by Leo Adam Biga
Kimberly C. Sherrod Barnes recently joined the growing ranks of Black women leading metro area organizations as executive director of CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates). CASA aids children in the foster care system in Douglas County, Nebraska.
She previously served on CASA’s board – a vantage point that gave her “a deep dive” on its work before ever starting as its ED in September 2022. She was well-acquainted with children and family issues from previous employment with Charles Drew Health Center, Lutheran Family Services, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services and the Nebraska Children’s Home Society. She came to CASA from the Women’s Center for Advancement, where she was director of programs.
“I love the mission of CASA. Most of the work is done by volunteers. That’s their passion. They are here because they’re passionate. They want to do something to help these children navigate the child welfare system,” Barnes said.
The Omaha native is all about empowering children and women to have their voices heard. At CASA, she oversees a team of volunteers who advocate on behalf of youth in the child welfare system.
As a professional administrator and role model, she mentors, or as she likes to say, coaches, young women pursuing careers, through the Nonprofit Association of the Midlands’ (NAM) Rising Leaders Institute. She imparts a consistent message.
“I tell them you have the ability to be wherever you want to be. No one can stop that. Only you can stop your steps going forward.”
Barnes uses her own story as an example.
“There’s been a lot of pitfalls, I’ve taken a lot of blows
but because I had it in me, and I had people around me cheering me on, I continued to fail forward. No one’s perfect. You’re going to make mistakes along the way. You can’t drop your head; you must learn. Nelson Mandela said, ‘I never lose. I either win or I learn.’ You only lose if you choose to, or you let the naysayers get in your ear or you believe you don’t belong there.”
Her factory worker parents, both of whom came from Mississippi to Omaha in the Great Migration. instilled in her the necessity to work hard and to strive to be the best. Barnes had her sights set on, leaving home to attend an historically Black college when she got pregnant at 18. Trying to balance being a teen mom and a student at the University of Nebraska at Omaha proved overwhelming.
The then lack of resources and support programs for young mothers, especially Black mothers, she said, motivated her to work in the maternal health field.
She credits “foundational values” from her family and her own natural competitiveness with helping her become a first-generation college graduate. Years after failing at UNO, she enrolled at Bellevue University. She earned a degree in Human and Social Service Administration and graduated with honors.
“It was very powerful for me. My family was there, they celebrated it. It was the best feeling ever because I had my two daughters watching me start that legacy of being college graduates.”
Both of her daughters, Kayla and Zarria Nichols, went on to earn degrees. She hopes her grandchildren follow suite.
“My path is to try to create a legacy for my grandkids to walk through some doors that otherwise they wouldn’t be able to, if someone didn’t already pave the way for them.”
She’s paying forward what key mentors in her life gave her. One was her fourth-grade teacher, Pinkie Johnson-Wheatfall, at Belvedere Elementary.
“Seeing a Black woman in front of the classroom – which I had never seen before – told me my skin color is okay and I can command the presence of a room.”
As a high school student, she said OPS counselor Chris Wiley “was very instrumental in me finding my voice and understanding why I had to go to college – so I could learn the system and some of the answers I needed that are only found in books.”
Elders like these, impressed on her the importance of being seen and heard.
“Your voice is your voice and what you feel is probably accurate. You should stand firm in what you believe in and articulate that in a manner where it’s understood. As Black women, often we channel back because we’ve been labeled as aggressive and angry when that’s not the case. We’re passionate about certain things. We exude that differently than others because we were raised to go out and get it.
“You cannot stifle your voice.”
She’s pleased to see Black women asserting their voice to fill more and more ED roles in the metro.
“It’s a good thing. The salad now is getting more colorful.”
On being the first African-American to head CASA, she said, “It makes me feel good but it doesn’t make me feel good that we’re in 2022 and I’m the first one. It should have happened a long time ago.” She feels the same about many other organizations now being led by Black women for the first time. “In my opinion Black women have always had the ability and voice to do this but in certain spaces our voice was not heard.”
Barnes has been a DEI facilitator in many spaces. She believes solidarity helps Black women consolidate their individual and collective gains.
“We understand there are paths we must take. It’s going to be hard. But if we stand fast in what we believe in and articulate that in the right way and not lose who we are at the same time then we’ll continue to get these seats that we’re so deserving to have.
“I think now because so many of us understand our rightful place, we have the voice and can articulate that. What used to be seen as aggression is now seen as our passion for this work. We live in these communities; we understand the things they need. We can speak to issues in a manner others can’t.”
An issue concerning her, is the disproportionate removal of Black and brown children from their families. She feels it stems from cultural misunderstandings. “There is a lack of trust in the system. If we see someone infiltrating our home, we don’t know how to respond to that. We become irate, we don’t want to answer questions, so we’re not complying. Things escalate and often, the child is removed from the home.”
Once a youth enters the system, she said, CASA is the only consistent presence throughout the case of the child.
She said CASA’s job is to “amplify rather than lend the voice of the child because that’s their lived experience,” adding, “We should be advocating for them using their words and being able to support them and meet them where they are to take them to their next level of permanency.”
One of her objectives is bringing more representation to CASA’s volunteer advocates so that they look more like the children assigned to them.
Barnes has learned a thing or two about leadership.
“A good leader is transparent. A good leader has the integrity to only ask someone to do something that he or she is willing to do themself. A good leader isn’t afraid to say, I don’t know, but as a team we can figure it out,” she said.
She believes in “leading by example, being professional and polished and knowing how to have very fluid and frank conversations while getting a point across.”
The former basketball player (at North High) and youth coach (The Lady Rimshakers) likes to frame things in sports metaphors with her staff.
“I’m here to coach you but I don’t want to take away your creativity and I certainly don’t want to take away your voice. However, there’s a finish line we need to get to and I’m going to give you the reasons why we need to get there so let’s couple together and get it done.”
Barnes has completed several leadership development training programs on her way to the C-Suite, including the Nonprofit Association of the Midlands’ Nonprofit Executive Institute (NEI). She’s part of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership Omaha Class 45.
“I’ve moved strategically to give me the confidence and the knowledge to be an executive director.”
Whatever she may end up doing in the future, she said. “If it doesn’t align with my passion and where I’m trying to go, I won’t waste others’ time and I won’t waste my time.”