Black History Month: Conversation with Imani Barnes

As part of Black History Month, the School of Education is highlighting Black voices within the School. Following is a Q&A with Imani Barnes.

Name: Imani Barnes

What is your connection to the School of Education? I am the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Administrative Fellow for the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (OEDI). In that role as the graduate project assistant for the office, I help with various initiatives within the office. I’m also a second-year PhD student with the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis, where I serve as a both a teaching assistant for Dr. Rachelle Winkle-Wagner and a member of her research team.

Where are you from? Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Imani Barnes

Prior to arriving at UW–Madison, where did you attend school? I received an associate degree, bachelor’s degree, and master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. My bachelor’s degree in 2017 was in social work, and the master’s degree in 2019 was in higher education.

Why did you make the switch from social work to pursuing a path in higher education/educational leadership and policy analysis? I made that switch based on job opportunities I had serving students of color, and the mentors I met over the years were doing work in higher education. As a Black woman who attended a PWI (predominantly white institution) I had many struggles. I struggled with imposter syndrome and getting involved. It was difficult to navigate a predominantly white place and find that sense of belonging. It wasn’t until I met those mentors doing equity, diversity, and inclusion work, who pushed and supported me, that I began to get involved, establish a sense of belonging, and believe that I could pursue an advanced degree.

One of these mentors is Dr. (LaVar) Charleston (the UW–Madison School of Education’s associate dean for equity, diversity, and inclusion) who was working at UW-Whitewater (as the assistant vice chancellor of student diversity, engagement, and success) while I was there.

Mentors over the years helped me get connected to the McNair Scholars program, a Black women’s mentorship program called Sister to Sister, the Black Student Union, international travel/studies, a Black sorority I’m a part of, Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Incorporated, amongs a host of others. So all these experiences and connections made me want to give back and help other students like myself, in the same way I was helped.

What attracted you to the School of Education and the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis (ELPA)? I’m a very spiritual person and I believe God really wanted me to be in this space. I believe certain people were placed in my path strategically. For example, Dr. Charleston came to UW-Whitewater when I was starting my master’s program and he is an ELPA alum. My master’s adviser at UW-Whitewater was an ELPA alum, and another professor I had was an ELPA alum — so they were encouraging me all the time about what was possible.

I really thought I was going to stop at the master’s level and people were like, “No, you have to check out this program at UW-Madison.” I was like, “Yeah, I’m not going to stay in snow forever, I’m leaving. If I’m going to apply for a doctoral program, I’m going to be in Georgia.”

But then LaVar was like, “You’re not going to apply to the best program in the nation at UW-Madison?” The truth was that UW–Madison was my reach school and I didn’t think I could get in here and I was praying about all of this. But it worked out and here I am.

What is your area of focus in your PhD work? I’m interested in the experiences of Black women attending PWIs. I want to look at their sense of belonging and the role mentorship, faith, and spirituality can play in navigating the higher education experience.

I feel so lucky to be working with Dr. Rachelle Winkle-Wagner, whose interests align so closely to my own. She is an expert in studying the experiences of Black women in academia. She is the author of a textbook I used for a diversity course during my master’s program at UW-Whitewater, which I loved. This is another example of the pieces coming together on why I was meant to come here.

What will you do in your role as the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Administrative Fellow for the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion? I know I’ll be helping with the Ed-GRS (Education Graduate Research Scholars) program, and with the new affinity spaces the office is holding — I’ll be serving as a liaison for both the Black student affinity space and for the Latinx student affinity space. This aligns with my research on creating spaces for students to feel welcome and supported. Generally speaking, I really enjoy serving others, whether that’s through an encouraging word, or by providing a listening ear or a resource. It brings me joy to see students’ needs met.

What do you bring to OEDI? One gift I have is what Dr. Charleston calls being a double agent. I’m in that space where I’m a doctoral student and I’m getting this valuable professional and administrative work experience. People in the office see me as a colleague but the younger students can still relate to me as a student. So I’m in that spot where I can build a bridge to connect the administrative folks with students. And while I don’t understand every student’s experiences, I believe I can often relate to them and share how various programs and experiences helped get me to where I am today.

Five or 10 years from now, do you have an idea of what you might be doing? In doctoral programs, there is sometimes a lot of pressure to go the faculty route. But that’s just not my reality right now. I’m grateful for an adviser like Dr. Winkle-Wagner and a mentor like Dr. Charleston who are helping me pull together this very unique experience here at UW–Madison. I’m still getting to TA but the majority of my hours are in OEDI and mirror what I want to do — which is equity, diversity, and inclusion work with the possibility of some teaching. I could see being a director of student engagement or something of that nature someday. I’d also like to be able to travel and give workshops and deliver programming for Black women at predominantly white institutions.

Is there anything else that we haven’t been asking about that you’d like people to know about you?  I like to share that it wasn’t easy for me to transition into new spaces and a new program. It can feel like learning a new language or that I just don’t belong. However, I want people to know that with the right mindset and people around me, I have overcome that. If I can do it, so can they. I wasn’t a lover of school my whole life and I wasn’t always the greatest student. But with a growth mindset and people around you who believe and support you, anything is possible. We don’t have to let our past difficulties hold us back from our future endeavors. If I am going to claim God placed me here, I have to own that! I truly believe this and love sharing my story with people.