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Meet an Alumnus: Keith Barnes

Posted by on Friday, September 8, 2017 in Alumni, .

Keith Barnes, M.Ed. 2015

Director for Nutrition Advocacy, TN Justice Center 


“To be truly effective in this kind of work, to be a change agent, to make the world a better place, you’ve got to be flexible, and that’s not how I experience a lot of other disciplines.”

 Q: To begin, where are you from originally and how did you end up at Vanderbilt?

I grew up in Portland, TN, about 30 minutes north of Nashville. When I was 25, I decided to do something different with my life, so I joined AmeriCorps VISTA. I actually worked with them for two years. My first year was in Maine on the Penobscot Nation reservation, working primarily with tribal elders. My second year, I was a VISTA leader, where I worked with the Ohio Association of Foodbanks. During that time, I got hooked and wanted to figure out how I could do VISTA-type work for the rest of my life. I started doing research on graduate programs and CDA came on the radar; I applied in November and started the program in August.

In the meantime, I started working for a group in Nashville called Community Food Advocates. A CRA alumna, Darcy Freedman, was the founding executive director of Food Security Partners of Middle Tennessee, which was a coalition of various interests brought together to discuss, research, analyze, and propose policies to improve food security in Middle Tennessee. Around 2009, that organization merged with Manna, a long-time champion of anti-hunger work in Nashville, to become Community Food Advocates. I came in 2013 to work on getting farmer’s markets set up to accept SNAP benefits (food stamps), then started CDA that fall.

 Q: Could you tell me a little bit about what were you involved with during your time at Vanderbilt? What did you do for your practicum?

Well, in my first semester, I was working with Community Food Advocates when Jim Shulman, Executive Director of the TN Commission on Aging and Disability, came to us after a national report had been released that ranked all the states for senior hunger. Apparently, Tennessee ranked second worst in the nation. He was obviously troubled and was making the rounds with different organizations to see what we could do to fix this. So, I started crunching data to see where the hotspots of senior poverty were and where SNAP uptake was low, which snowballed into me doing my practicum at the TN Commission in the spring. While I was there, the Aging Nutrition Program Director retired. For some reason, they were crazy enough to hire me. I ended up taking the position, which I was able to use for the rest of my practicum hours. 

Q: Can you tell me a little bit about your current work at the TN Justice Center?

We’re a nonprofit law firm that began in response to the limitations placed on publicly-funded legal aid in 1995. The TN Justice Center formed in order to continue providing legal services without public funding. For the last few years, we were focused mainly on healthcare, but we are getting back out to fight for hunger advocacy, which, for us, means SNAP, school meals, and other public assistance nutrition programs.

My title is Director of Nutrition Advocacy. In a sentence, my role is to protect and improve the nutrition safety net in Tennessee. We achieve that by advocating for better policies and raising awareness about hunger and the fact that we have solutions through safety net programs. I’ve only been in the role for about 7 months, but there’s been no shortage of things to do.

Q: How do you feel like the CDA program helped prepare you for that?

Well, I would start with the interdisciplinary nature of the program and the fact that it’s not tied to any particular professional dogma. To be truly effective in this kind of work, to be a change agent, to make the world a better place, you’ve got to be flexible, and that’s not how I experience a lot of other disciplines. People often become indoctrinated into looking at the world a certain way, which I think that can be a hindrance if you want to think creatively. A big benefit of the CDA program is that we weren’t tied to any type of dogma. With the reflective-generative practitioner model, the goal is to go in as educated as you can be, but be willing to reassess and adjust your course. I think that was a really good thing that came out of the program that I don’t think you would get anywhere else.

Q: Do you have any general advice for CDA students?

Savor the time you have there. Don’t squander it. Grad school is a good time to take a step back from the real world, to experiment and learn. As someone who worked full-time through a large part of the program, I didn’t do that as much as I would have liked to. So, I definitely recommend to savor it. It’s a really great program. We need more programs like them and more people in ours.


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