In the world of college athletic directors, Kiki Baker Barnes stands out, but she’s hoping to change that.
Most athletic directors at the collegiate level are white men. Barnes, an African American woman, has been leading Dillard University’s athletic department since 2006. Among all ADs in the state of Louisiana, she’s the only woman.
“You know what it means to be the only African American woman athletic director in the state of Louisiana. It means that we have a lot of work to do,” Barnes said.
Barnes has started by working within her athletic department. Out of 12 coaches, seven are black women. She has also been working to develop sports at Dillard since the New Orleans school was badly damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Her efforts have not gone unnoticed. Earlier this year, she was named Under Armour Athletics Director of the Year. The award celebrates leaders in athletics who have impacted their peers as well as young students.
When Barnes first heard the news, she was at a loss for words.
“I’m speechless, and that’s really hard for me because I like to talk,” she jokingly said. “But I’m really grateful. I’m honored. It’s one of our industry’s highest honors.”
She’ll receive the award Tuesday during the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA) Annual Convention. Nearly 30 athletic directors from seven different divisions will also be honored. Besides Barnes, the only other AD honored from a historically black college or university (HBCU) is Earl Hilton from North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro.
“At Dillard, yes, we’re small, but there are so many people who wanted to be a part of what we were trying to do with the program and grow it back after Katrina,” Barnes said. “This says we can do whatever we want, we can achieve whatever we desire to achieve.”
Dillard is a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) school, one of 260. According to Stan Johnson, executive director of the Minority Opportunities Athletic Association (MOAA), about 25 athletic directors in the NAIA are people of color, and most are at HBCUs or minority-serving institutions. Out of this group, he estimates that six black women hold the position.
Barnes has been on a mission to expose student-athletes to careers off the field or court. She has made it a priority to create mentorship programs for young women and girls to be inspired to work in athletics. “This is one of the main reasons why I started my program, So You Want a Career in Athletics, because I wanted to expose young girls to the opportunities that exist,” she said.
When Barnes graduated from the University of New Orleans, she initially believed she was going to work in communications. She didn’t consider pursuing a career in sports because most athletic directors she saw were male.
Organizations such as Women Leaders in College Sports, NACDA and MOAA offered support and helped to change her thinking.
“We need women at the helm of women’s sports,” she said. “It’s time for us to add a little more girl power to this level.”
Carla Williams, who played point guard at the University of Georgia nearly 20 years ago, went on to become an administrator at the school. She credits her mentors, all white men, with helping her get the position. She said they welcomed her into meetings to learn and observe.
“Most of the time, African American women don’t get that opportunity that I did,” she said. But she added she hasn’t seen much diversity since 1985, when she first started playing at UGA.
Today, Williams is the athletic director at the University of Virginia, becoming the first black woman AD at a Power 5 school when she was hired in October 2017.
“There were rarely other African American women anywhere, unless there was a SWA [Senior Woman Administrators] meeting. In the end, I would see one or two as the years passed, but in the larger rooms,” she said.
Williams said diverse hiring starts with people who can “make sure that we have a fair and inclusive pool of candidates when we’re looking for interns, people to shadow, entry-level positions, assistant ADs, associate, all the way up the line,” she said.
Diversity isn’t just about hiring people outside of the majority. It’s about hiring them for positions at all levels — from entry-level to key decision-makers.
“You don’t have to be the same ethnicity of the student-athletes on one team to be able to relate to that team,” she said. “You just have to have a willing spirit and consciousness to know that diversity and inclusion matters.”
Williams applauds Barnes’ accomplishments, but progress still needs to be made.
“It can’t stop with her being the first black female athletic director in Louisiana. At some point there will be a second, a third, and a fourth and a fifth,” Williams said. “But we can’t just hope it happens. We really have to try to mentor young people and educate those who aspire to be in positions like this.”
Barnes has already begun. Besides her work at Dillard, she has mentored women to become leaders in organizations such as the NFL and the Girl Scouts as well as in academia.
“Barnes has always been like a big sister to me in sports,” said Stephanie M. Sharpe, assistant coach for athletic performance at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas. “Coming up in high school, I was able to see some successful images of young women in sports.”
Weight Room Views – Tarleton State Baseball Offseason'18 (Pitchers-Pt.1) #Team31 #TexanIron #WeAreWhatWeDo @BryanConger31 @TarletonSports pic.twitter.com/ChG5jbv2Dv
— Stephanie M. Sharpe (@smsharpe22) December 5, 2018
Sharpe met Barnes while she was in the eighth grade and Barnes was playing college basketball for the University of New Orleans. More than two decades later, Barnes remains a mentor to Sharpe. Being able to seek advice from another black woman is important to Sharpe.
“I couldn’t be more proud for her. I want her to win; we want each other to win,” Sharpe said.
Sharpe said it takes time and support to climb to the top of any sports organization. What she admires about Barnes is that she pulls other people up along the way.
“It’s not just about self-promotion in what she does,” she said. “She’s helping young, older peers and colleagues and helps position them in places to be successful.”
Admiration for Barnes extends beyond her mentees. Mike Newell, the head men’s basketball coach at Dillard, said he’s witnessed Barnes’ growth as a player and leader.
“We go way back. I’ve watched her play in high school and in college, so I knew what type of person she was,” Newell said.
Newell gave Barnes her first women’s head-coaching job about 20 years ago at Southern University in Shreveport, Louisiana. Although Barnes moved on, the two stayed in touch.
Newell has worked in two NCAA Division I programs, at the University of Oklahoma and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. He said he’s had good and bad experiences with various athletic directors, but being at Dillard is different.
“Barnes gives us everything we need in order to be successful,” Newell said. “She is the best athletic director I’ve worked for.”
When it comes to succeeding in an athletic department, Barnes said, the key lies in how you work with people. She advises being open, listening, and getting resources by getting buy-in. When it comes to women aspiring to work in sports, Barnes’ advice is much more inward-looking.
“You have to know who you are and have to be comfortable with that person,” she said. “I have become very comfortable with who I am.”