In honor of Women’s History Month, we present 31 Days of Revolutionary Women; a series of daily essays by local authors documenting, honoring and celebrating powerful women who inspire us in South Seattle and beyond.
by Tanisha Brandon-Felder
I could start by telling you who Deborah “Debbie” Barnes is, or I could begin by sharing how I met her. To me, the “how” is really an indicator of why this woman is so important to me.
17 years ago, I was a first year teacher in a south end school, just trying to figure things out. It has not been an easy year, and though I loved the kids, there were a few parents who were intent on seeing me fail. Because I knew this, I began to have an unhealthy bias against the parents in my class. There were a few who went above and beyond to show their support, and to even build a friendship with me. For those parents, I will always be thankful.
It was cold winter that year, and being from California, I was not used to the PNW weather yet. When Debbie, a parent in my classroom, began inviting me over to her house for soup, I was initially wary. I didn’t know what her intentions were, my trust had already been frayed by other parents in the class. To her credit, Debbie persisted and I eventually went to her home and had that soup. In many ways I never left.
If we use that soup as a metaphor of all that is warm and comforting in the world, that would best describe Debbie Barnes. I do not believe there is a person who has met Debbie, that does not remember the feel of her warm hugs and comforting smile. While with Debbie I have seen total strangers lean in towards her hugs and tell her the most private and painful things, and then leave feeling hopeful and full of joy. I call it the “Debbie touch,” but she’ll just say, “Oh girl hush.” She won’t claim the glory, because she knows it’s not hers to claim.
Debbie was born here in Seattle and grew up facing all types of obstacles. She also had a warm, loving and supportive family that faced those obstacles with her. In high school she was one of few Black students to enter Renton High. The racist treatment she received there from students and some staff would chill your soul. With a tight group of friends and strong Christian family, she was able to face those adversities and find success in higher education.
Debbie is a storyteller, a listener, and an encourager. She uses those skills in her work as a Trainer/Facilitator. Debbie works for a variety of organizations and does work that focuses on before and afterschool care, race and equity, mediations, and leading large groups through decision-making processes. Everyone that works with her finds her style to be personable and meaningful.
I find her to be meaningful because she never let go of me. Not only that, but as my family grew, she enveloped each of them as they were her own. She doesn’t just say “I’m here for you,” she actually shows up. She doesn’t just ask “what do you need,” she supplies it. She doesn’t just say, “If you ever need someone to talk to…” she creates the time for it. Debbie is so true and steadfast that many times I wonder how she is able to be so many things for so many people.
She will not like that I am writing this about her. Her style is to stay in the shadows and to let others shine. But I know that the sunlight deserves to be on her face as well. She has long since gone from being my friend to becoming my sister, in every sense of the word. If I said I loved her in every way, that still would not give it the proper justice. But for now that’s all I have, so I share it with all of you, and mostly her…I love you Debbie Barnes!
Tanisha Brandon-Felder is native Californian and especially misses her home weather (sun and warmth) 9 months out of the year. After teaching in Seattle for 16 years, she is now Director of Equity and Family Engagement in Shoreline Schools.
In her “free” time she reads, watches movies and spends time with her family.
featured image courtesy of Deborah Barnes