Real leaders lead by setting an example in the way they live their lives. They walk the walk. Keiana Barrett ’95, who will speak on campus February 23 as part of Business Week, has witnessed that kind of leadership up close in a career that has spanned local and national politics, and now the corporate world.

Her resume includes working in city government for an alderman representing her South Shore community in Chicago and eventually running for alderman herself. She’s held positions at Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African American History, with the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, and as director of communications for the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington, D.C. No matter the job, her focus has always been the same.

“The lion’s share of my career has been working on social justice, civil rights, and in equity spaces,” said Barrett, a School of Communication graduate.

Barrett, known as Keiana Peyton during her undergraduate years, has worked with civil right icons such as the late-Congressman John Lewis and the Rev. Jesse Jackson and campaigned for former President Barack Obama during his U.S. Senate run. She participated annually in the Selma March Commemoration and walked across the Edmund Pettis Bridge with Lewis, a moment she called one of the fondest in her own life’s story that still resonates today.

“That experience energizes my current passion to preserve the mantra of liberty and justice for all,” she said.

Such opportunities have provided Barrett a clear eye for the challenges of equality in America and showed her in a personal way what committed leadership looks like. 

When it was announced in 2019 that she had been named the first director of diversity and strategic development for Sterling Bay, a commercial real estate company in Chicago, the firm said her charge would be to “develop and implement strategic programs that forge a diverse, inclusive community, culture and climate within the company through the continuous evaluation of potential barriers to achieving standards in diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility.”

EDI ISU wordmark with words equity, diversity, and inclusion is YOU, Illinois State University

Barrett said it’s been popular for organizations, especially in the wake of police officers murdering George Floyd, to roll out initiatives that don’t mean real change and are little more than empty public relations ploys. She’s proud of her employer for making the “culture of inclusion a true representation” of the company and encourages others to beware and look for the truth. That culture of inclusion, she said, mirrors Sterling Bay’s value system and its efforts to centralize diversity in recruitment, hiring and retention plans, engagement of minority- and women-owned business enterprises, workforce development, and supplier diversity.

“Our leadership is made up of born-and-raised Chicagoans who want to see all of our 77 communities thrive and survive,” she said. “They know that historically women and persons of color have been underrepresented in the construction and commercial real estate industries. They acknowledge it. They are not running from it and not making excuses for it. The work of diversity, equity, and inclusion is both a moral imperative and a business necessity.”

Barrett said the company prioritizes wealth-building strategies for the minority business community, ranging from construction firms to professional services companies. She and Sterling Bay have a shared philosophy that they hope has ripple effects with their corporate friends.

“We want to see a diverse tapestry of faces around the table,” she said. “Not only that, but also diverse viewpoints helping to reshape commercial real estate and to the set the bar for our contemporaries.”

Barrett, a mother of two, is from a close-knit family that includes her parents (her father is deceased) and a younger sister. She is a proud African American who loves her hometown of Chicago. In some ways, she’s been preparing for this work since she was young. 

“I cut my teeth at ISU as president of the Black Student Union,” Barrett said. “It was my entrée into understanding history, into becoming a vehicle for organizing around a common agenda, and for building bridges. It served as a major stepping stone to my career.”

Floyd Carroll was her Illinois State academic advisor back in those days. He recalls her involvement in leadership with the Black Student Union and residence life systems.

“All that helped prepare her for where she is now,” Carroll said. “Chicago is a very political city, and she felt very comfortable moving around the city and the politics. ISU prepared her well for that, and I’m glad she took advantage of all that the institution had to offer.”

“My goal was to push my students beyond mediocrity,” he said, adding that he was proud of his former student. “ISU really built the foundation, and I made sure she took the right classes.”

But that spirit of involvement, that sense of duty to be in the arena, was there before she arrived in Normal. She learned it from her family.

“It’s in my genes, from my parents and grandparents,” she said. “My grandfather on my father’s side was very active in the civil rights movement—even traveling to Africa— and l learned a lot from him, so it started early.

“I learned that it’s important to know from which you come, and that appreciation and pride are critical.”

Being proud of who you are will be part of the message she brings to campus. Her speech will deliver on positive energy, determination and focus, kindness, empathy, and confidence—all the result of a lifetime of caring and involvement.

“It’s an enormous honor for me to return to the campus that really allowed me to sharpen my academic, professional, and personal pencils and prepare me for life,” Barrett said. “Students must think critically about how they will contribute to the advancement of greater inclusion—in their personal circles, at the mall, in lecture halls, where they work.”

Barrett offered an open invitation to anyone who would like to join her in her life’s pursuit of making change happen in America.

“We all have the responsibility to hold each other accountable to how that world will look.”