Civic leader, film producer, attorney, and activist Kathleen “Katy” Mitchell Barksdale ’77 has crafted a fascinating journey through politics, law, service, and social justice. She recently coproduced the Netflix documentary John Lewis: Good Trouble about the life of her fellow Georgian, civil rights legend and Congressman John Lewis. Katy is cofounder of the Rockdale Foundation, which funds education projects in Sierra Leone, and has served her community of Atlanta on nonprofit boards and as a two-term member and chair of the Atlanta Public School Board.
Hollins Abroad—Paris gave me a global perspective that everyone is the same. It was pivotal in my life. I see a much bigger picture because of it. As human beings, we all really want the same things: healthy, happy families, education for our children, peace. That’s where everyone is coming from, but people don’t always connect the dots on how to get to these places. People are the same, but experiences have given them different hands to play.
Politics was in my blood, and I was encouraged to be part of the process. My grandfather was in the [Georgia] state legislature, and my father was behind the scenes. I worked in D.C. for Democratic and Republican Senators from 1976 until 1983. The voices were mostly men. Having women’s voices changes things and changes the process. Women tend to see the long game and don’t have a need for short-term gratification.
In order to affect systemic change, you’ve got to change policy. And to affect policy, you need to affect lawmakers. I went to Emory University Law School and practiced real estate law at my father’s firm after he passed away, because that was what was needed. I practiced until my third child was born. I got involved with the Boys and Girls Club of Atlanta and chaired the board.
In 1999, I ran for the Atlanta Public School Board, served two terms, and was board chair for the last two years of my final term. Education is the biggest lever for change. This was the hardest job I’ve ever done. If a country can’t educate its people, democracy can’t prosper. We have great public schools in the U.S. and brilliant teachers. We focused on teacher training – that’s what changes things when teachers are well trained. I also work in Sierra Leone supporting teacher training.
What drives me is thinking about the past and the future, about all the people who have worked for years in Georgia to get voters registered. I feel like it’s my turn to do that. I think about all my great nieces and nephews and see how the laws passed now will affect their lives. We all have a responsibility to make things better. I poll watch, I canvass for candidates. I like to be hands-on and for people to see that I care about these issues.
Storytelling and images also affect change. I wanted to create a documentary about Sierra Leone, which I started in 2017. My niche is to fund start-up grants for first-time filmmakers and to help promote stories of racial justice. I had known John Lewis my whole life – he was my congressman – but no one knew his story.
John Lewis never gave up. He had this peace about him. He wasn’t driven from ego, was hopeful, and always kept his eye on the longer-term goal of justice. Sometimes I think about what has been lost in the political process is the ability to collaborate and to maintain hope through ups and downs. John was an incredible man filled with love and hope and humor. I want people to be inspired to be hopeful, not to give up, and to realize that a lot of people have worked so hard to get us here. Everybody wants peace. How do you get there? A person like John Lewis can inspire you to do that.
To make change, you really want to be strategic. Great civil rights leaders used strategy. It goes back to Hollins and the [lesson] of trying to affect change everywhere you are. It doesn’t have to be big demonstrations, but we all need to be involved in the political process.