Krystal Barnett – Barriers & Blessings

The stories that we tell ourselves and that we pass on matter.

Our 2021 5-part series, Barriers & Blessings—How Commercial Prosperity Shapes School Success, is a continuation of FTF’s Still Separate, Still Unequal advocacy tool for education equity in the St. Louis region.

The stories that we tell ourselves and that we pass on matter. They reflect and reinforce our beliefs, the decisions we make, and the actions we take. In our latest collaboration with Humans of St. Louis, we hear community voices share how stories of self have historically shaped the lives of St. Louisans and the education landscape we live in and how those stories continue to define us today.

Krystal Barnett, Photostory by Colleen O’Connell Smyth/Humans of St. Louis

I was in college when it was time to enroll my oldest son in school. Malachi was almost five. My aunt and I were like, “What are we going to do?” I live in North St. Louis on Shreve and didn’t feel like there were a lot of school options for us. When I was a kid, I participated in the deseg program and was bused out to Ladue. Because of that experience, I never wanted my son there. It wasn’t for lack of being educated, it was more the culture shock. They didn’t prepare or welcome us the way a school should with students coming from the City going to a new school. And the schools in the neighborhood didn’t fit the bar of what I was looking for. Then we heard about an opening on Kingshighway called City Academy.

We put in an application. There was only one spot left. 101 kids applied, and he got it. That’s what started the educational track for both of my children. And I saw what the community looked like at that school. There was no such thing as an uninformed parent. They were always included in conversations because teachers and administrators partnered with them. When I saw how much parent engagement was happening, it was easier for me as a young mom to hop in and do what I saw — show up, be present, ask questions, help with homework, email teachers. If you saw things that weren’t fair, say something. I was like, “Why can’t we have that in our public schools?” Doing that for my own children is what started me on the education advocacy track.

Growing up, education wasn’t optional in our house. My mom didn’t sit us down and talk about it, but I knew: “Keep your grades up or I’m going to whoop you.” I graduated from Ladue with pretty decent grades and ended up in Job Corps. One year in, the head of the program called at 6 a.m. and asked, “Why are you here?” I said, “To get a trade, just like other people.” He said, “You belong in college.” I was like, “Okay…” So I enrolled in Forest Park where I stayed for two years and then graduated with a 4.0 on the Dean’s List.

I reached out and told the guy from Job Corps once I had graduated, and then thanked him for pushing me. He said, “You need to apply to university.” I thought, “One, I don’t want to go to university. And two, I don’t have money for that.” But I did it anyway. I applied to Saint Louis University, got in, and graduated with my bachelor’s degree in health information management and information systems. That changed my life. What if he had never said those things to me? Yes, my parents made it mandatory to go to school. But once we turned 18, it was really up to us and we had to decide how to make it happen. That guy just pushed me in the right direction.

When I graduated from Saint Louis University in 2009, I thought, “I’m a Billiken. I’m going to get out there and start making $90,000 a year.” I had friends with connections who were doing that, and that’s when I had my first “oh” moment, realizing that my education alone wasn’t enough. Nobody told me I should have been networking, talking to people, and figuring out my options. After a while, it became, “Now you’ve been out of school for two years and you’re working minimum wage jobs.” I used to flip out in my house crying like, “Why did I get a degree? I have all this school debt.” My mom and aunt told me, “It’ll work out one day.” And I would say, “When?” It hurt.

I felt like I’d wasted my time and I didn’t do enough or that I wasn’t enough. I had a college degree, but was working in a factory for $7.95 an hour. I didn’t make that little even before my degree. I was like, “How did I regress?” It was a humbling moment for me to think about how I was going to feed my son, get gas, and do all of the things I wanted to on that salary. It helped me empathize with others facing similar challenges. We want them to scale mountains, but don’t provide the resources to do that. And I had a college degree. We’re going to put the same demands on people and then blame them when their kids are not successful?

Around then, I started making slightly different choices to position myself and life slowly got better. I began going to networking events around St. Louis. I’m really good with math and numbers, so I ended up in finance at Wells Fargo. After five years there, I got the opportunity to start a parent advocacy organization called Bridge 2 HopeIt started with nine people — all with ideas and visions of how a parent education advocacy program could work in St. Louis. When it came down to decision-making time, I was chosen to pilot it. It was a leap of faith to leave my job, but I was called to do it, like it was my purpose.

In my new role, I went around my neighborhood knocking on doors and talking to every parent I saw: “How much do you know about the education system? What’s happening with your child’s education?” I started learning there were tons of parents who wanted to know more and know how to speak out in a productive way. Parents are often left out of conversations when it comes to educational decisions. The goal became to empower them, to help them find their own voice, to educate them around policy and the things we know have caused education not to work for our children, and then help them connect to their “why?” If parents have the knowledge and know-how about the system, they can disrupt it to get what their kids need.

Early on, Bridge 2 Hope did an action on the Old Courthouse steps downtown. We called the media for a press conference, and brought parents to tell their stories about why we needed changes in our school systems. Our demands were for Saint Louis Public Schools, but charters and public to me are equals. We wanted to know, “What is our learning loss plan for children in this area?” The City talks about this like learning loss is a response to COVID, but I don’t. Learning loss has been happening for years. Some schools in our region are worlds apart from each other in terms of achievements and outcomes. Our students want to go to school in their neighborhoods and still get the same education I got when I went out to Ladue. Why can’t they?

It was amazing to see 50 parents down on their steps holding signs and demanding change. We call that disruption. Disruption is necessary if we’re going to change what’s been happening up until this point. We got a lot of people and parents together, fighting for the same thing. The power of the people is magnetic. That moment showed me how the power for change lies with the people who are often left out of conversations — the parents. They have to feel valued and partner with educators so that their kids can thrive. When I got to see that in action, it changed my perspective. I thought, “We need to do this again. We need to educate more people, find out what their experiences are, and bring them all together.

Our organization’s first fellowship cohort started when COVID hit. So we’ve been meeting on Zoom two times a week from 6 to 8 p.m.. We cover lots of things — introduction to the landscape of education, accountability for parents and schools, what it means to be an organizer, how to take action and what it looks like in your community, and we teach about policy in education. In this last cohort, we talked about how our local government affects our daily life: What are your alders and mayors doing day-to-day? People don’t think about how this ties to education, but it does.

Think about it this way: I’m in the 21st Ward. Our alder helps make decisions about who gets tax abatements and who develops. All of that affects our neighborhoods and school. We want to know what’s they’re up,  to and who’s aligned to what. We use history, statistics, and data to tell the story. Education conversations are presented in complicated ways sometimes. There’s a language you need to know and you lose people if they aren’t in the education space all the time. But the way we teach fellowships, a person at 8 years old or 68 years old could get it.

After almost two years, I’ll be coming up on the process where I exit the incubator phase, file for my 501(c)(3), and become a nonprofit. We’ll have a governing board and continue to do what we’re doing on the ground, building out our vision — the Bridge 2 Hope Parent Institute, a place where we’re incorporating advocacy, parent resources, policy options, and running an academy to get parents moving into places like the school board and legislature.

In St. Louis, we learn the semantics of education and school types, argue about who is at the table and who bought the table that we’re sitting at. We know literacy and math are a struggle here, so what can every single person do to improve child literacy and math? We have funds that came in with the American Rescue Plan Act. There is opportunity. What is the plan to get the plan rocking and rolling? Instead, it’s charter schools versus public schools, privatization versus not. While we’re this-ing and that-ing, kids are being hurt. When you talk to parents who have multiple children all behind on their grade levels, when you talk to a mom or dad whose parents are three years behind, listening to other people talk about things that aren’t helping your kid is very disheartening. It’s also the reason I fight to include those people. Their children need to be centered. Why can’t we center it around child success? We have money, access, and resources to change the way we do education in St. Louis, but we’re constantly getting caught in train wrecks. I think it’s about control. All of us should take a step back and listen to the people who we say we’re solving problems for.

“Children need to be centered… We have money, access, and resources to change the way we do education in St. Louis, but we’re constantly getting caught in train wrecks. I think it’s about control. All of us should take a step back and listen to the people who we say we’re solving problems for.”

There’s a lot of talk about trauma, disparities, drug use, and jail. When you’re teaching a classroom and children come from an environment where these are things they see, you tend to want to lean in and coddle them but not necessarily push. If we’re attaching kids’ values to their circumstances, it dictates how we think about educating that child. Imagine if no matter what their barriers or circumstances, any child, and especially Black children, walk into a classroom and all you see is a child wanting to learn. If we’re thinking that these children are coming from a place of deficiency, it changes the way we approach helping them thrive. How would you see those kids when they come into your classroom? Do you only see problems or do you see opportunities? My kids are in a private school world and some of those problems exist there, too. But it doesn’t keep them from being educated. With the type of schools my son has been in, I got asked questions like, “How did you even know to apply? How did you get him in there?” Like, it was such a big thing. My son is smart. Any school out here that he wants to apply to is an opportunity. I didn’t know if he was going to get in or not, but I knew if he was held to a challenge, we would work with him to meet his goals. No matter what barrier a child is facing, they are all brilliant.

I get asked all the time, “Why are you fighting for public school children?” My son went to a private school and my daughter is there now. My answer is simple: “Your child should be getting what my children are getting. Period. There should be no difference in options, opportunities, community feel, parent engagement, or quality of academics and rigor. Whatever it is we know kids get in schools that have a lot of money, our public schools should be able to offer it, too. St. Louis should have quality schools across the board. There shouldn’t be a child who is not thriving.

If racism didn’t exist, what would education look like? We already know there are systemic issues and that racism exists. The education system was designed to not work for all kids, especially Black and brown. So when we say we’re disrupting the system of inequity, we’re bumping up against that thinking and what was put in place to uphold it. We have to challenge ourselves to un-think the way we’ve been taught about education. Forward Through Ferguson wrote a community accountability and advocacy tool called, “Still Separate, Still Unequal.” That word “still” means a lot. It represents a place of stagnancy. I wonder sometimes if we’ve gotten off course because of everything else we let cloud the goal of helping our babies.

I know I made mistakes, but when I look at where my kids are now, I’m proud. Being an executive director is new to me — talking to other grassroots folks, being in all of these Zoom meetings; having to make a lot of decisions; doing budgets, logic models, and developing organizing strategies… It might not be new to people who have been doing it, but I came from a brokerage-finance world. And I’ve been placed around beautiful, wise people who believe in me and what we’re doing, who will help me come up with ideas, fix my strategies, and encourage me. They’ve poured into me and it’s what’s moved Bridge 2 Hope along.

“Imagine if no matter what their barriers or circumstances, any child, and especially Black children, walk into a classroom and all you see is a child wanting to learn. If we’re thinking that these children are coming from a place of deficiency, it changes the way we approach helping them thrive. How would you see those kids when they come into your classroom? Do you only see problems or do you see opportunities?”

I was raised in a single-parent household. At one point, I was a 19-year-old single parent because my child’s father had a substance abuse problem. Now, my son just started college. So, all of those things that should have indicated that my child wouldn’t be a success and overcome those barriers is what pushes me to go talk to 16-year-olds who are pregnant and stop them from feeling like they’re getting that death sentence because they are young. I talk about what they can do to change their circumstances by dreaming big and working hard to get to where they want, but there needs to be somebody there along the way to guide them in the right direction. And it’s not just about working hard, I wish people would stop saying that. Poor people work hard, but it doesn’t always get you out of poverty. People need resources, opportunities, and guidance. They need someone not just to tell them they can achieve something, but to walk them through how to get there, what barriers they might face, who they can reach out to, and how to build their own network of support to feel like they’re never alone.

Sometimes I have Imposter Syndrome. So I took this strengths finder test and it identified the top skills I possess. One of mine is that I have a great ability to stamp out the negative. If there’s a problem, I’m on it. Even with myself, if there’s anything I need to work on, I get hyper-focused, like, “Are you doing this right? Did you give it enough effort? Do you even belong here? Do you qualify?” When I get into that critical mode, I talk to my mother who takes me back to my anchor place. When I call her, the first thing she’s going to do is pray. The next thing we do is rehearse our victories. She asks me, “How did you overcome thinking you weren’t going to be a success before Bridge 2 Hope? How did you decide to become a good parent to Malachai and Lauren?” Well, I did that by telling myself a different story than my circumstances told me.