Sports Illustrated and Empower Onyx are putting the spotlight on the diverse journeys of Black women across sports—from the veteran athletes, to up-and-coming stars, coaches, executives and more—in the series, Elle-evate: 100 Influential Black Women in Sports.
It seems like Dr. Kiki Baker Barnes, athletic director at Dillard University, has always understood the power of intentional leadership, especially for women coming up in sports. Since taking over at the New Orleans–based HBCU in 2006—in the wake of Hurricane Katrina—Barnes has set herself apart as an expert in elevating not just athletic programs, but communities and individual athletes around her as well. Through her own experiences and those of the mentors and peers who led the way for her, Barnes is set on raising up the next generation of Black women in athletics and giving them that same delicate care—and then some.
Barnes’s own start in sports was a bit nontraditional. She didn’t head straight into basketball, the sport that would set the tone for the rest of her career. “Actually, I wanted to be a cheerleader initially. I only tried out for basketball because I wanted to be with my friends. It wasn’t because I had this love or excitement for basketball,” Barnes recalls, laughing. Still, it was through a strong leader that she realized how to take her own career more seriously. “We had a great coach, Elliot Gilbert, my friend’s dad. He was just an amazing man—and he worked us to death, let me tell you that. I learned the game of basketball—and I learned I wanted to be really, really good,” she says. “I wound up being a halfway decent player. I got a scholarship!”
Fast forward to 1997 and the launch of the WNBA, a milestone that would impact the lives of thousands of women in basketball and, for the first time, give them a legitimate platform. As a star athlete at the University of New Orleans, Barnes was certain this would be her next path. “My coach brings me in, he tells me ‘Hey, talk to a couple scouts. If you’re interested in playing, I’ve got an opportunity for you to try out. You can go to Houston or Charlotte; you tell me which one and we’ll set the date, and get you out there. I will help you in any way possible to get there.’”
Barnes was overwhelmed at the opportunity, but set her sights on a state where her community could still visit, come to games, and support her. “I didn't even think that was a possibility. At the time, women had to go overseas to play basketball,” she says. “I choose Houston, I mean, everyone’s got to be able to come see me play. So I made it to the second round … and then I got cut. I’m like, Man, my basketball career really is over. What am I going to do with my life?”
But then she got a life-changing call from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “They wanted to bring me on as a graduate assistant for the women’s basketball team. They gave me an opportunity and showed me the ropes. That was the first time I had even thought about myself being an athletic director,” she says. “I never connected the fact that once I finished playing sports, that I could continue in this work. Once I got in, I'm like, O.K., there's a lot of people that work in sports, but half of them still don't look like me. You didn’t see women in these roles, and I was young. I’m sitting there looking up, and I’m thinking, How do I get a chance to get in the chair?”
That motivation, and the ability to see herself in a role outside of athlete, are things Barnes would carry with her through the rest of her career—which includes serving as the first woman and first Black president of the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference, and the first Black woman commissioner in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. But she’s not pressed—in fact, she’s humbly ready to share her wealth of knowledge with the next generation of Black women and set them up for success beyond what they might imagine for themselves, and beyond what they’ve been told is possible. “Now here I am, 16 years in the game. I've been the athletic director for that long. I was like, we have to do something about preparing the pipeline. As a college student, nobody was talking to me about opportunities. I didn't see anyone that looked like me, and we know how important it is when you see someone that you can connect with.”
“I started my mentorship program in 2017, ‘So You Want A Career in Athletics?’ It is my legacy work. It is my hard work. It is my passion,” Barnes says. “Now I am helping young girls get connected. It's about them knowing that it's possible. And I feel like because of my path, I have an obligation to ensure they are aware of what those opportunities look like, and how they can successfully navigate and achieve their goal in leadership.”
Barnes is also focused on the mental health and genuine well-being of her mentees and athletes. She wants to make sure the pressure of being one of the “first,” or in some cases, the “only,” doesn’t drastically affect the young Black women around her—or herself. She believes in creating spaces to feel, cry, grieve, and be completely open and held. “It is absolutely critical that we take the time to focus on ourselves, that we create networks. We have circled in spaces where we can deal with ourselves, when we need to, so that we will be healthy and fully ready for the opportunities, challenges, obstacles that present themselves to us.
“We don't want to fail in front of people. There is a great burden that we carry to be in those spaces, to not mess it up for anybody else. Right? If you get the opportunity, they’re looking at you, they’re judging every other Black person by what you do. So you don't get to have breakdowns. One of the things that I have been very strategic about with my mentees is letting them see me have bad days, letting them see me cry, letting them see me break down. We all deserve the opportunity to be well. We deserve that and we have to prioritize that.”
Ultimately, Barnes is aware of the weight of her position, and what that visibility means for incoming Black women in athletics, period. She does not take her own power lightly, yet somehow manages to lead with levity, humor and grace—in a way that absolutely no one else can. “I, and all of my sister athletic administrators, are examples that you can lead in the way that you were made to lead,” she says. “Each person has a unique thing about them that makes them powerful. We each have our own way. I'm Kiki, and ain't nobody better at being Kiki than me. You can't win. You'll never win, because this was the way I was created to lead, and to make a difference in this world. ”
Naya Samuel is a contributor for Empower Onyx, a diverse multi-channel platform celebrating the stories and transformative power of sports for Black women and girls.
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