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Sydney Barber Will Be 1st Black Female Brigade Commander At Naval Academy

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To news now of an important first in Annapolis - Sydney Barber will be the first African American woman to serve as brigade commander at the U.S. Naval Academy. It is the top post for midshipmen. She starts next semester.

Sydney Barber, welcome and congratulations.

SYDNEY BARBER: Thank you so much. Appreciate this opportunity. It's so great to be here.

KELLY: Oh, we're very happy that you're with us. Tell me, what does a brigade commander do? What's the job description?

BARBER: So I guess - and if you were to look at it in a civilian sense, the brigade commander is what someone would describe as a student body president. So I am the sole representative of all 4,400 midshipmen to the commandant and to the superintendent, so I'm the link between the midshipmen body and our senior officership.

KELLY: So you told me kind of what a brigade commander does. What do you, Sydney Barber, want to do? Like, how are you going to make this special and make it yours?

BARBER: I feel like I have the heart to do it. My purpose and my objective is to build a team, people who appreciate each other, appreciate every single thing that every person has and brings to the table, who are really embracing our blended organization and want to pursue a purpose no matter what that looks like but are driven towards a shared and common goal. So that's what I want to instill in my staff. That's what I want to instill in the brigade as a whole.

KELLY: I guess, first of all, if this whole military thing doesn't work out, please come work with me.

(LAUGHTER)

BARBER: I would love to. Oh, my goodness. That would be amazing.

KELLY: We could use you at NPR. As I noted, you will be the first Black woman in this role. Now, the first woman to lead the brigade - that came back in 1991, so not that long ago. And back just then, in the early '90s, women were prohibited from flying warplanes, couldn't serve on warships at sea. The Navy and the Marine Corps have changed so much. Is there something - what's left that the guys can do that you are prohibited from doing?

BARBER: Oh, my goodness. There probably are things out there that - some limitations that still exist. There definitely are, but I'm not worried about it. I'm not worried about all the - any restrictions 'cause I feel like we can keep breaking glass ceilings. This is just one of many. Something that I've heard recently and that I really liked - and I've said this a lot - is that with every step that I take, I mean, I leave the ladder down for the next person. And I've talked to Ms. Gallina. She's been someone that's been a mentor to me the past week that all of this has kind of unfolded and the announcement has come about. And I've gotten the chance to talk to people like her. Ms. Janie...

KELLY: Ms. Gallina - she's the one who was the first woman back in '91.

BARBER: Yes. Yes, Ms. Gallina. Yes. So she's been reaching out to me. Ms. Janie Mines, who's the first African American female graduate of the Naval Academy - she's also been - I've been speaking to her in depth. I got off the phone with Simone Askew, who was the first African American first captain at West Point. Actually, 30 minutes ago, I was on the phone with Dr. Reuben Brigety. So I've just had so many - who's also a brigade commander - a Black brigade commander in the past - and so many people who have inspired me, who...

KELLY: Who are throwing ladders down to you, it sounds like.

BARBER: Right. And so when I think about this experience, I feel like it's special because it's not just about me. It's important that this story circulates for the purpose of the next generation all over the world who can look at this experience and look at this story as something that motivates them and inspires them to amount to whatever goal that they have in their life.

KELLY: When did you know you wanted to join the Navy?

BARBER: (Laughter) I never wanted to join the Navy growing up.

KELLY: What?

BARBER: So - no. My - so my dad - he was a graduate from the Naval Academy class of '91. He played basketball here. And something that they say is, once a midshipman, always a midshipman. And he lived by that. Everything, everywhere, any time was all about Navy this, Navy that. I was tired of it. By the time I was looking at colleges, I was trying to get away from that. I wanted to write my own path. But what I really fostered in my heart is just a drive for wanting to pursue a career of service, no matter what I did, wanting to give back to the world, pour more into the world than I was getting.

KELLY: The reason we're doing this interview, the reason this is national news, is that you are breaking a big old barrier there in Annapolis. I wonder, how big a deal is it on campus? Do your classmates care? Are you, Sydney Barber, one of them, you know? (Laughter) Like, do you think about breaking the barriers as you walk around every day?

BARBER: Oh, I try to keep a level head. I try to stay as grounded as possible. I try to keep a low profile. My friends, my teammates especially on the track team with me, they kind of laugh because they know who I am. They know that I'm the last one to want my picture taken. I usually - I never post any stories on social media because I just don't usually like to document everything that's going on in my life. And just the shift of the past week - they laugh because my face is everywhere.

KELLY: (Laughter).

BARBER: My picture is everywhere. People - I also - I don't usually like to talk in front of a lot of people or talk about myself, but my mentors have actually helped me with that. And it's great to be humble. And that's something that I try to be as best as possible. But at the same time, they're like, you know, you need to be confident. You need to own this moment. Own the fact that you are the brigade commander.

It took me forever to just say that, to say those words, because I don't like to flaunt. I don't want everyone to - anyone to think that I'm any higher than them. So I'm going to try to talk to the person that's taking out my trash or sweeping the floor outside my room and make them feel special. But at the same time, I need to also step out of that. Like, I need to own this moment to lead the brigade with confidence and with boldness.

KELLY: I do look forward to the day when we are not celebrating these firsts, when we're done, because it is just not news that a woman, that a Black woman could do anything that her male classmates or white classmates could do. But it is also kind of a - it's great, and it's a big deal. And I'm sitting here thinking, if your grandmothers or great-grandmothers could see you, they must be so proud.

BARBER: Yes. I think about something that I shared in a Founders Day video about how I think about - I'm so humbled by the fact that I get to walk here and be at the Naval Academy and be someone's wildest dream. And when I think about that in my - the context of my own history, my own family, my own ancestry, I think about my great-grandparents were sharecroppers on a plantation in Mississippi. My grandmother now lives in Chicago. She was born on that plantation. They would never even picture this moment. This America looks nothing like the America that they experienced, and they died before they saw anything different.

KELLY: Yeah.

BARBER: So I'm - I always take that to heart, and I think about it pretty much daily as I go about my day here at the academy.

KELLY: Wow. Well, those are words to live by. Own the moment. Congratulations again. It's been a real pleasure and an honor to speak to you.

BARBER: Thank you very much.

KELLY: Sydney Barber - as of next semester, she will be brigade commander at the U.S. Naval Academy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOR'S "INTRO (EDAMAME REMIX)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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