Lift Every Voice and Sing: A Conversation about the Voices Project

Leroy Barber, President of Mission Year and director of the Voices Project, discusses how the Voices initiative highlights African-Americans exercising leadership across a wide range of vocations.

Leroy Barber, President of Mission Year and director of The Voices Project (Photo Credit: MissionYear.org)

Urban Faith: Leroy, thanks for your time. Let’s start from the beginning. What is the Voices Project?

Leroy Barber: We’re a group of African-American leaders coming together to have a conversation around issues that affect the African-American community as well as to be a voice to other communities.

[Our goal] is to better represent the African-American community, who its leaders are as it relates to justice issues, as it relates to Christianity, and society in general. We want to help bring a broad spectrum of African-American voices back into the public square.

We are pulling folks from business world, social activists, politicians, musicians – every arena that affects culture. We are convening a conversation and getting the word out through writing and speaking projects. [We’re] trying to extend the rich history of constructive African-American engagement with culture.

Why now? What makes the Voices Project critical for this particular historical moment?

Politically, folks may be more apt to listen. We have an African-American – or someone who is biracial – as president and we know that poverty is deepening within African-American communities. We offer a voice to those who are living beneath the poverty line and suffering from ills of injustice. Instead of being silent we want to offer a platform for voices to emerge from [that] injustice.

Our community is suffering from not having a diversity of voices speaking to and from the African-American community. In the past, we have had athletes speak on our behalf, but now that role is diminishing. We need more than just athletes, more than rappers.

How often do we hear African-Americans who are involved in politics, business, and social action – all these arenas – speaking about and into everyday life in our community?

Also, the role traditionally played by publications like an Ebony or Jet is not quite the same in our community.

That’s a fascinating point. In light of the changing dynamics that you mention, how is the Voices Project positioning itself to speak to African-American folks today?

We’re highlighting diversity within our movement. We’re not calling everyone to be the same thing. We have older pastors and younger pastors. Entertainers and musicians. We’re trying to reconnect across generations – linking the old guard of the church with the young guard.

The Church has historically been the major social and spiritual voice within our community, but now that is changing. We definitely appreciate and value its role. I mean, I’m a Christian. So I value the church. At the same time, diversity for us is not just about the church but about cultural vocations of politicians, artists, musicians, business leaders, and so on.

Understood. It sounds like you’re talking about two different kinds of diversity?

That’s right. We’re about being intentionally intergenerational and diversity in the sense of engaging individuals across various vocations and from different sectors.

How long has the Voices Project been in existence?

We are moving into our third year. We meet twice a year. Our group has been growing over the past few years. Different individuals come in at different times. We’re at about forty individuals now who are leaders within their fields. In the near future, we’re looking at convening a larger gathering.

We chose to meet in New York City and Orlando.. New York City is the center of culture – fashion, news outlets, arts, entertainment. All of this is centered in New York, so that this voice can get out there.

Then, there’s Orlando. Disney is the place of inspiration. It’s a place where you dream big, you don’t hinder your dreams, [you] work hard, and anything can come true. Orlando [in the context of the Voices gathering] is shaped around questions like: what is God doing in your organization? What are you envisioning? What are you seeing?

In New York City, we focus on getting the word out. We ask, “how do you apply the dream that we discussed in Orlando”?

We’ve covered a lot of ground about the Voices Project. Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself?

I’ve been working in cross-cultural spaces for the last 25 years. Growing up, I attended a predominantly white high school. The question for me was: “How do I survive this place? How can I be heard within this space and find myself?” That question has been important for me. You know, I come across so many black folks who know what they’re doing – I mean, they’re doing phenomenal stuff – but no one hears their story. They’re doing mentoring, youth development, and education, but somehow there uniqueness still isn’t coming through.

My sense is that you [everyone] have a story. You have a gift and let’s here about your gift as you give it to the world. We get filtered stories all the time. I want to hear directly from the folks who are being affected [by issues of concern].

We’re in a world where young black youth are saying – I see it in my work – “I don’t want to get married because that’s for white folks. I don’t want to read because that’s for white people”. Our people – especially our [African-American] youth – are not hearing the powerful stories of Maya Angelou, and other folks that can make a difference.

You raise a great point about filtering stories through the voices of other individuals. With the rediscovery of Scripture’s justice themes taking place within Evangelicalism, I’m noticing a lot of filtering taking place. If you think this filtering is in fact taking place, how does the Voices Project avoid reinforcing that trend and instead push back against the filtering dynamic?

We address that by reaching out to those who understand and work in different cultures. They have competency in different cultural contexts. They know how to give a hard message with a degree of respect and grace. And they have done it in different circles. I used to think I was the only way doing that type of stuff. But then I discovered that there’s a whole community of black leaders who know how to lead all kinds of people. They know how to all the stuff – how to trainings and seminars on race; they maneuver the black church with honor and walk through those doors. They have the gift to do it. I have no doubt about that.

Thanks. As you know, we’re quickly approaching February, which of course is Black History. What’s the significance of Black History Month for African-Americans and our broader society today?

I have two angles for that. We’ve lost heart around this celebration. We have older leaders who really embrace it, but it hasn’t really been accepted cross-culturally across generations and sectors. I’m disappointed by that. I’d like to see it revived – some of our artists, poets, and writers, bringing black history back to the forefront.

The second thing – and this comes to the Voices Project – is about the dynamic of bringing in an Anglo person to connect with and educate Anglo communities on black history month. I understand that an Anglo person can speak these issues and yes, it’s important for everyone, but why not invite, but why not an African-American voice to speak to white audiences about the significance of black history? It’s an important opportunity to leverage.

So, let’s recapture and regain the magic of black history month. That would mean bringing a diverse group of African-American church leaders along. We’re talking about history of faith, music, literature, arts – all of that stuff pulled together. For some reason, these things have gotten splintered, but it’s important to bring it together again.

During February, I bring a musician and artist with me [as I preach and speak]. When I preach, some is [also] doing Negro spirituals and giving the history of those [songs]. At same time, artists are painting. Those three things working together are powerful man. The creativity of what we do as African-Americans is powerful and we need to embrace it.

Great. As we conversing, I’m hearing a theme of spirituality connecting with a broad concern for justice. It reminds me a bit of Sojourners and I know that you are involved with their Emerging Voices project. Tell me, where did you discover the connection between spiritual renewal and social justice?

I grew up hearing the Gospel and the social Gospel. These were two tracks and two different lines…with the Gospel being the main track. I think our call as spiritual people is for restoration is linked with justice in God’s economy. That call to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. In Isaiah, we hear about the fast that God chooses, to loose the bonds of injustice. It’s about setting the captives free [holistically]. Spiritual restoration is linked with social justice.

The Emerging Voices are living one message. You can’t have one without the other. When the children of Israel come out of Egypt, we see clearly that their spiritual renewal and freedom are linked together.

My voice within those voices [and in the Voices Project] is to prevent those two things from clashing but to bring them together.

Wonderful. Any final words of wisdom?

I’m hoping we’ll begin to make an impact around affecting folks’ lives. We don’t need a whole lot of fanfare. We need folks who understand how to have a big voice without being the center of attention. As I can do that more as a leader, I can help out and have an impact on my community.

We’re about big voices that speak out against injustice without being the center of attention. It’s a team effort. We’re a village and we want to keep that at the center of attention.

That’s a great line: “Big voices speaking out against injustice without being the center of attention”. Leroy, it’s been a pleasure. God’s blessings upon your work. Thank you.

Thank you.

About the author, Andrew Wilkes

Andrew Wilkes is the editor of UrbanFaith. He serves as an affiliate minister at the Greater Allen Cathedral of New York and works at Habitat for Humanity – New York City as the Faith and Community Relations associate. An alum of Princeton Theological Seminary and Hampton University, his writing has been featured in the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, and Sojourners Magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @andrewjwilkes.

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