Melody Barnes on the White House, UVA, Monticello and Jefferson

Melody Barnes, formerly the director of President Obama’s White House Domestic Policy Council, has turned her attention to the study of democracy itself at UVA and Monticello.
September 24, 2018

Melody Barnes has a metaphor for you.

Imagine you are standing in the ocean, walking a bit deeper out into the water, loving the feel of the sun on your back, sand under your feet. It’s beautiful, amazing even. And then, boom! A big wave comes, knocking you into the salty surf. As you get up, another one hits, right on cue. And another, one you didn’t even see coming. And another. It’s unstoppable, terrifying and exhilarating, all at once.

That’s what it’s like to work in the White House.

“It was like that every single day. You never knew what might be coming next,” said Barnes, who directed the White House Domestic Policy Council under former President Barack Obama.

Then, a pause: “I loved it.”

Barnes is now co-director of UVA’s new Democracy Initiative, a broad research, teaching and public affairs initiative tackling the most pressing issues facing democracies around the world. She has also just been named a professor of practice at UVA’s Miller Center, after having served since 2016 as a visiting professor and senior fellow there and a distinguished fellow at the School of Law.

She is also a key leader at another of Charlottesville’s most recognizable institutions. This summer, Barnes was elected as vice chair of the board of trustees at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns and operates Monticello. She will serve a two-year term as vice chair before stepping into the chair’s role – and becoming the first African-American to ever hold that position.

It might not be the White House, but both UVA and Monticello have faced tumultuous times and contentious debates since Barnes arrived in 2017.

She, along with the rest of the UVA and Charlottesville community, endured the violent white supremacist rallies of Aug. 11 and 12, 2017 and this year’s anniversary, when Barnes co-organized the University’s commemorative event.

She has also been on hand as Monticello debuted a new exhibit on Sally Hemings this summer and as both Thomas Jefferson’s home and his University grappled with the founding father’s dual legacy as a slaveholder who authored the Declaration of Independence.

We spoke with Barnes ahead of the fall semester to learn more about these ongoing discussions, her transition to the University and Monticello and how her experience at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. still informs her work every day.

Leaving Politics for Education and the Private Sector

Barnes began her career as an attorney and quickly concentrated on public policy. She spent about 20 years working in various roles in government and politics, including eight years as general counsel and then chief counsel to U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, primarily through his role on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

In 2009, a newly inaugurated Obama appointed Barnes as his domestic policy adviser and director of the Domestic Policy Council, a post she held until 2012. The council coordinates a president’s domestic policymaking agenda, focusing on priorities ranging from health care to education to civil rights. Barnes loved the work and the purpose that drove it.

“There was such a strong sense that you were working on behalf of the nation, and it was a pleasure and an honor to work with someone of President Obama’s great integrity and intelligence,” she said.

However, after three years, Barnes felt the time had come to move on. She firmly believes that government works best when partnered with able and willing leaders in the business, non-profit and philanthropic world, and she hoped her experience in the White House would help her become such a leader.

“Those in government need people in the private and nonprofit sector who understand their work and share their goal to do good work that will benefit the country,” she said. “That is what I told President Obama when I left, and that has been my goal since.”

Barnes and husband Marland Buckner Jr., whom she married six months into her tenure at the White House, returned to her hometown of Richmond and merged their consulting firms, naming the new business MB2 Solutions. Barnes also joined numerous boards and charitable organizations.

“Those in government need people in the private and nonprofit sector who understand their work and share their goal to do good work that will benefit the country.”

- Melody Barnes

In addition to her appointments at UVA and Monticello, she chairs the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions and serves on the board of Ventas, Booz Allen Hamilton, the Marguerite Casey Foundation, Year Up and the Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“My day-to-day work, and my work on several boards, has given me the opportunity to make a difference on issues that I care about, deeply, using the knowledge that comes from 20-plus years in government,” she said. “I’m so excited to have that opportunity.”

The Importance of Education

Of all of the issues she has worked on – and there are a lot – Barnes remains most passionate about education. She has an abiding interest in civil rights and civil liberties, and has come to see education as “one of the most critical civil rights concerns of our day.”

That is one reason she loves her work in the University environment and with organizations like Year Up, which provides urban young adults with skills, experience and support to help them move from minimum-wage jobs to fulfilling and sustainable professional careers.

“We are supporting their ability to be vibrant, active, successful members of society, and that has been gratifying,” she said.

Miller Center director William Antholis said having someone like Barnes at UVA offers students an important opportunity.

“Melody is a rare and exceptional person for a university like UVA to have in our midst,” he said. “She has worked at the highest levels as a staff person in Congress and the White House, as well as with Washington think tanks and other universities. On top of all of that, she loves to teach and to engage with students, researchers and thought leaders.”

Her Goals at UVA

The White House gave Barnes “a 360-degree view” of the challenges to American democracy and connected her with a huge variety of talented people working on those problems.

“Working at the White House gives you a wealth of experience and memory to draw on, providing perspective you can use for new challenges and new problems,” she said. “You are working with the best of the best, across a range of disciplines. I believe I had a lot to contribute; I know I learned a great deal.”

Now, she is bringing that perspective to bear at UVA to scrutinize the very institutions that once absorbed her waking hours, especially Congress and the White House.

“As a country, we are facing, and have always faced, gaps between our ideals and our reality. How we address those issues is foundational to our democracy and who we are as a country.”

- Melody Barnes

“I think it is important at this time to consider the role those institutions have played in our democracy, as well as the significant concerns many of us have not only about those institutions and their function, but about our democracy and American civilization itself,” she said. “As a country, we are facing, and have always faced, gaps between our ideals and our reality. How we address those issues is foundational to our democracy and who we are as a country.”

The Miller Center, with its bipartisan focus on the presidency and troves of oral history and archival material, is perfectly suited to that mission, she said. And her students in the School of Law, where she taught a class on policymaking last year and will continue as a distinguished fellow this year, could soon impact those institutions as much or more as Barnes herself did.

“Melody’s class at the Law School really brought the complexities of presidential policymaking to life for students,” ,” School of Law Dean Risa L, Goluboff said. “She took students inside the art of trying to improve life for Americans in a way that was fresh and exciting. As many of our students are interested in policymaking, and many of our graduates take on policymaking positions during their careers, her insight is invaluable.”

“I had fantastic students last year, and it was gratifying and exciting to share my public policy experience with them,” she said. “I hope I was able to broaden their perspective on policymaking.”

“I know they broadened my perspective on teaching,” she said, laughing. “I have a whole new appreciation for teachers and professors now.”

“She took students inside the art of trying to improve life for Americans in a way that was fresh and exciting.”

- School of Law Dean Risa L. Goluboff

The new Democracy Initiative will offer another opportunity to directly impact students at UVA while also studying and informing policymaking in Washington. The initiative’s work – developed in multiple “democracy labs” studying issues ranging from corruption to media to religion and race – will be shared directly with politicians and policymakers in the nation’s capital, as well as the general public.

“This work will not sit on a shelf; it will go directly into the bloodstream in Washington and beyond, and invite policymakers, non-profit and business leaders, the public and democracies around the world to engage with us so we can learn from one another,” Barnes said of the initiative. “We have a key question to answer at home and abroad: How do we create the democracies of our aspirations and ideals?”

The Impact of Aug. 11 and 12

Shortly after Barnes joined the School of Law, white supremacist groups violently descended on Charlottesville, marching through Grounds on Aug. 11, 2017 and downtown the following day. Many were injured and one woman, Heather Heyer, was killed when a demonstrator drove his car into a crowd. Two state troopers also died on Aug. 12 when their patrol helicopter crashed.

Like most, Barnes was appalled and saddened. She was not, however, entirely surprised. Her experience witnessing national and international crises from the White House and her own study of history had taught her too much about what human beings can do to one another.

“In many ways, it was shocking because the violence was happening so publicly, people were injured and lives were lost,” she said. “But at the same time, as a student of history and as someone who has worked in public policy, I know that kind of violence, anger and intolerance exists not only across our country, but around the world. The events in Charlottesville pulled back the curtain on what had been out of sight for many across the country.”

“We have a key question to answer at home and abroad: How do we create the democracies of our aspirations and ideals?”

- Melody Barnes

Institutions like UVA and Monticello, she said, can continue to pull back that curtain, addressing issues close to home while offering context, thought leadership and solutions as the country and its leaders reflect on those events and other social concerns.

“Places like the Miller Center and the Law School have very natural connections to these issues, but I strongly believe there are people across every discipline who have a role to play in addressing these challenges,” she said.

Scientists can provide facts and data to help us address inequity and trauma; economists can explore the economic evidence and help develop solutions to increase mobility and opportunity; artists can help us articulate and understand pain, anger and hope, engage across our differences and transform communities. And universities can bring all of those scholars together, “to have a larger conversation and articulate a path forward that’s focused on action and impact,” Barnes said.

“My hope for all of us is that looking these challenges in the eye better prepares us to do the hard work of addressing them,” Barnes said.

Jefferson’s Legacy at Monticello

Any examination of race at UVA and Monticello necessarily starts with the man who started them both: Thomas Jefferson. Growing up in Virginia – and attending Thomas Jefferson High School – Barnes was familiar with and fascinated by the third president’s legacy. In many ways, she said, he is emblematic of the divide America faces today; the gap between its ideals and its reality.

“Thomas Jefferson articulated the essential ideals of liberty, tolerance and pluralism, but also lived with and supported the institution of slavery, which is antithetical to those ideals,” she said. “It’s a centuries-old conundrum – an American reality.”

Barnes was eager to explore that conundrum up close at Monticello, which, thanks to Jefferson’s meticulous recordkeeping, has some of the most thorough records of day-to-day life in his era.

“The work they have been doing recently, under the really visionary leadership of Leslie [Greene Bowman] and her staff, has led us to a Monticello that tells a full-throated and accurate history not only of Jefferson, but of everyone who lived at Monticello, including women like Jefferson’s wife and their daughters, as well as those enslaved,” said Barnes, referring to the president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

“My hope for all of us is that looking these challenges in the eye better prepares us to do the hard work of addressing them.”

- Melody Barnes

Monticello recently opened a major exhibit on Sally Hemings, the enslaved woman who bore at least six children fathered by Jefferson. Monticello staff have continued to uncover and study the history of slavery there, and have taken their own steps forward in appointing leaders like Barnes, ensuring African-Americans have a voice in how American history, including the story of slavery, is told.

“It’s very exciting,” Barnes said of becoming the first African-American to lead Monticello’s board. “I was most gratified by all of the people – friends and family, but also strangers – who reached out when the announcement was made, telling me it felt like an important step forward.”

She’s looking forward to learning from and working with the current chair, Jon Meacham, who she called “a great historian and scholar of Jefferson’s complete legacy.” Going forward, she said, she knows Monticello is committed to sharing previously untold stories of enslaved laborers with the world while also highlighting the legacy of its founder as both fundamental to the articulation of American ideals of democracy and tolerance and deeply flawed in their execution.

“Since joining the board, I have seen leadership and staff from diverse and varied backgrounds come together and work assiduously to share all of that information with the country,” she said. “I am very proud of that.

“A clear-eyed, evidence-based telling of American history – all of it – is absolutely essential if we are to understand how our past informs our present and ensure that choices we make about the future of democracy are informed by facts, not fiction or fantasy.”

Media Contact

Caroline Newman

Senior Writer and Assistant Editor of Illimitable Office of University Communications