A Conversation with Naval Academy Brigade Commander Sydney Barber
By Jennifer Karras
On rare occasions a conversation stops you in your tracks. Mine with 21-year-old Sydney Barber did just that. Sydney graduated from Lake Forest High School in 2017 and matriculated at the U.S. Naval Academy. She continued her impressive academic and athletic career as a mechanical engineering major and varsity track athlete. Recently, nearly every major news outlet reported on Sydney's history making news that she has been selected to serve as the Naval Academy's first Black female brigade commander. She is just the 16th woman to hold the position since women were first allowed to attend the Academy in 1976. For the confident and capable leader she is, Sydney tackles her every ambition with uncommon humility. What an honor it is to recognize Midshipman 1st Class Sydney Barber as a member of our Lake Forest community!
Every article I’ve read about your achievement recognizes your extraordinary leadership qualities. Is there a person or experience in your life that has influenced or helped to shape those qualities?
Experiences have definitely molded me into the person I am. Above all, I would say my dad has been an incredible influence on me. That's who he is as a leader and as a person. I’ve observed how much he cares for people and how he pushes through adversity. He always has hope no matter what the circumstance looks like in the moment. He always believes in himself and is willing to give back and put more into the world than he takes out. I'm most inspired by him because he doesn't strive for money and success, but rather to make an impact and to make the world a better place in everything he does. I've adopted that character and have learned those lessons from him.
Another series of experiences that have cultivated an attitude in living with purpose and working to make an impact by giving back has been through Christ Church Lake Forest. Since middle school, I traveled on mission trips with the church. I went to Dayton, Ohio to an African refugee community three years in a row and trips to the Dominican Republic where we did a home build with the church there. I also went to India for a service trip my senior year. Going on those trips, I think, really put things in perspective for me.
Growing up in Lake Forest and on the North Shore--where sometimes we get caught up in materialism and affluence, and striving for success--I often found myself feeling insecure or comparing myself to those around me who it seemed were succeeding in areas more than I was, or that they had more wealth or just more than my family. I would lose sight of my own purpose, of what I am intended to do and the impact I am supposed to make. On those service trips, I met people who had so much joy and fulfillment in their lives and were always willing to serve no matter what their life circumstance.
The endurance and perseverance I saw in my dad and in the people I met on service trips--they are among the strongest people I've ever met. To this day I keep in touch with many from my trips and they have helped me push through the hard days. I think about how they work so hard and keep doing what it takes to serve their families and serve anybody who crosses their path—and have joy in all moments. My dad, my experiences and those I’ve met have shaped my leadership style the most.
Many articles also reference your intelligence as well as your kind and loving nature. In one interview you said you’re going to lead with your heart first. How will you lead with your heart and how can leaders use kindness and compassion to lead?
For me, leading with my heart means to lead with authenticity and to stay true to who I am. The reason that’s important and why all leaders should lead with their heart is because people, I believe, can see right through you when you’re trying to be someone you’re not. Showing your true colors and showing your heart and having passion and drive in everything you do resonates with others. It’s infectious. People feed off of that. When you’re in a leadership position such as what I’m going to hold next semester as Brigade Commander, the best thing I can do is empower the team. I think it’s the heart of the leader--it’s my heart--that drives the course for the entire organization. I set the tone. If I’m driven and passionate, have heart and purpose in everything I do, and am true to myself, that’s the guiding light and tone that sets the course. Also, it’s more important now in uncertain times that people sense purpose and passion.
Another aspect of why it’s valuable – and a leadership tenant in general – is the most important thing a leader can provide to a team is hope. It’s also vital the team knows you and trusts you. Trust is hard to cultivate and it’s hard to foster, and takes time, but when you show your heart and you look someone in the eyes and they look back confident in you and confident that you care for them, then they’ll be willing to go anywhere with you.
Part of your decision to attend the Naval Academy was driven by your motivation to make a difference. What kind of difference would you like to make and how can we all strive to make a difference?
Something I often think about and reflect upon is how I can leave this world a better place than I found it. So yes, one of my motivations is to leave the world a better place in any way, whatever that may look like. I've been extremely blessed with this platform, where I am overseeing 4,000 Midshipman at the Naval Academy. I have the opportunity, unexpectedly, to share my story on the national and even international scale, and speak to people around the world.
I think the difference I want to make at the Naval Academy and even in Lake Forest – is to encourage others to take a step back and put things in perspective, to work to understand the purpose we each have and to see how we can use our lives to serve. And to appreciate one another a little bit more. Going into this job, I’ve spent time reflecting on how expressing our appreciation is something we often neglect, particularly prior to COVID-19. We've gotten used to going through the motions and checking off the boxes. But COVID-19 has caused us to take a step back. That's something I truly hope all of us can do; take a step back and appreciate the life we've been given, appreciate each other, and try to use our lives to serve and give back and impact the people around us in the best way that we can.
When you spoke at the Black Lives Matter rally in Lake Forest in June, what did you hope those listening would learn or take away from your eloquent words?
First, I was not planning on speaking that day. It was completely a game time decision. It was right after the death of George Floyd and I was still doing online school and I remember feeling like I was in a pressure cooker in Lake Forest. I felt so hurt by everything that was going on in the country. It’s not like the pain and issues are new or that the year was any worse than they’ve been in that regard.
But there are certain catalytic events that make us more keenly aware of an issue and it resurfaces that pain. I remember watching the news and understanding the effects of everything going on around the country and how it affected my family and people I knew personally. But then it kind of hurt me to walk around and see that we were in a bubble in Lake Forest. We find ourselves so removed from the rest of the world. I’ve been guilty of this too living in our North Shore oasis. We become unaware and unaccountable to the pain and the issues going on in the world or in our country.
This time it hit home for me so hard I felt I couldn’t sit home and do nothing. We were in quarantine and it was difficult because we couldn’t easily go out and make an impact because we were all separated. I felt whatever platform I had access to I had to do something; I had to make an impact. It was driving me crazy. I wasn’t sleeping at night; I wasn’t eating for a couple of weeks because I felt like I needed to do something to address the issue that was so important to me and so painful to me personally. But I didn’t know how to be the change I wanted to see.
Earlier that day I wrote out some thoughts that were in my heart and on my mind. I remember walking out my front door and seeing people going about their day completely unaware of the weight of the stories leading daily headlines. It was then when I wrote the words, “When you see a Black American remember the things that they carry.” For me, neighbors and friends would see me and ask how I’m doing or have casual conversations, and even though that’s normal, I felt they were completely unaware of how much I personally was hurting and how much Black Americans were hurting in that time.
Organizers already had the line up of rally speakers. And I’m sure they were taken aback when I asked to speak. It was an impromptu decision.
What I wrote – when you see a Black American – was to explain that just because I’m here in this oasis on the North Shore, I still face the same battles as Black Americans who were killed. I could be the Brigade Commander, or Sydney Barber, track star and honor student at LFHS with many close friends most of whom are White, yet at the end of the day I’m still a descendent of slaves. I can take off my uniform but I can’t take off my skin or the pigment of my skin.
That’s the truth of the matter and when I walk into a room that’s the weight I carry. I work so much harder every single day because I have that on my mind, I have what it represents. When I walked into my classrooms at LFHS I was the only Black or brown face in the room. People may not have noticed it but it was the first thing I noticed. Because of that, I carry myself differently and I’m conscious of the way I speak. I realize there are stereotypes. When I meet and interact with someone, I know they’re going to have a perception. For many, the only experience they have of Black Americans are what they might gather from the media because there are so few minorities in Lake Forest. I carry that reality with me; that I’m the representation of an entire race for some people. Therefore, I feel I have a responsibility to rewrite the narrative and to change the perception. Not only to prove myself with the content of my character-just as anyone would in any situation-but also undo the stereotypes that many might have about me.
On that day in June, I said, “I stand before you today a soon be graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy with a degree in mechanical engineering, but when I take off my uniform I’m still a descendent of slaves." I look at my younger brother who does well in school and in sports, yet he could have been any one of those young boys who were killed, and he’ll face racism, just like they did. The content of his character may never be enough.
Overall, the message I wanted to convey is that while there are thoughts people have or assumptions they make, I hope to expand their consciousness of what they perceive, the things that they say, and how they treat others.
Girls don’t always possess confidence, especially in the age of social media. Our 17-year old daughter asked how you became such a bad ass. She’s impressed with your determination and discipline to go after your goals. What advice do you have for girls who admire you as a role model and wish to define and achieve their own goals?
I would love to say I wasn’t discouraged by anything or didn't let anything stop me along the way. But the truth of the matter is that due to social media and growing up in a materialistic society, I was constantly comparing myself to others and doubting myself. Those thoughts were extremely crippling during middle school and high school, and I entered the Academy very insecure. But what turned the table for me was when I had to put blinders up. There was a moment when I had to take control of my own life and everything that I was doing; that’s when I realized my journey is my own to chart. No matter where I'm at in my life, whatever season I'm in, whether it's a season of triumph and success and joy, or a season of despair or loss and insecurity, I believe that's where I'm meant to be. I’m prepared to learn something at every single stage I'm in. I feel that you can't fully embrace and enjoy the triumphs of joy and success if you haven't also felt those pits of despair. I think I've learned the most during those times.
When I first came to Lake Forest, I felt like an outsider. I felt insecure and alone because I didn't know many people, I didn't look like anybody else and didn't have as much money as everyone else. I felt different and that thought was crippling. It wasn't until later on that I realized it's those differences—the people who come from different worlds and different experiences with unique perspectives--that are so valuable. I learned to own that.
Now I have the opportunity, knowing that I have a different experience, to own my story and to share it with the people around me. When we appreciate and respect each other’s unique experience and story, we can learn so much.
So, in short, it's about owning whatever season of life you're in, and realizing that your journey is your own. You can't compare it to anyone else's. Always have hope in where you're going and hope that no matter what the circumstances, there's always a brighter day ahead. You have to keep a positive attitude and strong faith in everything you do.