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Naval Academy’s first Black female brigade commander aims to remind midshipmen of their purpose of service

When Midshipman 1st Class Sydney Barber was little, she wanted to be a missionary.

The call to service and helping others attracted her to the career until she decided she also wanted a good education. Instead, after a visit to the Naval Academy in her junior year of high school, Barber found a new way to serve.

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“[Once I] first stepped on the campus, I knew that there was no better place for me,” Barber said. “And as I’m going forward in my career, this is just the platform, I feel like this is the best opportunity for me to pursue a career in service.”

The mechanical engineering major felt another calling in her final year at the academy. Barber will serve as the spring semester’s brigade commander, taking over the position from Midshipman 1st Class Ryan Chapman.

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But Barber is not just serving the midshipmen. She is also opening the doors to midshipmen who come after her. Barber is the first Black female brigade commander at the academy.

There is a pressure, she said, knowing that she is leading the way for other Black female midshipmen. But she sees it less as negative pressure and more as an opportunity.

“I see it more as a responsibility and a privilege and an honor to be able to be someone to pave the way,” Barber said. “I feel extremely blessed that I have this opportunity to open doors for people who are coming after me.”

And she acknowledges that midshipmen who came before her have made it possible for her to reach her position, such as Juliane Gallina, who served as the first female brigade commander. Barber is the 16th woman to hold the position since women were first allowed to attend the academy in 1976. The academy introduced its most female plebe class in 2020, with about 30% of midshipmen female. Approximately 6.5% of the plebe class identifies as Black.

“Knowing that I’m standing on the shoulders of giants ... I can only walk in the shoes that got me here, continue being true to myself, and ... open the door for the generations and generations of other young girls, minorities, or anyone ... that’s going to be coming after me,” she said.

Barber grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood in Lake Forest, Illinois, and she is used to the pressure of being a Black woman. It pushed her to be more motivated, be more ambitious, work harder and achieve more, she said.

“So it’s not anything that’s new to me being kind of the only person or the one who represents, in some ways, an entire identity or an entire race like that,” Barber said.

While she acknowledges the responsibility of being the first Black female brigade commander, she does not think it will affect how she leads the brigade. Her leadership style will come from who she is: driven by passion and desire to serve and give back.

Midshipman 1st Class Sydney Barber is on the Navy Women’s Varsity Track and Field Team and currently holds a record for the outdoor 4x400m relay, according to the Naval Academy. Barber is the first Black female brigade commander at the academy, and will lead midshipmen during the spring 2021 semester.
Midshipman 1st Class Sydney Barber is on the Navy Women’s Varsity Track and Field Team and currently holds a record for the outdoor 4x400m relay, according to the Naval Academy. Barber is the first Black female brigade commander at the academy, and will lead midshipmen during the spring 2021 semester. (Photo provided by the U.S. Naval Academy)

Barber said she sees the role as the best way to reach the most midshipmen. She did not come to the academy as a plebe with the goal to become the leader of the midshipmen, but the position called to her. She submitted her application shortly before the deadline, she said.

Barber was one 30 midshipmen considered for the role. Chapman, Commandant of the Brigade of Midshipmen Capt. Thomas Buchanan battalion officers and the brigade master chief sat on the board that interviewed her.

Midshipmen will return to campus between Jan. 10-15, with the first day of classes starting digitally on Jan. 19. This semester some upperclass midshipmen will be housed with families and sponsors, adding an extra challenge to Barber’s time as commander.

As brigade commander, Barber will have to continue to navigate the coronavirus environment, as her predecessor did. Her focus is on helping the brigade remember its purpose of service to the military and nation as a whole and why people came to the academy.

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Renewing that sense of purpose is one way she plans to continue to address mental health — one of Chapman’s focuses in the fall. She will also draw on her time as the leader of the Midshipman Diversity Team and is looking to have a diversity and leadership conference.

Barber served as first regiment officer under Chapman during the fall. Chapman is confident that Barber will be a successful leader.

“Sydney is the spark, the commander of the room, the passionate visionary, and the one who wants the ‘ball.’ Simply put, she has it,” he wrote in an email.

Chapman recommends she build a strong bond with her team. And while there is no “How To” manual for the position, Chapman said the only question Barber will need to answer is how she will lead the brigade.

“How will you leave the Brigade when we turn over to the classes behind us?” he said. “Sydney knows how and I cannot wait to see her do it.”

Her leadership style will be intentional, and she plans on working on ways to communicate with the entire brigade so there is an effective feedback loop. In addition to passion, she plans to bring empathy to the role.

“At the end of the day, I want people to know that they can trust me [...] that I care about them, and that no matter what obstacles we face to face, as a brigade, or individually, that, if we can, if we can build a team, so the team is airtight, that believes in each other and then believes in the goals that we have set out before us, then I think that that’s that’s the key to success for us,” Barber said.

Navy Capt. Tasya Lacy, Lacy, left, a 1997 graduate of the Naval Academy, stands next to Midshipman Sydney Barber in Annapolis, Barber will be the first Black woman to be the brigade commander at the academy/ Lacy is now the legislative director for the Office of the Chief of Navy Reserve.
Navy Capt. Tasya Lacy, Lacy, left, a 1997 graduate of the Naval Academy, stands next to Midshipman Sydney Barber in Annapolis, Barber will be the first Black woman to be the brigade commander at the academy/ Lacy is now the legislative director for the Office of the Chief of Navy Reserve. (AP)

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