I do not believe in coincidences. When I met Joshua V. Barr, 39, I instantly felt a connection that one only feels a few times in one’s life. Joshua struck me to be a genuinely caring man, passionate about changing the system, to better his community and to uplift and support people of color as the director of Des Moines’ Civil and Human Rights Commission.
Growing up in strong religious household, Barr is the middle child of five kids. His dad was an evangelical pastor and his mom a teacher. Joshua was raised learning the teachings of the Bible and the importance of following the Ten Commandments. Early on he thought he was destined to become a preacher.
Even though he grew up in the city of Sumter, South Carolina, Joshua considers himself a country boy. He spent his summers in Camden and Kingstree, South Carolina, with his maternal and paternal grandparents cropping tobacco and doing farm work. He admits he hated it when he was young, yet he finds himself today migrating back towards the ways and teaching of his grandparents. They taught him independence, self-determination, self-sufficiency, and not relying on a system but in yourself. His parents were a part of what Joshua calls “the integration generation” and decided to abandon the country life and migrated towards the bright lights of the city.
Barr grew up with a mixed background of country, religious, and Black consciousness teachings. He took a great deal of interest in history, Black history specifically, which was instilled in him by his grandfather, Joseph V. Barr.
Once Joshua got older, he decided to go to college for business management at Francis Marion University in Florence, South Carolina. He realized that as an African American, he had to go above and beyond in order to have a chance to succeed, so he decided to go to law school at the University of South Carolina. Right away he felt that a traditional law career was not for him, but stayed in school to “avoid a life working at the mall.”
During his years in law school, he worked at different law firms, finding his work with a civil rights lawyer to be the most interesting.
In 2008, Joshua left his home state to get an MBA at Penn State University.
The beginning of the school year there was marked by tragedy in his family.
“At the beginning of school, my oldest brother was shot at the bank he worked at back home,” Joshua told me.
That experience made Joshua question everything about where he was going in life and following the traditional American Dream.
As part of the MBA program, he went abroad to Chile for a few days, which then inspired him to take part in a volunteer service program in Cali, Colombia centered around institutional corruption.
“Spending time among that culture exposed me to many different things, but what stood out for me the most was to see some of the poorest but happiest and most welcoming people I have ever seen in my life,” Joshua said.
He was captivated by the Colombian culture, yet he had to return to the U.S. to graduate. Upon his return, Joshua was offered and accepted a position working on corruption research at the Universidad Javeriana in Cali, Colombia. After a few months, the University hired him as a law, business, and English teacher.
A little over a year after his return to Colombia, he also found love. He met Lorena, a beautiful, independent, and hardworking “Caleña” (woman from Cali) who became his wife and now calls Des Moines home.
Although he loved Cali, he decided to come back to the U.S. once again to pursue his PhD in social policy in 2012. Returning after spending two years in Cali and submerging himself deeper in the culture in Colombia, he experienced the biggest culture shock in his life. This time it was harder to adjust to the American culture than it was for him to adjust to a foreign country.
“When I was in Colombia, I found my true self, and coming back was putting to the test what I have learned about myself,” Joshua said.
In 2013, Joshua was hired as a civil rights attorney and later as the state housing director at the South Carolina Human Affairs Commission, the civil rights department for the state of South Carolina.
This opportunity allowed Joshua to reconnect with family. Joshua loves children, and is particularly close to all his nephews and nieces. Sadly, tragedy hit his family again in 2013 when his two-year-old nephew drowned near his family home.
“My nephew is always present in my mind, and even though he was only two years old, I learned a lot from him. The biggest lesson I learned from him was to live life to its fullest. He was a huge joy to be around,” Joshua said.
After this tragedy, Barr did a lot of soul searching and understood that life is short and he wanted to make the best of it by making a positive impact in vulnerable communities.
Many unjust and racially motivated events have shaped Joshua’s career and mission in life, including the killing of Walter Scott in 2015 in North Charleston by a police officer and the mass murder at the Charleston church in 2015.
While much of the focus in the aftermath of Charleston killings was on taking down the state’s Confederate flag, Barr felt that wasn’t enough to change a systemic structure that still reinforces racism today. When he felt that his office was not ready to address those core issues, he decided to seek other opportunities and learned about the Civil Rights Director position in Des Moines and applied.
As part of the application process, finalists had to meet with community members. I was invited to be part of one of the interviews. When I heard Joshua speak, I felt captivated by his honesty and personality. He also mentioned that he spoke Spanish. I’ve had many experiences where individuals claim they speak the language but don’t really, so I approached him at the end of the interviews and presentations to check. To my surprise, he spoke Spanish perfectly.
The City of Des Moines offered him the position, and Joshua accepted it in October of 2015.
Joshua understands that it takes time to create change and feels the most impact he has achieved is the ability to teach people how the system works at the local level.
“If you want to impact the world, you have to start locally,” Barr said. “Unfortunately, local government is not taught in schools and most people have no idea how much local government impacts them on a day to day basis. Those in power at the local levels decide where to invest most of the federal dollars that cities receive.”
Part of his success has been in seeing more people of color showing up to the City Council meetings and participating in the civic engagement process beyond merely voting. In 2018, his office started a deliberative dialogue entitled “Bridging the Gap” which lead to new laws and policies being passed to create a more equitable Des Moines.
In June of this year after the murder of George Floyd, Joshua wrote an article entitled “A Better Way: 50+ Action Items to Fight Against Racism In Your Community” to give residents in the U.S. a local action plan on how to fight for more just and anti-racist communities.
We could have continued to talk for hours, yet our time was short as Joshua works very long hours. But as two very outspoken individuals, I had to ask Joshua about his feelings on the progress we have made as a community and as a state.
“One of the things that I did not appreciate about Iowa is its covert form of racism. In South Carolina, a lot of the racism is very overt and in your face, so you knew where people stood,” Joshua explained. “With Iowa Nice you have no idea what to expect. You can be nice to a person when you smile, but when you really want to address issues, you have to be kind. We have to move from Iowa Nice to Iowa Kind. Kindness is better than niceness because truly being kind requires you to take action. In this climate, we don’t need nice people, we need kind people who will do the right thing and take action.”
I have not met many people like Joshua Barr — his passion, focus, and kindness combined with his knowledge in the fields of justice, racism, and inequality are difficult to find. I am convinced that the City of Des Moines and its residents are lucky to have him. I considered myself the luckiest because I get to call him my friend and part of my family. I wish there were more Joshua’s in the world. He gives me hope for humanity.
by Claudia Thrane
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