JULY 2022 | DR. CHRISTINA KISHIMOTO
North Carolina is a diverse state, with people of color making up nearly 40% of the population. Yet the third district, like many congressional districts in North Carolina, has never elected a woman or a person of color to a federal seat. Barbara Gaskins is out to change that.
I met Barbara Gaskins at a Juneteenth Celebration on Roanoke Island in North Carolina. Regardless of political persuasion, it was exciting to see a woman of color who is unafraid to take on an establishment candidate and I wanted to learn more about her, so I asked if we could get together to talk. What a great conversation we had!
Barbara Gaskins was born and raised in Eastern North Carolina, an area of the state that encompasses Greenville, Washington and the Outer Banks. Her own lived experience influenced her decision to enter politics. A passionate advocate for the incarcerated, through a non-profit that she founded and led, Barbara knows personally how difficult re-entry can be for someone who makes a mistake and serves time in the penal system. With more than 2 million people incarcerated in the United States (the highest per-capita rate in the world), support for successful re-entry is more important than ever, as is work to create alternatives to jail time. Important equity policy issues like these require a woman’s voice and Barbara has found a way to use and amplify her voice. Regardless of your political persuasion, you will enjoy hearing her story!
Christina: Hi Barbara. Thank you for being here with me here in Manteo! Tell me what it was like growing up and going to school in Eastern North Carolina.
Well, originally, I’m from Greenville. West Side, Greenville girl. I grew up on Chestnut Street. We were low-income, and my mom was a single parent. I met my dad officially when I was 18. So it was me, my mom, my brother, my aunt, and my grandmother. We’ve always been a close-knit family.
Being darker-skinned, I was picked on. Being a little smaller, I was picked on. At 16, I dropped out of school. It was the end of my 11th-grade year. My mom was upset. But it was a rough year. As young girls, no one really focuses on our struggles. And then, growing up as a devout Christian, mental health treatment was frowned upon. School was horrible, so I left and went on to get my GED that same year.
I realized that I did not want to wallow in where I was. I wanted better. At 18, I ended up pregnant with my first child. Motherhood humbles you and makes you want to strive to do better. I have a bachelor’s in behavioral science from Bellevue. I have a master’s in justice administration from the University of Phoenix.
Wow, what a story. It’s always good to see that what happens to us at a young age when we don’t always make the decisions that would lead us to success in the future do not have to be permanent. Thank you for sharing that.
So, how did you end up becoming interested in running for office?
I’ve always been a community advocate. I was an at-risk youth, and at 17, I caught a misdemeanor. They held the charge until I turned 18. And this charge has been traveling with me. So once again, instead of just sitting down, you take it in stride. You make a mistake, and you don’t sit in that mistake. You move forward. And that was part of the reason I got involved in mental health, substance use and abuse, and criminal justice. I became a mentor and went out into the community, helping those with mental health issues. Being that person to say, I improved myself, and if I can do it, anyone can do it.
Then I received a job with TASC, Treatment Accountability for Safer Communities in Craven County. I worked with those getting out of incarceration. I recognized that people needed resources. I would tell my supervisor, and they would say no, no, no, no, you’re paid to do this, you’re not paid for that. That really stifled my voice. So, I took it upon myself and started researching how to help people effectively. I met individuals from other states and communities from the East Coast all the way to the West Coast. I would ask them what they’ve done that worked. They sent journal articles. They sent curriculum. They have been so helpful. I took that information and have been utilizing that to help me move forward in helping others. I founded a nonprofit, North Carolina Community Outreach. We worked on wellness and ultimately ended up focusing on incarceration.
I met other nonprofits such as Black Voters Matter, Incarcerate NC, Emancipate NC, North Carolina Justice Center, and North Carolina Fair Chance. We all had the same mind frame of wanting to help. That led to my community involvement and politics. Last November, I went to D.C. with Black Voters Matter, the League of Women Voters, and The Poor People’s Campaign. We got arrested for protesting our voting rights and for protesting President Biden’s filibuster. Literally standing at the gate to the capitol with a sign and a fist up and got arrested. Then January 6 happens, and it’s like, what’s going to happen?
I think the longest sentence was six years. And that didn’t feel fair. So, from that day, in particular, I was like, okay, you have to take this activism of wanting to help, and you have to seek a seat at the table. These decisions are being made behind closed doors. And to change anything, you have to be at that table.
That’s an incredible story. And one of the things I can hear is that everything you’ve been involved with has something to do with your past and your experiences growing up. And, as a woman of faith, I imagine you can look back and say there was a purpose to some of the madness I experienced. It all came together, and you have an incredible calling now.
You didn’t say it, but I’ll say it from my perspective because you don’t need to agree. One of the things that was maddening to the communities of color and leaders like myself, is you see mostly white men crawling up the White House wall and thinking, if that were our boys, our men, they would have been shot down. So there’s that dichotomy of life that still exists in the U.S., and it shows up in how policy gets implemented.
As women, society tells us who we are or how we should be. I would love to be a role model. I want my story to be out there for young girls to understand that I’ve been there, done that. If I can do it, you can do it. You don’t have to be a video girl. You don’t have to do or be as society tells you. It’s okay to be you.
What is your advice to other women, especially women of color, to go out and run for office, to put themselves out there, and not feel like they need to have prior experience in this work?
I would say, just do it. I know we don’t like Trump, but if you look, Trump is himself. You can’t fake . I guess that’s what I would say. Just be you. People want to see someone they can believe in. They want to know that you’ve been through something. If you’ve been through it, you can help me get to where I need to be. But what can you tell me if you’ve had a silver spoon in your mouth?
What do you see as the top policy issues impacting women today?
The overthrowing of Roe vs. Wade. As a woman, I refuse to go back. I’ve been to as many Roe v Wade rallies as possible and am still going. We are literally taking steps back. We have to get our foot in the door. We have to be at these tables. Because otherwise, we are like second-class citizens.
I was in Atlanta and asked my Uber driver, a young guy in his early 20s, what do you think of Stacey Abrams’s chances? He said, “I don’t think there’s a good chance.” And I said, well, her numbers are really good. And she has this larger platform now. So why did you say that? And he had an interesting comment. He said, “in my community, in the black community in Atlanta, there was hope when she first came out, but hope is short-lived because of our history. And some of us lose it very quickly because we see the same thing happening over and over again”.
What’s your response to a young person like that?
In a way, I understand because we’ve been dealing with some of that too. I think we, as people of color, are always looking for a Savior. We don’t know how much power we have within. If we put it towards the right things, like voting, we can make a difference. But if we sit behind closed doors, and we talk and fuss and complain, that’s not going to do anything. So, we need to take the extra step to go and vote.
It’s amazing how much power we give up just by not showing up. So many of us are trying to think of how to turn the tide on that. I found a set of maps where a researcher was projecting what would happen if all women voted. It showed a huge change in outcomes. And it’s a great way of showing that the woman vote, and the woman of color vote actually can change the landscape in this nation.
That is a great point. And to that point, when an individual is released from jail or incarceration, they’re not welcome back into the community as they should be. They lose their voting rights. So, with the nonprofits and organizations I work with, one of our biggest issues was getting those people their voting rights back and getting them registered and out to vote. I wrote a reentry manual that works with the incarcerated before their release. We’re working with the state as they want to break the book down and utilize it with the jails and prisons in North Carolina. So, we’re working on that as well.
With the crack epidemic, mostly affecting black and brown people, we saw a different outlook than what we’re seeing now with the opioid epidemic. And the importance of reentry is personal. I lost my brother in May. He was about two or three weeks out. We were able to get a birth certificate, but we could not get his I.D. or his social security card. We couldn’t get a social security card because we didn’t have an I.D. and couldn’t get an I.D. because we didn’t have his social security card. He had a job lined up, but we could not get him employed because we didn’t have either one of those documents. So, he went back to what he knew.
Our current representative will have us think that opiates are at the border. I don’t know why he thinks people would take the time and scale a wall to bring drugs in when you can order them online. But in Greenville, he got his hands on fentanyl and overdosed.
I’m so sorry about that. And that’s what’s killing many of our young men coming out of prison. It’s interesting because we’re finally talking about Reagan’s war on drugs as a war that was started to fight a problem that didn’t exist at the time. The epidemic happened after the war on drugs started, which shows it really was a war on black and brown people. A lot of teenagers and young adults went to jail during that time. That was the 1980s. So, 40 years later, what have we learned? We’re still in the same situation.
Barbara, I am incredibly appreciative of this time with you. I am a big fan of yours, and I wish you all the best.
Dr. Kishimoto and Barbara Gaskins
Downtown Manteo, North Carolina