Graduate Student Spotlight: Kendra Barber

Q: Where are you from and what was your high school experience?

A: I’m from Brooklyn, NY. I know, I don’t sound like I’m from NY, which I like because I actually don’t like NY accents very much. I prefer the slight (or sometimes not so slight) NC accent I picked up in undergrad. I don’t really know why I never picked up a NY accent. Maybe it’s because neither of my parents are from NY. My mom’s from North Carolina and my dad’s from Belize…maybe that’s why it was so easy for me to pick up a NC accent.

I went to public school in Brooklyn up until high school. For high school I went to school in Darien, CT through the A Better Chance program. ABC is a national organization that provides academically gifted, but economically disadvantaged, youth of color with the opportunity to attend better schools than they would normally have the opportunity to attend. First you apply to ABC and then you apply to a school in the ABC program. You can go to a private day school, a boarding school, or a public school that is like boarding school. I did the latter. So at 13 I left my parents and Brooklyn to go to school in Darien, CT. Darien H.S. was a public school and in order to attend that school you have to live in that town. This public high school was comparable to many private schools in NY. I moved into a house with 6 other girls and a couple who were the resident directors. They also had a son who was like the little brother I never wanted. To understand what it was like living in this house imagine the Real World but without cameras. With 6 teenage girls and authority figures who aren’t your parents there was certainly drama. But there were also lots of fun times. On top of this going to school in Darien was a complete culture shock. I went from Brooklyn, NY where I was used to being surrounded by people that looked like me to Darien, CT where I was reminded every single day that the only time I would be around people that looked like me was when I went back to the ABC house.  Every time I walked around town I was stared at; when I went into the drug store I was followed. Why? Because there are hardly any black families in Darien. When I was there the only black students were the people I lived with. The entire student body was white with the exception of a handful of Asian students. Every single faculty member was white. Furthermore, Darien is an incredibly rich town. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered privilege the way I did in Darien. People had so many stereotypes about those of us in the program and where we came from. Having grown up in the projects I can’t tell you how offensive it was for me to see things like the girl’s swim team have a “ghetto day” when they had a swim meet and dress up in wife beaters, sweats with one leg rolled up, big hoop earrings, and bandanas.  Or to hear someone say “meet me in the ghetto.” It was as if they were amused by something that was a reality for me when I went home.  Then in classes I was always the representative of black people, I had to be the walking black encyclopedia.

One day I decided that I was tired of the individual level education. I was also tired of each February going by with absolutely no acknowledgment that it was Black History Month. The one exception was the school librarian who remained my ally the entire time I was there. I think I reached the point of “being sick and tired of being sick and tired” as Fannie Lou Hamer once said. I was frustrated and I wanted to do something big. I wanted a platform where I could reach as many students and teachers as possible. With the help of the librarian and a committee of students I organized Darien High School’s first black history assembly my senior year. At the time I had no idea that it was going to be something that would be continued. I just wanted to bring to light those things that I felt our curriculum was missing. As it turns out the assembly has been repeated each year since I graduated in 2003.

One of the highlights of my high school experience was my host family. Each of us as assigned a host family that we spent one weekend a month with and a back up host family that we spent one Sunday a month with. Our host families lived in Darien and had children that were in the high school. My host family literally became my second family and they are until this day. Any major event that I’ve had they’ve been right there next to my biological parents.

Q: Where did you attend undergrad and why did you attend this school?  What was your major and why did you decide to major in this?  Please expand.

A: I attended undergrad at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I applied to a number of schools on the east coast but I really wanted to go to school in the south. At the time my top choices were UNC and Duke (shhhh, don’t tell anyone!). My host parents from Connecticut took me to visit both UNC and Duke. I ended up visiting UNC a number of times because my host brother was there playing football. His father also went to UNC, so needless to say that really wanted me to go to UNC even though they didn’t pressure me about it. (My sophomore year at UNC they actually moved to Chapel Hill.) Each time I visited UNC I loved it even more. The campus was beautiful and everything about North Carolina was so different from New York. People greeted you for no reason, everything was slower (which could at times drive me crazy), and best of all there was sweet tea! As it turns out UNC accepted me but Duke didn’t. I like to think that Dook missed out. I’m actually really glad I went to UNC and wouldn’t have it any other way.

While at UNC I double majored in Afro-American Studies and Sociology. I declared Afro-American Studies as my major my freshman year. I declared that major because based on my high school experience and the Black History Assembly that I did, I knew that I wanted my future to involve educating people about the lives and history of African Americans. There is so much that gets left out of our history curriculum and I wanted to do something about that—I still do.

It wasn’t until after I returned from studying abroad in Ghana the spring of my sophomore year that I took my first sociology course.  It was a huge Intro Sociology lecture and I loved it. It seemed to give me a vocabulary to describe the disparities I saw between the public schools in Brooklyn, NY and Darien, CT, and on a global scale those that I saw in Ghana. So I decided to declare sociology as my second major.

Q: Why did you decide to attend graduate school in Sociology?  Why did you decide to attend the University of Maryland, specifically?   Why did you decide to go straight through to graduate school from undergrad?

A: To be honest I didn’t originally intend to go to graduate school for Sociology.  I really wanted to get my PhD in African American Studies.  But since African American Studies is so interdisciplinary I would have pursued a sociology track anyway. I decided that I would apply to a range of graduate programs—MA programs in African American Studies and Sociology of Education, and PhD programs in African American Studies and Sociology. I applied to Maryland because I was interested in educational inequalities and Maryland had 2 people (at the time) who specialized in soc of ed. In the end I decided that I wanted to enroll in a PhD program because of funding and I wanted to just go straight through. So I enrolled in Maryland because of my research interests and the funding.

Part of the reason I decided to go straight through to graduate school was because of a summer research program for minority students that I did the summer of my junior year at UNC. One of my professors suggested I apply. That was my first experience doing independent research and I liked it a lot. So the summer research program kind of made me feel like “ok, you can do this.” After that I don’t think I ever considered taking a break between undergrad and grad school. Plus I was afraid of working after undergrad and somehow losing sight of my eventual goal of a PhD.

Q: What are your research and goals?  What motivates these interests and goals?

A: My research is on religion. The broad question that guides my research interests is: what are black churches doing today to help bring about social change? Many of us are used to the images of various religious leaders in the black community participating in the mass protests of the Civil Rights Movement against a very overt form of discrimination. What are churches doing today? Has that activism taken other forms? What are the issues churches organize around? How do black churches aid black communities? Whether it’s afterschool programs I studied in my honors thesis that were supplementing an inadequate public school education or building affordable housing for their community.

My research interest in black churches stems from my own upbringing in a black Baptist church. While they are not perfect (what institution is?), I feel that black churches are some of the few autonomous institutions in black communities (assuming they’re not accepting federal funding) and I also feel that they are some of the most resource rich institutions in black communities—particularly black mega-churches. So I haven’t given up on black churches, in fact I expect more from them.

Q: What does the “sociological imagination” mean to you and how does it influence your daily work – as a student, teacher, and researcher?

A: This is funny since I just taught my students this. For me it means questioning that which we take for granted, taking a step back to view things macroscopically, seeing how things are connected, understanding how history and social contexts can create particular problems. A sociological imagination encourages critical thinking about the world around you. So as a student and researcher I hope that I bring that level of critical thinking to my work. As a teacher I want to impart to my students the importance of a sociological imagination and that they should question everything around them never accepting “that’s just the way it is.” For me, I also think the sociological imagination encourages us to look at things and see how they can be better. So, I think it has social justice implications.

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