Rachel Barnard, 35
Grew up: Brisbane, Australia
Lives: New York City, USA
Nominated by: Jenny Peng
A typical day in the life of Rachel Barnard is just as likely to include a worn out pair of jeans as it is a ball gown. She is the founder and executive director of Young New Yorkers, an arts-based program for 16- and 17-year-olds being prosecuted as adults in New York State. Some days you will find her setting up an exhibition space for new graduates of the program and on others she’ll attend a fundraising event. By all accounts, Rachel admits she has a pretty amazing life—even if she forgets when she has to do spreadsheets!
Rachel is a determined Aussie in New York, trying to transform the criminal justice system with the help of her Young New Yorkers team. It all began with Rachel’s public art proposal to give voice to teens being prosecuted as adults while she was completing her masters at Columbia University. This proposal earned Rachel a Goodman Fellowship, and from there the first Young New Yorkers art program was born. Today the program is court-mandated and has a 100% graduation rate. Way to go!
I manage to catch Rachel while she’s on holiday in Australia visiting family. She tells me of her journey from architect to the leader of an organisation, the great thing about fear and the wonderful female leaders that have supported her. Most of all, she keeps coming back to the capacity for people to do extraordinary things. In Rachel Barnard’s opinion, we are all far more amazing than we think.
You practised as an architect before going on to do your masters at Columbia University and developing the public art proposal for Young New Yorkers. Can you tell me about how you ended up where you are today?
I’d practised for quite a while as an architect and that’s why I moved to New York in the first place. But in 2008 the market crashed, and finally in 2010 I decided to go back to school and do my masters at Columbia University. I went in wanting to develop a large-scale art practice, and when I was [at Columbia University], I guess I developed an argument for architecture and the realm of the social. I wanted to do a public art project called Young New Yorkers that gives voice to 16- and 17-year-olds who are prosecuted as adults in New York State. I wanted them to give voice to their experiences and their hopes for the criminal justice system given they’re too young to vote and meaningfully change the legislation that effects them the most.
How did you go about navigating the criminal justice system and creating a program for teens?
In both cases it was just working really collaboratively. People usually see me as a teaching artist or executive director so they appreciate that I might not know everything and I’ve just always asked when I needed to. I’ve never had people go Oh my god you don’t know something! And then in terms of the adolescent thing, that was my biggest concern; meeting that responsibility. It’s why we deal with so many different artistic mediums, so they can find their voice and explore what they have to say in different ways. But it also actually lends beautifully to the different stages of how a group traditionally moves through a large issue. For example, taking account for their actions and then moving into leadership and giving voice to a social issue that’s important to them.
Stepping into the unknown and moving through regardless is a good practise for any area in life.
It seems to me like your program for teens is filling a lot of gaps in the mainstream education system. Why do you think we’re missing these things in our education system, in America and Western cultures more generally?
I think that when you create something you don’t know how it’s going to turn out, so the art process can be a scary one. And stepping into the unknown and moving through regardless is a good practise for any area in life; knowing that scary feeling to be a feeling of Oh I must be about to do something amazing, not I should duck for cover.
That’s one really amazing thing that comes out of a creative practise and that’s missing because the arts in general are underfunded. It’s not seen as essential. I guess the other point you were making is that in the western world art can be seen as almost a spiritual thing. We don’t have an emphasis on the spiritual, or at least on personal development in mainstream education.
Yeah, it seems like an aside, doesn’t it?
Yeah, I think it’s almost something that people are embarrassed to speak about. When The New York Times wrote about us they called us new agey and I was kind of like, are you serious? This isn’t new agey. I was speaking to someone quite high up in the courts about it and she said I don’t think it’s new-agey but for a lot of very conservative people it is a very new and novel way of moving forward.
One of the greatest pieces of advice has been: You are the right person for the job.
I just wanted to skip back to your role in Young New Yorkers. You’re the executive director, so you’re in a leadership role. Have you always seen yourself as someone who was going to be a leader? Or have you surprised yourself?
Starting Young New Yorkers as an organisation is a surprise. And I guess the thing about leadership is your own limitations become the project’s or the organisation’s limitations. So you get a lot of feedback at the beginning from a lot of people if you’re doing well because it’s become something that is important to them. On a rare occasion the feedback is bat shit crazy because the person is going through their own humanity of what it is to be starting something that could fail. And sometimes you get feedback that’s so spot on and helpful, but it’s also very personal and can sting because it’s shedding light on your own limitation.
One thing that makes a good leader is being comfortable with being scared, and being comfortable with other people being scared.
So what’s the best feedback you’ve received?
I’ve gotten so many different great pieces of advice. One of the greatest pieces of advice has been: You are the right person for the job. It’s basically about self-acceptance, embracing that I’m not perfect and yet going ahead and doing it anyway. It’s a way of giving yourself space to take on all the feedback even when you can’t tell which of it is ridiculous and which of it is going to be really valuable.
So now being in this role, what do you think makes a good leader?
Just thought I’d throw in a biggie…
One thing that makes a good leader is knowing that everybody has something to offer. So the first thing is to find out what it is that they want to contribute and whether that’s going be a match for your project right now; because people are extraordinary.
I think another thing is being comfortable with being scared, and being comfortable with other people being scared, and that includes the kids.
When did you realise that it was ok to be scared?
I’m not sure. I remember being on a bus with a friend when I was 22 or something. He was telling me that he wanted to go to Spain and said it was a bit scary. I said that’s awesome, it means you’re about to do something that’s amazing. So for whatever reason I don’t feel very uncomfortable with leaps of faith. Or I’m usually comfortable being uncomfortable.
What’s been a learning curve for me is dealing with groups of people that don’t have the same comfort level and staying in the conversation longer so that we are all moving together.
So how do you gauge that level of comfort?
I think it’s just staying in the conversation, honestly. Letting people react how they need to or bring to the conversation what they need to and not be fixated on how you think it should turn out. Because miracles will open up in those conversations. It goes back to the idea that people are extraordinary. All that feedback is what has made Young New Yorkers a great program; really listening to what people think is a good idea and what’s not and incorporating all of those points of view.
I experienced some secondary trauma, a deep sadness because it opened my eyes to the extraordinarily complex lives these young men.
You can see how all of your experiences so far made you the ideal leader in a way. Have you ever hit a spot where you thought, I can’t do this?
Of course! [laughs] Well I didn’t have this planned out and it was all one step at a time or accepting and creating one opportunity after another. I’ve also had some experiences that were very tough for me. For example, one of my participant’s brothers got shot and killed and he was such an extraordinary young man from my first program. He lived around the corner from me. I experienced some secondary trauma, a deep sadness because it opened my eyes to the extraordinarily complex lives these young men, who had become important to me, were dealing with. And then I would step out of my building and automatically look out for him, trying to see if he was all right.
I went into Lisa Schreibersdorf’s office for a meeting a couple of hours after I found out that his brother had been killed. She runs the biggest public defender’s office in Brooklyn and she just laid down some advice. She told me I need to exercise, explore spirituality, she sent me to a trauma stewardship class and encouraged me to explore grief.
When I was going through that I was also sharing it with someone else and they said you know, maybe you’re not the right person to run this organisation. This is affecting your ability to manage a team. You might not be strong enough. Whereas Lisa said here are the skills you’re going to need to know. I have learnt so much from going through that experience and I can now share that and be available to my team if or when they also experience secondary trauma.
It just so happens that in New York it’s a very special time for the criminal justice system. There’s a lot of murmuring and looking for change going on.
And what do you see from your upbringing in Australia as formative to who you are now?
I don’t know if it’s being Australian, but being an outsider is helpful because I’m new to the conversation of the criminal justice system and I haven’t grown up learning what is possible and what isn’t. Everything to me is possible. And it just so happens that in New York it’s a very special time for the criminal justice system. There’s a lot of murmuring and looking for change going on. So I’m very lucky in that way.
In terms of being Australian, I think it’s difficult for Australians to get too big for their boots, which I think is a bad thing in many ways—the tall poppy syndrome.
His first response was, ‘Ha! You’re going to get punched in the face.’ He then paused and added, ‘But that’s never hurt anybody.’
Is that something you realised before or after you left Australia?
I think I was talking about that in my mid-twenties when I was still in Australia but I’d lived in the UK and India at that point. It’s not something that America generally suffers from! [laughs]
One thing that I appreciate is that my dad is a working class man so when I first told him what I was going to do [with Young New Yorkers] his first response was, ‘Ha! You’re going to get punched in the face.’ He then paused and added, ‘But that’s never hurt anybody.’ Which is hilarious and also an extreme way of saying Don’t let risks or failing badly stop you. Go for it! I really appreciate how pragmatic yet whimsical and eccentric my family is but that’s not really Australian. It’s just I have a crazy family!
What do you admire in them in particular?
Oh my god! We just had Christmas, ok!
Ha! Wrong time to be asking?
Well, my mother has an enormous capacity for love and a generosity of spirit. I don’t mean financially, although she would give everything that she had if she could, but you know, just very understanding and gives people space to be exactly who they are. Celebrates people for who they are. She is also an incredibly accomplished and brilliant woman professionally. And my dad is unstoppable. He fractured his vertebrae and he is in a lot of pain and complains about it but he will also have his mates put him on the back of a door and carry him out to the shed. The last time he broke his back and he was bed-ridden he and his mates constructed steel balustrade for three flights of stairs in his back shed. And he had all the furniture moved into the room he was sleeping in and got his whole house repainted.
What a champion!
Yeah, he just did it by having this community around him.
Do you see that in you and your sisters?
Sure, yeah. The fun thing about my dad is that he doesn’t need to look good. And I think when you start something like Young New Yorkers you’re literally one minute in a blazer talking to judges in court, and the next you’re carting twelve pieces of art to the post office so you can post it to the people that bought them. You have to have a willingness to scramble and not look good and just get shit done.
I do have an extraordinary life now even though I may forget this when I have to do spreadsheets.
So what do you think is the best thing you’ve done so far? What are you most proud of?
I think some of the best things that anyone does might not seem outwardly like the best because you’ve had to overcome something that is personal to you. I got into the Columbia University masters program two times before I accepted it because I couldn’t justify the amount of money it would cost. I ended up ringing up my dad and he was like well, are you going to earn a lot more money when you graduate? And I was like, well, I want to be an artist so probably less money! And I think giving myself permission anyway to do that course was a big achievement because it was such a gift and it was the best year of my life.
So permission to invest in yourself then?
I wouldn’t use that phrase because it’s almost like I should be seeing a monetary return on that investment. It was the most extraordinary year of exploration and productivity. I then won the Goodman fellowship, which allowed me to do the art project Young New Yorkers, which then allowed me to start Young New Yorkers the organisation. I do have an extraordinary life now even though I may forget this when I have to do spreadsheets.
I want to touch back on you saying Young New Yorkers enables these kids to have their voices heard. I’m curious to know what you think we’re not hearing?
On a very basic level I think it’s just people not connecting with the kids as though they are any other teenagers. There is some distancing and othering going on. They have become “those kids out there” so anything they say is a chance to create a connection and to expand people’s empathy; to understand that these are our courageous-hearted kids as much as the kids on the Upper East Side or anywhere else.
What aren’t we hearing? There’s not one single message, apart from 16- and 17-year-olds are too young to be treated as adults in the criminal justice system. But to those that listen the young New Yorkers offer up gobsmacking wisdom, insight and generosity about themselves, their community, and the world around them.
I’m now also wondering what you were like as a teenager?
There are people at Young New Yorkers who are inspired by their own youth but that’s not me. I once put cane toads in a science teacher’s laboratory because she was such a total cow.
Only in Queensland would you be punished with cane toads!
She deserved it. I mean I partied and things like that but I was very responsible, I wanted to do well at school. I was just a teenager; I broke rules and I did well at school. [laughs]
And if you could go back three years to when you were just beginning Young New Yorkers, what advice would you give yourself?
I don’t think I would have one thing I would tell myself three years ago. I haven’t grown up that much but one thing I would have told myself as a teenager is that self doubt is normal and you don’t need to pay it too much attention. Because, you know, everyone is more amazing than they think. Ok, not everyone, some people think they’re the bees knees!
Your life is brief and it is for you and it is for your whole community and yet it doesn’t matter if you succeed or fail. Just give it a whirl.
I also think letting go of needing to be a success is a really great thing. That’s one of my biggest achievements: my worth isn’t really connected to my work. I live a fulfilling life and it’s not that sometimes I don’t sleep because I’m worried about something, of course I have sleepless nights, that’s just human. And sometimes I fail because that’s just compulsory when you take on something like this. But your life is brief and it is for you and it is for your whole community and yet it doesn’t matter if you succeed or fail. Just give it a whirl.