitting. This is your child, and this is your responsibility. And so a lot of men will, you know, enjoy that praise. What I like about Men Stopping Violence is that they don’t want that praise, and then they analyze, you know, why are they -- so that, I think, has a lot to do with why I’ve been involved with them, you know, 115:00because I think that, as much as, you know, women have moved forward, this is still a male-dominated world. And if it is going to change, it cannot be women who change it. It has got to be men who understand that it is in their own best interest to deal with their sexism.

GERRARD: Now, you’ve had a number of awards. Are there any that stand out that you’re proudest of?

BARNHILL: Yeah, the unknown ones, like when a kid comes up and hugs me and tells me they love me, or when I see one of the kids who has been in our program on the street, and they’re doing well, or a mom that’s out, and she’s moved forward in her life, or a dad, or something like that. Those are the things that are the most important to me because, I mean, to be honest, a lot of the awards that I got, I think, weren’t even so much for me, but they filled the need for 116:00the organization or the group that was giving them, you know, so they could have a banquet, and they could raise their money, and I’m not mad about that. You know, we’ve given people awards, too, you know, Children’s Champion and all that kind of stuff, and all of that has its place, but I’m a person that has a big ego, and so, all my life, I’ve had to work to keep that in check. And so I purposefully -- I’m not trying to get the applause, and, when I get it, I’m not sorry I got it, but I also don’t want to put it in such a high place. But the acknowledgment I get in secret -- and by “secret,” I mean the world -- it’s not on the world stage. Nobody is writing an article about it. I think that is probably the most pure and the most sincere.

GERRARD: That’s great. Do you consider yourself a feminist?

BARNHILL: No, I consider myself a womanist, and the only difference is that, 117:00under the womanist model, it really says that there is a role for men, and I’m not -- I’m pro-woman, but I’m not anti-man. I am pro both of them, and I understand that -- and particularly in the African American community -- there is a need for men and women to figure out how to co-lead together to fight some of this stuff.

GERRARD: Can you tell me how you feel your activism has affected your life, your career, your relationships with family, friends?

BARNHILL: Well, I think one of the things it has done is made me a hard pill for some people to swallow, right, because I find sometimes there are people that put me in two groups. One, “You’re too much. You’re just over the top. You’re just too much.” And then, the other groups are, “You’re not 118:00enough,” you know? “Yes, you’ve done all this stuff, but you’re not married; you don’t have children,” whatever, all of that. So I think it has been that, but I think what it has also, I think, brought to me are some very rich and beautiful relationships with people who know who they are. I think it’s very hard to be in any kind of deep, meaningful relationship with me if you’re not willing to look at who you are, right? And I think my personality both challenges that in you by raising issues with you, but also I think the way that I am always looking in at myself and trying to hold myself accountable, I think that challenges you too. I think that’s very hard for some people, right, because they -- all of us have been socialized into this culture where we don’t want to be accountable and we don’t want to look at what we do. So I think that has been hard, but, for those people who, you know, have figured out that it’s in their best interest to do that too, I’ve just had some great 119:00relationships: friendships, love relationships, all of that.

GERRARD: If you -- what advice would you give to somebody who was getting ready to follow your footsteps, to come into this kind of activism?

BARNHILL: Get to know yourself, really get to know yourself, the good, bad, and the ugly, because, if you don’t, it’s going to show up. I’m telling you it does. There is something about doing this work -- the real you is going to show up, and sometimes the real you is not very nice, and you’ve got to be able to own that and work on it. I think that would be one thing, get to know yourself. Two, find your balance. Find your balance, you know, and really -- and if your balance is, you know, every week, you take half a day and you go paint in solitude or you walk in the -- whatever it is, find that, and always hold on to that, you know. And then, the third thing would be to find a group of people 120:00that go on the journey with you, and they need to be a diverse group in race, gender, and age.

GERRARD: What about young women who are coming of age and the world is out there for them? What’s your advice to a young woman today?

BARNHILL: Believe that you can have it all, but be realistic about when you can have it all, right, because I believe you can have all of it. You may not be able to have it all at the same time at the same level of intensity, but be mindful of, yes, you can have it all, but also be thoughtful about where the place is when I step up with this thing and step back with the other, you know. And there’s nothing wrong with that, so -- because I see sometimes the young women, some of them who come through my office, who say stuff like, “Well, you know, I’m going to get my PhD. Then, I’m probably going to think about a relationship and maybe having kids.” And there’s nothing wrong with that, 121:00but I also say to them, “What do you think you’re going to need to get through the PhD and all of that?” And maybe it is going to be somebody in your life, so maybe what that means is that having somebody in your life and working on your PhD -- maybe you can’t go straight through and get your PhD, or maybe you have to work on it part-time and make space for -- you know? So I think there would be that, because I really do believe -- when I say, “We can have it all,” I believe that we can have a rich, full life that includes meaningful work in the world but also a space for refreshing and for having other people and for love. I just -- I believe that, you know, but I think that you have to be intentional, right, because I grew up under the martyr thing. I mean, I can remember my early days. You were nothing as an activist if you didn’t work all 122:00night and if you, you know, looked like -- you had to neglect your family. You had to go on these binges -- I mean, really. You know, if you were really like an activist, no, you didn’t have a relationship. You might have a partner that you have sex with, but you clearly didn’t have time for a relationship because the work was the most important -- seriously, I grew up -- and there are a lot of activists out there like that now. This is part of what I talk about in my book, but -- so we need to get rid of that, you know, because that is the model that says, “I cannot have it all.” It says, “I must sacrifice me for the good of all,” but I am part of the group. I am part of the “all,” and I don’t believe that you have to do that, but I do think that it means that you cannot -- right? If I want to have a relationship, I can’t stay at the office every night until 3:00 a.m. It’s kind of like -- we have a policy. We are closed during the week of Spring Break and the week between Christmas and New Year’s and the week of Thanksgiving. Why? Because when I started, there were 123:00many single mothers, and their kids were out, and they were paying money to have somebody take care of them, or they were bringing the kids to the office, which -- I don’t have a problem with them coming to the office, but the kids were terribly bored, right? And what I realized was, on those -- however many days that is -- 15 days out of the year, the work needs to come back, right, and the family needs to go up front so that she can have a fulfilling career and a family that she’s well integrated into. And so, you know -- and we’ve also had single fathers, but we’ve held on to that even when we haven’t had a bunch of people on staff who were single parents, but because we need a life. So, again, I think we can have it, but we have to be intentional about, you know, how we have it, or like -- we go very hard, very, very hard during the year. In the summer, we have summer hours. We end every day at 3:00. You can come in as late as 10:00 and work from 10:00 to 3:00. You can 124:00telecommute now on any Friday. You know, so it’s building in things, but, yes, these sound like luxuries, but, when we get past Labor Day and we’re humping from September through November, when there’s Thanksgiving, you know, you’re like, “Oh, my God.” But what we realized -- to have it all, we’ve got to do this right now because, when the holiday season comes, we want something different, so I think it’s that.

GERRARD: That’s great. Before we finish, tell me when your book is coming out.

BARNHILL: Well, I don’t know. The goal is to be finished by December. I am trying to work out a partnership with Building Movement out of New York to do the study guides for the book, so we’ll have to see if that comes together, but that’s my goal. And then, hopefully, I will find a publisher. And I really want it to come out in 2015, but my website is up, you know,, so people can read about all the activists, and, you 125:00know, it’s been up about five or six months, and we have about 20,000 hits, and I really haven’t done a lot of marketing at all. I guess that’s something I need to do, but, anyway, so it’s coming. But I think it’s not ready time yet, you now? I started thinking about it a long time ago, and I actively started working on it when I took a semester off and taught up at Kalamazoo and did a lot of the research. That was in 2011, so we’re three years down the road, but I don’t know. I don’t -- I mean, I’ve done a lot of the interviews. We’ve done a lot of -- [inaudible] did a lot of research and stuff, but just when I -- and I was thinking about this the other day because I’m a runner. I run in the mornings, and I was thinking, “You know, it’s not --” because I had wanted it to be finished before Labor Day, and, you know, it’s just not supposed to be.

GERRARD: It’ll be finished when it needs to be finished.

BARNHILL: And that’s where I’ve come to, yeah.

GERRARD: Well, I have had a wonderful time talking to you.


GERRARD: You’re just amazing, and so thank you.

BARNHILL: I’m very opinionated. [laughter]

GERRARD: That’s a good thing.


BARNHILL: Oh, I like that about myself, but sometimes people are surprised. I’m like, “No, I’m really opinionated.”