Welcome to “The Story We Share,” a series of Q&As that profile two people with similar identities ― but who live in very different places. As part of HuffPost’s Listen To America tour, we’re exploring how people’s lived experiences overlap and diverge depending on their zip codes. What is the “American experience”? It depends where you look.
For black women in America, racial and gender challenges abound and success is often self-made. Trilby Barnes and Charlene Dukes are keenly familiar with this experience.
Barnes is a 62-year-old former entrepreneur and CEO from New Iberia, Louisiana. She led one of the country’s only minority-owned nursing staffing agencies for her company Medi-Lend, which quickly became a multimillion-dollar agency, marking an impressive level of success few black nursing professionals have earned.
Dukes is the current president of Prince George’s Community College in Largo, Maryland. At 63, Dukes, who was born in Pennsylvania and lived in Maryland for nearly two decades, is the first female president of the school, where she oversees a student body of more than 44,000, 93 percent of whom are students of color.
While their locations and occupations may differ, both women share plenty in common. Not only have Barnes and Dukes broken barriers in their respective fields, they did so while combatting racism, raising children, rising above hatred and overcoming setbacks they faced on account of their race and gender.
Below, Barnes and Dukes discuss growing up in two vastly different states and how their unwavering resilience has molded them into the trailblazing women they are today.
What was your childhood like growing up as a young black girl?
Trilby Barnes (Louisiana): I grew up in a town called New Iberia, Louisiana, and I grew up there with my parents in the town, but my mother came from the country part of New Iberia so I did a lot of growing up there as well. Even in town, I lived on a dirt road. It wasn’t paved, but it was a really nice home compared to the fact that we were on a dirt road and one of the only better homes on that street at the time.
My mother was 15 when she had me, and my grandmother, who was always the head of the family, she decided that with my mother being 15 and with my great aunt and great uncle not being able to have children, she decided that she would give me to them, so that’s how I became the child of Irving and Hazel Barnes. My mother went on to have five more children, and so for that reason I have lovely siblings. We weren’t raised together but we came to know each other during our childhood.
Charlene Dukes (Maryland): I was born in a small town in southwest Pennsylvania called Johnstown. I am the second oldest of nine children. I grew up in a small but a very close community. All of my cousins had large families; my aunt had 13 children. My parents did not go to college. I am a first-generation college student, and grew up probably for the first 15 years of my life in a four-room house, and by four rooms I mean a living room, a kitchen and two bedrooms. I remind people that I didn’t know what it was to really like to sleep in my own bed alone until I actually went to college.
What are some of your earliest memories of experiencing racism?
Barnes (Louisiana): I knew that it was going on around me and I knew that there were differences between what jobs were available, where we shopped for groceries was different, definitely the expectations on who you were gonna be when you grew up were different. Everyone was geared toward doing technical schools, very few of my friends were thinking about college. But everybody wanted to go to trade school and if I wanted to identify where racial inequality was rooted in my age group, I think it was in the lack of empowerment as to what you could look at being.
Dukes (Maryland): I recall when I was around 15 we moved to a larger home in a predominantly white section of the town where I grew up. And I remember probably at that point really understanding what racism was and could be and how it would rear its ugly head. It was only two or three streets away from where I was raised, but coming home and seeing the n-word spray-painted across the side of our home several days in a row... My dad would go out there with paint and he would very calmly paint over that word.
I remember one day the neighbors came over and they brought paint cans and they started helping them paint over those words. What it said to us was that there are good people and that folks need to understand that we all bring our own set of values and a firm foundation and a good quality of life and a good community. But ... it really hit me that this thing called racism existed in ways that could be ugly and vicious. This was the late ’60s.
You attended school in the ’70s. What were your college years like?
Barnes (Louisiana): I guess what I realized now is that nobody thought I would be going to college. They didn’t have any expectation outside of me going to technical school. I made good grades in high school but what I didn’t realize is that I wasn’t really prepared for the freedom of college.
[Nursing’s] my greatest aspiration and I can remember clearly this administrator saying to me, “You know, you all don’t do well in this field. You may want to consider social work.” Instead of thinking of fighting her and proving her wrong, I was like, “I need to get out of here,” because I wanted to be a nurse and if they couldn’t see me as a nurse then they couldn’t help me to become one. I expected to hear, “I see your desire to be a nurse.” She could have told me anything except to tell me that I don’t belong, or won’t do well. There were other black students in nursing across the nation most likely being told that, which can account today for the disproportionate number of black nurses in nursing. And so I was like, “Who am I gonna turn to?”
When I told my dad that I wanted to be a social worker he said, “You know that black women can be more than social workers.” So I left and became an LPN [licensed practical nurse] and went to Charity Nursing School.
Dukes (Maryland): I went to a traditionally white institution in Pennsylvania, Indiana University. We weren’t the first but we were the largest group of black students who had been admitted and we had to get people to understand who we were and that we were people and not animals ― that we had a right to be there, we were smart, intelligent, we could perform in the classroom. I can recall many a night, things would be thrown at us from cars, we were called names. It got to a point where young African American male students on campus set up a phone system so that no one had to walk around campus by himself or herself alone after dark.
It was such an experience for me that I actually left college after my first year. I left because of the racism on campus and also me trying to find myself. I moved to New Jersey and worked at Bell Telephone Company, then I moved to New York and worked at Chase. Then, four or five years later I re-enrolled in college so I could finish what I had started, so I actually graduated in 1980. I was very active in the Black Student Union and I was very active in going around the state to recruit students. As a student myself, I worked in an educational opportunity program and talked about what students might experience and how the school was beginning to put support systems in place for students of color.
How did racism and sexism play a role in the early years of your career?
Barnes (Louisiana): I had a physical accident that caused a fracture after my first year at Charity Nursing School in 1978. The school was like, “You can’t be in class with your leg in a cast.” I only had about two weeks left in the class and I knew for a fact that there was a classmate of mine, a white girl, who had broken her arm or leg and she was in the class and it didn’t cause a problem. I was excited that I was on my way to being a registered nurse. Then I had the accident and they wouldn’t let me back in. But at that time, if you were white and popular, you were unstoppable.
So I went back in ’84 and graduated in ’86. I was always working as an LPN and I got a full-time job and ran a women’s clinic while I was out of school. I learned a lot about life, during that time. I lost some of the naivety and found comfort in my self-worth.
Dukes (Maryland): I was a pretty good student. I graduated with a really high GPA and recall looking for jobs. As I traveled throughout Pennsylvania, it became clear to me that the more I traveled, the more rural Pennsylvania was, and when I showed up to be interviewed by superintendents and principals, they had no idea I was African American. And quite frankly, given the communities I was traveling in, I thought to myself, “Even if they offered me a job there’s no way I can be there.” We probably just weren’t ready for each other. So I eventually looked for and found a position as a financial aid officer at a local university.
I’ve always tried to be supportive of women in the environment today at PGCC. All of our senior team are women, we are all accomplished and bring a lot to the table.
As a black woman, do you ever feel pressure to have to work twice as hard to stay on track with your white peers?
Barnes (Louisiana): Definitely, I think that’s what drove me to entrepreneurship. I saw the writing on the wall. The only shift black nurses had available were nights and day shifts were saved for white nurses. I worked hard, you work harder at nights and I think other nurses felt that way. There was a lot of discontent and you could not feel free to voice how you felt. So you had to be a strategic thinker and strategic with your speaking because you wanted to be understood but not to the point of losing your job.
I speak to some of my friends that are college professors now and they still reflect on the fact that people still think we don’t know anything, or may still feel like they can give me a chapter to write and say that they co-authored it. It’s that kind of upper-echelon B.S. I know the work I’ve done.
Dukes (Maryland): Oh, absolutely. I’ve felt that in my career. I think you have to work twice as hard and twice as smart. Being on time is being 15 minutes early. I’ve seen that as both a person of color and as a woman. I think that is still absolutely true. We have opportunities to change that. There are more women working in higher education today than ever before, there are more women leading, but I think if we think back to the Lilly Ledbetter [Fair Pay] Act and the protests that have happened around women’s rights, DACA, racism, this is the time for us to speak up and speak out and to recognize that we have a responsibility to do that. We don’t have the luxury of sitting back and saying somebody else can do that.
Were you surprised by the results of the 2016 presidential election?
Barnes (Louisiana): Oh, yes, I expected Hillary to win. I think that we’re in trouble. I can’t imagine that President Trump has me on his mind at any one time of the day. I can’t imagine that one day Trump is thinking about the effects of violence in the African American community or the mother who has lost their child to violence.
I feel like as an American, I’m more afraid than I’ve ever been. My main thing as an African American woman, I’m fearful for my daughter and for myself. I don’t feel comfortable. But the thing about a strong black woman is that I still don’t feel like stopping. I’m still not tired now. But it’s sad that if I have to reflect on all that I’ve went through, I’m 62 and living here and now I have a fear for my safety. It’s not just North Korea setting off a nuclear bomb, but suppose white supremacists decide to come out of the woods of Louisiana one night when I’m in church. All of that has been reawakened, not that it ever goes to sleep. That stuff was real for Louisiana.
Dukes (Maryland): Like many people, I thought the result would be different, but I also think it sent a message that we have to be forever vigilant. Everyone says #staywoke and what I say is #staywoke, but if you’re not doing anything you may as well be sleeping. I will tell you that my husband, neither one of us had an HBCU experience, but we had a conscious decision to send our son to an HBCU at Howard University, because I wanted him to really understand who he is as an African American male and how to be careful as he rode around the streets.
How have you been able to persevere past racial barriers to achieve success?
Barnes (Louisiana): I believe that when I didn’t know what I was doing that my parents, my mom was asking God to lead me and guide me. When I was younger, I played in the church choir and when I turned to be on my own, I know they still prayed for me. I believe that’s what brought me to my brink of success.
Dukes (Maryland): For us as a family, my husband’s death was a milestone. I worked my way up the career path and it was something we were happy about and excited about and one night he fainted and the next morning he was gone. It would have been easy to roll up in a ball and never get up again. I was looking at my son, my stepson and I thought about how I’ve been selected to run a large institution. You have to get up. Family and friends help. And that’s what I try to do. Get up and keep going.
What is your family life like and what do you do for self-care?
Barnes (Louisiana): I have one biological daughter, her father is deceased. She attended Howard University and is now living on her own and doing well. I will say that motherhood made me feel like ... I have to educate her, work harder, and having my pregnancy realigned me with the thought of making something for myself and something for her.
For fun, I like to dance, listen to live music, and I love to cook and I love to entertain. If I could, I would entertain all the time because I like having my friends around, now that I know who they are. I’ve identified them and we’re good to go. Also, I love meeting all my daughter’s friends and being around young black minds. I just feel like a sponge.
Dukes (Maryland): I have one biological son and one stepson. Maurice is 27, he attended Howard University. My stepson, Lance, attended Hampton University. I have a pretty good sense of humor, I like to laugh. But I’m also a person who likes to get to work early so I can prepare for the business of the day. I do belong to Delta Sigma Theta and I also belong to the Links, Inc. There’s a network of like-minded women at work and in my personal life where we can relax and engage and think about service to our communities.
I want to make sure to always do unto others as I would have them do unto me, and I’m always concerned about how to put our best foot forward all the time. Our family motto till this day is, “One for all and all for one.” If somebody needs something or is in trouble, then that’s how we operate.
What does black girl magic mean to you?
Barnes (Louisiana): To me, black girl magic is what I see in my daughter. I see and hear her saying and speaking things at 27 years old and having positions on life. I see that as being part of the magic of a black girl ... When you’ve been awarded the ability to grasp a look on life or way of life and you’ve done it and the people who have sent you on your way can look at you and be proud.
To me, black girl magic is me being 62 and I’m going back to school. I’m going to get my doctorate! I might be 70 and it doesn’t matter. My focus is on reaching what I said I was set out to do. It was the best thought a little black girl can have, that at 18 you decided you wanted to have your doctorate in nursing and own a nursing company.
Dukes (Maryland): Black girl magic is about stepping up, being present, understanding who you are and understanding that young women are looking up to you every day. I think that’s what it’s about and I look at the award shows on BET and I see myself clap for Issa Rae, Cicely Tyson, Angela Bassett and others. We’re running companies, starting nonprofits, making a difference as women in STEM ... or playing roles in Hollywood. I’m all about it, because it’s still encouraging me every day.
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.