Barbara Barnes has been a political activist for as far back as she can remember. Her many involvements have included anti-colonial movements in Africa, the anti-Vietnam war movement at home and work on the Eugene McCarthy campaign in 1968, for starters. Through it all she’s been a consistent protagonist for the underdog.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to be a more privileged person, to be well off, but I think it’s better if everyone can do well,” she said. “If there’s more fairness and equity and justice in the world, that helps to bring out our better halves. I don’t think threats or fear motivate people very well.”
She grew up in Bristol, Connecticut, where her father was the owner publisher of the local paper, a daily, and was the third of four children. She has an older brother and was the “middle sister” of the three girls. Graduating from Vassar in 1964, she immediately joined the Peace Corps and went to Kenya. She stayed for two years. “I actually taught in the sister school to the school where Obama’s father had gone 10 years earlier,” she said, a boarding school on the shores of the former Lake Victoria, newly named Lake Nyasa.
“Kenya had just gotten its independence the year before,” she remembered, “so it was a new country. That was a very rich experience. It was the first time I looked at the world outside of my own cultural lens, just to see things that were so different. I had to go beyond comparing ‘us and them,’ to see some of the cultural practices in their own light.”
She lived in a house on the school compound, with a maid and a gardener. When she explained that she might not need so much help, she was told these were people who went with the house. “So on a certain level,” she said, “I was living in luxury although we had electricity only four hours a day, from 6:30, when it got dark, until 10:30.”
She returned to the States in 1967 and enrolled in a master’s program at Teachers College, Columbia University. “I wanted to get certified so I could teach in New York City and then I did for a semester, at a junior high school in the South Bronx,” she said. “It was a sixth grade of children who spoke no English. This was before ESL (English as a Second Language) and other mandated programs for students came into being.” But the hard work and “burning the candle at both ends” took their toll and she came down with mononucleosis.
Recovering, she wasn’t well enough to teach, but she did spend a few hours a day working for the Eugene McCarthy campaign, when he was seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination for the presidency. As she recovered, the campaign asked her to go to Indiana, then Nebraska and California. She was in Los Angeles when Robert Kennedy was assassinated and went on to the 1968 convention. “That was quite a year,” she said.
During the next decade, she worked at Columbia University, administrating a Ford Foundation grant. She also taught GIs at Fort Dix and guided them in their last six months of service and helped them plan their future education. She led similar programs in community colleges in the city, supported the liberation movement in Mozambique and went back to school for her doctorate in education, which she earned in 1977.
With the degree in hand, she went to Mozambique, where she helped set up a school of the arts. Several cultural groups were involved. “We did get a school up and running,” she said. “At Independence, the country was 90 percent illiterate. Our students had four to six years of school and they were considered literate. Mozambique was one of the poorest countries in the world. We wanted to keep the local culture — music, dance, stories and enable cultural exchange among the different groups.”
On her return from Mozambique, she and friends who had done volunteer work in Africa wanted to get a house together. “It seemed like an inexpensive way to have a good time,” she said. Some opted for saltwater, some for woods. “Then somebody heard of this place called Shelter Island,” which was supposed to have both, “so a few of us came out, saw an agent and rented a house.”
They continued to rent the same house for years, until, with marriages and children, they became too large a group. Then, when her father retired, the family newspaper was sold. “I knew I’d get a little money from the sale and I knew what that money was going for. It was for a house on Shelter Island. So that’s what I did. I bought this house in 1985 and I loved it and I’ve been here since.”
It was during that time that she met Eli Messinger, a child psychiatrist who had been politically active in New York City. They married in 1986 on the beach at Orient and had their wedding reception on the Island. Eli had three grown children from his former marriage and he and Barbara went on to have a son, Benjamin, now 24, and teaching math in a New Jersey private school.
She continued to work in public policy programs, initially with women. She eventually took a position at Iona College in New Rochelle, directing non-traditional programs and cross disciplinary studies, women’s studies and peace studies. She left after six years to direct a federally-funded 10-college program in Westchester County “to improve the racial climate for learning,” she said.
In recent years, she has worked with teachers and students in the New York City public schools to implement a curriculum on non-violent approaches to conflict resolution. She has also taught collaborative approaches to negotiation, mediation and conflict resolution at Teachers College. She is active with the International Institute for Peace Education and has given presentations in Turkey, Spain, Israel, Hungary, Costa Rica and Colombia.
Barbara has always been involved with music as well. “There’s this strain of music that’s gone on my whole life,” she said. An alto, she sings and has played the piano and a few other instruments. Some time ago she wanted to have the experience of singing Handel’s “Messiah.”
“I thought that would be a good life experience and I looked at New York City choruses. I chose the one that met the easiest day of the week, the Oratorio Society of New York, and I loved it. I just got hooked.”
She’s been singing with that group for almost 15 years and has traveled with them widely. She also sang with the New York City Labor Chorus, songs of peace and protest, and on the group’s 20th anniversary last spring, she went with them to Cuba.