Zenzele Barnes still remembers the excitement she felt when the first paper issue of the Durham VOICE was printed in February 2010.
She remembers chatting with the school secretary while waiting for new copies of each issue to be delivered to the front office of Jordan High School. She remembers putting the new copies in the school library and telling all of her friends.
“I was freaking out,” Barnes said, laughing.
Barnes was the first teen editor-in-chief of the VOICE when it launched in 2009, when she was a junior in high school. Now 23, she says her work at the VOICE sparked her interest in helping communities tell their own stories.
Barnes went on to study communication at Queens University of Charlotte with a Knight Scholarship, a program that involves students in the community with digital service initiatives. She volunteered as a digital trainer, leading workshops to help people connect with their families through social media and developing a digital toolkit to help senior citizens learn to use their smartphones.
When she graduated in 2015, she decided she wanted to continue doing community service. That brought her back to the Triangle, this time as an AmeriCorps VISTA technology resource specialist at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Wake County. Through a partnership between Google, AmeriCorps and the Boys and Girls Clubs called CS First, Barnes and a partner set up an after-school club for kids ages 9 to 14 to learn computer science skills.
Though Barnes said she initially wanted to move — the AmeriCorps program has opportunities all over the country — she said it meant a lot to her to serve a community close to home.
She said despite the national push to get more students into science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields in recent years, minority communities are still underserved.
“It’s very relevant, but a lot of students are still very disconnected from that,” Barnes said. “Why are we not seeing men and women of color in those fields? They didn’t have access to these fields when they were growing up, they don’t have role models who look like them.”
Barnes relocated to Miami this past summer for another year of public service, this time tutoring high-risk students with another AmeriCorps organization called City Year.
Though Barnes’ year of service through CS First in Wake County has ended, the program continues with a new technology resource specialist, Morgan Staton, and with volunteers and teachers Barnes trained and recruited to host the clubs.
At the CS First clubs, which take place at six of the seven Wake County Boys and Girls Clubs, kids sit at a table, laser-focused on their own laptop screens despite other kids yelling on the playground outside in the afternoon sun. Throughout the year, they learn about coding and other computer science concepts through designing racing games, programming functions for speed and characters, or through other computer programs that focus on music, art, fashion and sports.
Barnes’ supervisor, Wake County Boys and Girls Clubs vice president of operations Hugh McLean, said the kids used to wait outside the computer lab for her to come and missed her when she wasn’t there.
“The disappointment on their faces made her feel sad, but it made her feel good that she had a brief impact on them,” McLean said.
Staton said Barnes was instrumental in laying a solid foundation to set up the program and making sure it would continue after she left.
“Zenzele was great at networking in Durham and this area,” Staton said. “When she said she was going to do something, it happened. People have a lot of faith in the program.”
Barnes said she hadn’t considered working with young people before her experience in Wake County, but it’s now something she’s passionate about.
“Young people do amazing things if you give them the tools to,” she said.
Barnes still considers Durham home.
“I still feel very hopeful about my community, and I still feel very rooted in everything there,” she said.
Barnes’ advice to young VOICE staffers?
“Root yourself in your community, make your experience what you want it to be, not what it ‘should’ be,” she said. “Use it as a tool to share your voice, your opinion.”