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Education connection amplifies The Voices Project
(OREdNews is profiling a handful of school board members from around the state in January during School Board Recognition Month.)
When Donna Barber moved from Atlanta to Portland in 2013, she worried her children were not seeing African American doctors, businesspeople or leadership figures who looked like them.
Conversations about them being able to be whatever they wanted sounded hollow.
“How long can I keep telling my children they can do this? How long will they believe me when they look around and see this isn’t true?” she said.
Barber is changing the conversation with The Voices Project. Barber started The Voices Project in 2000 to influence the culture through leaders of color.
The project aims to train, support and promote leaders of color in all fields for the good of those communities and society as a whole.
Barber, a David Douglas School Board member, has made education and promoting leadership the twin themes of her life. She started two schools in Atlanta, a middle school aimed at providing a private-school quality education for low-income kids and a K-8 based on the idea that creating leaders starts in elementary school.
In Portland, she started up Champions Academy in 2016 while working for the Portland Leadership Foundation. The summer program emphasizes the ways student athletes can be leaders.
Barber considers The Voices Project her primary mission. When she was invited to apply for an open David Douglas board seat, she saw a useful intersection.
“Education is an essential piece in the development of leaders,” she said. “It provides the tools.”
She also became an example of leadership for her community. Barber is believed to be the first African American on the David Douglas board.
David Douglas in eastern Portland is one of the most diverse school districts in Oregon, with about two-thirds of its students from historically underrepresented groups. The school board has only begun to reflect that diversity in recent years.
Board Chair Stephanie Stephens said Barber has been instrumental in helping the district address race and equity issues.
Stephens was on the board when Barber was appointed in 2018. She said Barber was a clear choice with her community engagement and education experience.
Stephens said Barber is highly active, taking on visible committee roles as well as working behind the scenes to ask students and parents what they want from their schools.
“She is someone who is just so embedded in and engaged in the community,” Stephens said.
Barber’s husband, Leroy, is a pastor, and they have six children: Jessica Barber, 34; Joshua Barber, 31; Joel Barber, 28; Aleathea St. Hilaire, 21; Asha Barber, 17; and Jonathan Barber, 16.
Barber left Champions Academy in 2019 to focus full time on The Voices Project.
Barber started The Voices Project to bring together African American leaders working in white spaces. They were looking for ways they could move into the conversation and present different viewpoints in U.S. cultural influencers such as art, media, politics and education.
The project grew into regular gatherings and then expanded to retreats, especially in cities where racial shootings took place. It started including other communities of color and now holds a national conference.
The project helps people find their voices and connect with other voices, Barber said. The project’s Writer’s Lab, an event to get voices of color in the publishing arena, starts Friday, Jan. 21.
Initially aimed at mid-life professionals, the project is encouraging more high school and college leaders to get involved. The project takes young people on exposure trips around the world to visit organizations and places where people of color are in leadership.
Barber also wants students to see themselves in their own schools. David Douglas’ staff diversity has improved, but it is still 88% white. She said schools need to create welcoming environments by recognizing and incorporating the different cultural expectations and relational dynamics.
“It is damaging to the spirit of people when you have to keep suppressing who you are,” she said.
School boards must look at how their schools serve students and how students of color are involved, Barber said. Schools need to move beyond food programs and clothes closets, she said, and start looking for disparities in student government, gifted programs and advanced classes.
“Ask the question: Who is missing and why?” Barber said.
She said Black Lives Matter has helped reveal the importance of lifting up students of color so they feel they have value.
“Our lives literally depend on these things changing and improving,” she said. “Equity has to move from being nice to being necessary.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA
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