Above: Cameron Barnes (third from right), '20, participates in the April 2, 2022, Lorraine Motel Wreath Laying Service on the anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The service took place on the balcony, at the very spot where MLK was killed.
Upon earning his Bachelor of Science (Marketing) in 2020, Centralian and Omega Psi Phi Fraternity member Cameron Barnes launched himself into the sociopolitical and humanitarian stratosphere, with guidance from prominent community activist and former U.S. presidential hopeful Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Barnes has taken the values he’s learned from attending Central State to flourish as a rising leader in his native south side Chicago, Illinois, enclave. Working alongside his mentor, Barnes currently serves as national youth director of Rainbow/PUSH Coalition (RPC), a nonprofit established by Jackson, which promotes social justice.
With the goal of protecting, defending, and gaining civil rights, Barnes travels across the nation connecting with youthful aspirants to the cause of equality, inclusivity, accessibility, and respectability.
Forging a deeper bond with the members of his hometown, Barnes additionally acts as an associate minister at the New Faith Missionary Baptist Church of Chicago, and he recently ran for city council.
Barnes’ academic journey through Central State into “becoming the man [he is] today,” as he put it, ironically enough began with his staunch refusal to go to college anywhere outside of Chicago.
“Nevertheless, in February of 2015, my aunt took me to the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition as they were getting ready for their HBCU college tour that they do every year,” Barnes said. “I was a junior in high school, wondering if I really wanted to give up my spring break to go on some random college tour with people I didn’t know for eight days and seven nights on the road going to several different HBCUs.”
Barnes reluctantly decided to give in to his aunt’s wishes to take the tour to see for himself what possibilities for higher education were available to him outside of his local vicinity. This was due in part to Barnes’ aunt being so impassioned for her nephew to attend an HBCU and the fact that, knowing he would be a first-generation college student, he wanted to be sure he attended the best possible university he could find.
“On the last leg of the tour, we ended up going to Central State University,” Barnes said. “And even though I was still determined not to leave Chicago, I did have to admit that when I looked at Central State, I couldn’t help but feeling, ‘This could work.’”
Being 2015, Barnes noted, the University Student Center was still being constructed, there was no Marauder pride community yet, and the campus area apartments for students and faculty were also not yet in place.
“This was Central State before it became what it is today, and yet still I found myself connecting with it in a special kind of way,” Barnes said.
That connection led Barnes to apply to Central State. He was accepted, offered a significant amount of financial support including the Presidential Scholarship, and — upon graduating high school as valedictorian — prepared himself for four years at his chosen school.
“I always knew I wanted to be a marketing professional, but every time I would go back home to Chicago during my four years at Central State, Rev. Jackson would not allow me to miss stopping by the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and seeing what was going on there,” Barnes said.
Already Jackson’s mentee from the time he had first been plugged into the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition by his aunt, Barnes was especially proud to become a frat brother of the reverend when was accepted by Omega Psi Phi.
Everything that he had learned from Jackson in the past came in handy as Barnes began forging himself as a campus activist, going as far as changing his state residency status to Ohio. This allowed Barnes to take part in Ohio politics, voting as an Ohioan, volunteering on various political campaigns, and helping his fellow Marauders and students at nearby Wilberforce University register to vote.
Over the course of his time at Central State, Barnes became sophomore class president, junior class sergeant at arms, and Mr. College of Business in his senior year. He additionally preached throughout the University as an associate minister at CSU’s Interfaith Campus Ministry under campus pastor Rev. Kima Cunningham, took on the role of treasurer for his residential hall, and worked as an assistant to the dean of Land-Grant Programs.
Once he finished his degree, Barnes went back home to Chicago where Jackson suggested his hardworking mentee would be a good fit as national youth director for Rainbow/PUSH. As a recent college graduate, Jackson believed, Barnes would be an ideal person with whom to personally travel in order to translate and make palatable the nonprofit’s mission for the so-called “30 and under crowd.”
“Rev. Jackson and I went everywhere, from L.A. to New York and everywhere in between, promoting civil rights,” Barnes said. “And now here I am today.”
Where Barnes is today is living in Chicago’s 9th Ward, seeing day-to-day what it is to be a part of a mostly underserved and disenfranchised community, which he is trying to uplift and assist however he can, just as he had back when he was a student in Central State.
This passion for serving his community fueled Barnes’ run for alderman of the 9th Ward earlier this year. At the time, Barnes was a mere 24, the same number of years the incumbent he was opposing had been in office.
“Although it was a little controversial that I was so young going up against someone twice my age, I ran as alderman for the city council, in the 9th Ward, both because I live there and because it’s where I was born and raised,” Barnes explained. “I’m third generation there, it’s where I’ve always been, and I wanted to again do what I could to help out the people all around me.”
Although Barnes did not win the race, he remains proud of the fact that he was able to utilize the skills he’d learned at Central State and through his time working with Jackson to connect with local media and other platforms in order to articulate his message.
“It wasn’t about me winning per se, especially since I knew as a 24-year-old rookie in politics, I probably wasn’t going to win that easily,” Barnes said. “It was about calling attention to my causes, such as access to opportunities, information, and education for all.”
Barnes, who earned 8% of the vote, made history as one of the youngest people ever to run for city council anywhere in Chicago and was the youngest person on the ballot in the 2023 municipal election statewide.
His run became so well publicized that Barnes began being asked by political figures in his neighboring area to start helping them run their campaigns. Somehow, Barnes now finds the time, along with everything else that he does, to work as an independent political consultant.
“So, I never counted what happened during my campaign as a loss,” Barnes said.
“And it was reminiscent of what happened to me at Central State: Even though I lost my first run for class president my freshman year, I did end up winning in my sophomore year and was able to do so much around campus. It was life imitating life, all started by my time at Central State.”
In looking back on his life to date, Barnes observed that everything he sees himself as today — all his accomplishments and his work in the many capacities with which he keeps himself moving at such a breakneck pace — has its root in his time at Central State.
“I took every opportunity offered by CSU and did everything I could while I was at Central State,” Barnes concluded. “I so desperately wanted to be a leader in the most positive way that I could.
“I wanted to serve in any capacity that I could. And that allowed me to have the best four years of my life, all at Central State University. I literally found the Cameron Barnes that I know myself to be today at Central State.”