Follow the journey that Jen Barnes has taken and learn why she’s passionate about the conversation of racial equality. As the founder of White Girl Awakening and a ministry in Africa, and one who serves on various Boards, Barnes is a social entrepreneur who lives her life making a difference. Hear how growing up in Birmingham, Alabama and her grandfather’s influence helped shape her – and how she picked up his mantle for building healthy race relations.

In this episode you’ll discover:

  • How to grow organic, authentic friendships with people from different backgrounds and cultures.
  • How differences become strengths.
  • Why your willingness is critical to becoming part of the solution.
  • What “posture” is and why it’s critical to building relationships with people of a different race.
  • Why empathy is so important and how to walk in it.

Read the transcript of the podcast below.


Karin Conlee: 00:09   Welcome to R4R, conversations that educate and elevate. I’m Karin Conlee, the Executive Director of Race for Reconciliation and we are so excited that you have joined us for another episode. I have with me a dear friend and an amazing woman, Jen Barnes; thank you so much for joining me today.

Jen Barnes: 00:31   It’s good to be here; thanks for having me.

Karin Conlee: 00:33   Well, I don’t feel like I can actually do justice to you in an introduction and I hope that everybody who is listening to this or watching this on YouTube, that they will get to know even a hint of Jen Barnes in this episode, because you bring so much wealth, so much wisdom and heart into this conversation. You’re the founder of White Girl Awakening and you have a ministry in Africa and serve on Boards. You really are a social entrepreneur who lives her life making a difference.

Karin Conlee: 01:15   I’m just so grateful to have you on and to be able to just have a conversation with you. So, thanks. I know you are out of pocket away, supposed to be resting and here you are talking to me. We are just really, really grateful.

Jen Barnes: 01:30   Well, these conversations can be energizing and fulfilling too. So, this is what I love to talk about most.

Karin Conlee: 01:37   Awesome. People connect with people and with stories, and you and I are both two white women sitting here in a conversation about racial reconciliation; some would say – what are you guys doing here, but there’s so much importance in us being a part of this conversation. You have actually had a journey that I feel would be helpful for people to hear, so maybe you could give us a window into Jen Barnes, both in the present and a little bit of your backstory of why you are passionate about this topic.

Jen Barnes: 02:26   I think it’s easier for me to start from the past and move forward and just do a quick synopsis. I was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, a little suburb just West of the city. My granddad was a Southern Baptist pastor of a church in a community there that he was born into. He went away and served in a bunch of other churches in different areas, then came back to his hometown to serve out the rest of his ministry.

Jen Barnes: 03:00   Some things had changed in that community and what was once a predominantly white area had become a predominantly black area of town. The remaining members left in that church were older white people who were no longer even living in that community. They had moved to different suburbs that had developed and then just driving back in town for church, and he realized – hey, if this church has a future, we really need to let this community surrounding it know that it belongs to them. So that was happening in the early foundational stages of my development, you know, elementary and middle school. I remember being a part of seeing the challenges that came up but also the heart behind this man who had grown up in the twenties, thirties, forties, fifties and sixties; all of the things historically that we, as a nation navigated through.

Jen Barnes: 04:04   I watched this man’s heart grow and change specifically in the area of what it looked like to be a neighbor to those who don’t look like you. That was just really part of the foundational years of who I was. So, I grew up in a predominantly white area and there wasn’t a lot of diversity, but in my heart, I knew that something didn’t seem right about this. So, I’ve always had a desire for oneness, for understanding different cultures, but specifically for the woundedness that we have in this nation, as it pertains to white and black. It’s not that there aren’t other cultural differences that exist, it just feels like the root issue is the one between white and black. So, under the shade of my grandfather’s leadership, I rode the wave of all the work that he did, and I felt like the moment I really grew up was the moment he went home to heaven back in 2011. That’s when I felt this weight that what he’d done needed to be continued; I wanted to pick the mantle up; I volunteered to do so, this work that he started and demonstrated.

Jen Barnes: 05:37   I started intentionally seeking out friends of color, so that I could learn what I didn’t know and understand why there were so many differences, specifically in the church. With politics, for instance, why does the black church tend to vote democratic and the white church tends to vote Republican, but we share the same Bible in the

Jen Barnes: 05:58   Christian faith. I just had all these questions that I wanted to have answered, and I felt like the best place to get them answered was to go straight to the church,

Jen Barnes: 06:08   Go straight to the source, seek out people within the black church and so driving home from my granddad’s funeral, I just said a prayer that God would give me some black friends. The short of it is the first friend that he gave me was Dr. King’s daughter Bernice King, and over the last 10 years I’ve just learned so much through this relationship and it’s been this organic growth that’s been happening. It’s been real and authentic because all of these things that we tend to do in our various communities in terms of studying from afar and placing labels, that gets broken down really quickly and easily when you’re going straight to the source of who you believe someone is and letting them teach you firsthand. All the labels have to go away because you realize – Oh, we’re actually really similar in some ways that I didn’t realize.

Jen Barnes: 07:15   Then the differences they’re not detrimental, they’re actually essential to each of us, and so where you are different it becomes a strength from our weakness or vice versa. So, I’ve for the last 10 years, really dedicated my life to developing these relationships. Now I’ve launched this community where I really have become such a believer in the need for humans to be human beings to one another, and that the major deficit we’re experiencing today is that we have forgotten how to be human beings in and of ourselves. Sometimes I have to tell myself just be human right now.

Jen Barnes: 08:07   When you feel like you’re swirling out of control, you need to sit here and be a human, and then it’s going to give you the ability from that perspective to reach out to them and see them as human.

Karin Conlee: 08:20   There are so many different questions that are bubbling up right now to ask you, but I think one of the reasons I was so eager to have you as a guest is the two words that you used – real and organic; there is nothing that will replace that. I know your story. You’ve shared that story with me multiple times, but when I sit here and think, that was 2011 and we’re at 2020; what God has done in the last nine years because your heart was willing.

Karin Conlee: 09:08   All of us are human, like you said, and growing in so many different facets that I hope we’re going to share so many other things here. I don’t think you have a closer connection to God than other people do, but when you said – I want a friend of color and God gives you Dr. King’s daughter, and people say – wait, how did she do it. I think it is our willingness to want to be a part of a solution that allows us to be able to see things and have opportunities, and you’ve just been a great steward of that. So, in this you talked about this community and you have just launched White Girl Awakening; tell us about that. What is the story behind that and what are your goals for that?

Jen Barnes: 10:09   White Girl Awakening is basically an invitation for other white people, not just white women. It’s called white girl awakening because that’s my journey and my story.

Jen Barnes: 10:22   But it’s an invitation to step into what I’ve been doing for the last 10 years. The divide that we’re seeing cannot be healed from a stage. It has to be healed in our everyday lives and reaching out towards one another and coming close, and right now we’re so divided and so separate. It seems to be that what’s been modeled has been to go deeper into your echo chamber when you’re feeling unsafe, versus stepping out into the open field where nobody’s feeling really comfortable and walking towards one another and navigating that together. That newness that we’re both feeling unshielded, is because we’re stepping out into this open space that’s been between us here and we are navigating this new thing together on neutral ground. So that’s essentially what White Girl Awakening the heart behind it is, and it’s very simple. There are two things that we highlight as an organization; we focus on how we as white people posture ourselves to enter into these relationships with people of color, how is it that we should be posturing.

Jen Barnes: 11:46   Then we point to the people that we’re learning from in that community and there are some people who have just been really instrumental in teaching me and helping me learn their experiences and their historical narrative, that I was greatly shielded from just because of separation. Those are the people that we’re starting with and we’re highlighting and I think it’s an opportunity to learn and grow and try to help heal this divide with love being that encapsulating feature that’s in the center of that divide.

Karin Conlee: 12:29   You mentioned the posture and then the people, so talk a little bit about posture. What is the message that you want other white men and women to understand about entering into these relationships and posturing themselves?

Jen Barnes: 12:52   For me, what I found to work in my own life, and I think that it’s something that’s just kind of an across the board posture, is wiping the slate clean when we’re approaching these new relationships.

Jen Barnes: 13:10   When we’re approaching these new conversations and letting go of all our preconceived notions, setting them aside at the door before we walk through and say, I’m going to be open to the possibility that I haven’t been taught a hundred percent of the things I’ve been taught with a hundred percent correctness. I arrived at that place within myself before I could really talk about it collectively, but anybody who thinks they’re right about a hundred percent of the things, a hundred percent of the time probably needs to do some serious introspective work. In my early twenties when you don’t need to know anything because you know everything already and started navigating through some actual things I didn’t know about life in general and as I matured, I realized there are some things I don’t know. It’s not all black and white and there is a certain gray that we have to navigate with some humility as we learn.

Jen Barnes: 14:24   I think the first thing we talk about in terms of posturing is that, there are some things that we’ve been taught from people that we really love that aren’t right. They were taught from a perspective of – this is what I believe to be, right, so it wasn’t like this purposed attack or anything like that. It was just that there was separation between the communities for so long and so, my grandfather for instance, growing up in the thirties and forties in a state sanctioned segregated society literally grew up believing that it was unlawful to have certain relationships. So, when you think about the collective trauma that we’re trying to heal, we’ve been taught some things well-intended, in some ways by people we love that were not true. Just navigating through that one thing and being able to say, I’m always going to love where I came from and who I came from, but I have to walk into this conversation, setting all my preconceptions that I’ve received from them aside and saying, I’m going to let you teach me, I’m going to learn anew, I’m going to start anew and any beliefs that I’ve had about you or people who look like you up until this point, I’m going to let you either prove them wrong or right.

Jen Barnes: 16:07   But it’s going to happen through relationship.

Karin Conlee: 16:09   That’s good. Talk a little bit about empathy. How important is that and what does that look like in this journey?

Jen Barnes:16:22   I think what I just described as the beginning of that, it’s the beginning of I don’t have you all figured out and it’s safer for me when I have you in that box that I’ve created for you to be in, in my head. But in order for it to be true and accurate, this belief system I have about you, if truth is what I really care about and accuracy is what I really care about, I have to be willing and open to letting you out of that box that I have you in. So, a lot of this is introspective work. But that empathy, navigating perspectives and relationships about others in that way, [inaudible] out of the box you’ve created for them, is the beginnings of the pathway to empathy. I don’t really like saying that empathy is like walking in somebody else’s shoes, because a white person can never walk in a black person’s shoes, it’s just never going to happen. But I wrote a blog about it, the beginnings of empathy. I was watching this Billy Graham documentary right after he passed away; it’s on Netflix and Bernice is actually in it and she didn’t know that she was.

Jen Barnes: 17:56   There was this moment where they’re talking about him visiting a battlefield. He went and visited this medical unit on a military base somewhere overseas and there was this gentleman who had been burned severely on his back, so he’d been laying on his stomach for several weeks, and he talked about how he was probably very homesick.

Jen Barnes: 18:29   He was healing from these traumatic wounds away from all the people that he loved and then he couldn’t even see people in the face, and Doctor Graham refused to speak to him until he could see him in the face and so he got underneath the table that he was laying on and crawled underneath so that they were face to face.

Jen Barnes: 18:47   This man began to weep and his tears were dropping on Billy Graham’s face and all of the pain that was in that man, there was no way for Reverend Graham to feel the pain, but that man’s tears were hitting him on his face and they were becoming his tears.

Jen Barnes: 19:14   That’s what I think empathy really is. I think it’s this ability to say – I’m going to find a way to get myself underneath your pain.

Jen Barnes: 19:26   If there is no way for me to ever feel it, I will let your tears hit my face.

Jen Barnes: 19:32   I will find a way to walk through those tears with you until you find healing and in the process, empathy, when you walk it out that way, there is no choice but to heal and change and [inaudible] yourself.

Karin Conlee: 19:52   I’m so glad I read that blog, it was very moving and I was going to drag that story out of you if I had to, but I’m so glad that you figured it, because that is such a beautiful visual picture of what it means for us as human beings to love well and care enough. We’re so concerned about ways that we’ve been wrong that oftentimes we forget to look and say – wait a minute, life is not all about me, and there are people that I need to enter into their space and, and care enough and be patient enough to listen and learn from them. Like you said, we don’t know everything, and if just each person who’s listening to this would just say – Hey Lord, would you give me a friend of color?

Karin Conlee: 20:43   I know in my journey, I’ve had plenty of black friends, but I’ve not always gone and asked the hard questions. I’ve not given them permission or asked them to share with me what it’s like so that I can learn. I want to learn from you, so that’s a beautiful picture with Billy Graham. We’re coming to the end of this particular podcast and I’m hoping you’re going to stay for a part two, because I want to really talk about 2020 and how do we navigate what has become such a hard year. But one thing as we wrap up, you mentioned that second part of white girl awakening, who are the people in the organizations that you trust the most?

Karin Conlee: 21:38   If people are interested, I want you to point them to your website and to where they can get a hold of that information. But who are the people that you trust, the organizations that you trust as a trusted guide on these topics?

Jen Barnes: 21:52   That’s a great question. You can go to our website, white girl, and we actually have a book bundle that’s a starter pack for white people who are entering in on this journey. We’ve partnered with the King Center in Atlanta, and Bernice is actually the CEO of the King Center. That is one of the most trusted organizations for information gathering and for learning how to navigate conversations and posturing. They have amazing programming, nonviolence 365, they have virtual learning. That’s one of the organizations that I trust the most and it comes through friendship. Another wonderful friend is Tasha Morrison who launched Be the Bridge, another great organization.

Jen Barnes: 22:47   I actually sit on their board and I’m a very close friend with her and that’s another organization that I would say absolutely engage, go to their website, join their online community on Facebook, which is incredible. They have great resources for white people to engage this work of learning. So those are the two ,I won’t crowd you with too many.

Karin Conlee: 23:13   The thing that I love and Jen, we’ve been on this journey, we connected when Bernice King asked my husband to do some work with you guys and that’s how we ended up befriending you and we are blessed to have you in our space. We need multiple voices out there in multiple communities to really help change the culture that we live in and so we want to just be a big fan of White Girl Awakening, and Tasha and Be the Bridge is just doing such a phenomenal work and the King Center, so that there would be that voice out there. We’re just excited to be able to promote what you guys are doing and encourage people to check it out. Tell them your website one more time and then we’ll wrap this up for today.

Jen Barnes: 24:13   So it’s white girl and you can also find us on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and vice versa.

Jen Barnes: 24:25   There is plenty of work to be done in this space for all the organizations that are existing.

Karin Conlee: 24:30   Absolutely.

Jen Barnes: 24:31   Thank you for having me.

Karin Conlee: 24:32   Absolutely. For more information for Race for Reconciliation, you can go to race for and we would love to be able to also point you to other resources available. Go check out White Girl Awakening, Be the Bridge, and more than anything, you do something in your circle to make a difference, take that step forward, and we look forward to seeing you next time.