Written by Correne Spero with Arkansas Times on June 2, 2022
“I love learning what others believe. It expands me. I love free thinkers and wild women! It energizes me,” says Michelle B. Barnes.
The openness radiating from Barnes, founder and executive director of local nonprofit Real Images, is a defining personality trait, but it’s also baked into the mission of her organization. Real Images has been bringing women of diverse backgrounds together since 2014 through community events and programs focused on self-esteem and empowerment, while providing scholarships to women and girls to pursue educational and artistic opportunities.
Real Images’ events range from important discussions about race and social justice with panelists Crystal C. Mercer, state Rep. Denise Ennett (D-Little Rock), and Rev. Dr. Denise Donnell to social networking events like the “Ladies Power Hour” held quarterly at Crush Wine bar where women swap stories and business cards. A recent self-care workshop with a sorority at UA Little Rock provided resources and information to college-aged Black women to support their health and safety. And this spring, Real Images’ MIRROR Project has brought self-image workshops to girls in their classrooms, complete with demonstrations of how photos of celebrities in the media are digitally altered.
A native of Strong (Union County), Barnes has donated all of her time leading Real Images as a labor of love to her community. She’s also director of housing at Our House, a nonprofit that works with families struggling with housing insecurity.
I’ve attended some Real Images events like “Ladies’ Power Hour” and the “Phenomenal Women Luncheon,” and I was struck by the diversity in your organization’s leadership, as well as among the attendees. We talk a lot about inclusivity and intersectionality in feminism and yet a lot of activism centered on women’s issues still feels very segregated. What’s your secret?
Well, it’s very intentional. When we started in 2014, I think we were a little ahead of the game at that time. My undergrad degree is in sociology, so I had already spent years thinking about different societies and cultures, and I’ve always made it a point to be sure different backgrounds, sexual orientations and religions are represented at Real Images. If I have a board that only looks and thinks like me, that’s not moving the needle forward. Conversations about race and religion are not always comfortable, and people worry they might be offensive, but we started that way, and it’s been ingrained in our organizational culture since day one.
Real Images was recently made a grantee partner of the Black Girl Dream fund, an organization centered on uplifting Black girls across the South. Congratulations! What do you plan to do with that grant?
The funds are for operations of small startup nonprofits and these grants help organizations like Real Images to build up our grant portfolio to be more competitive with other private foundations. I really appreciate the opportunity they’ve given us to help us compete on that level. We plan to use the grant to increase our sustainability and work toward being able to pay for a full-time position at Real Images, so we can do this work full time. We want to branch out of Central Arkansas and be of service to the whole state. With community support, we’ll get there. I was actually recovering from food poisoning when I submitted that application and literally picked myself up off the bed to make sure everything was right to submit, and when I submitted it, I just felt like I was going to get it. And then I immediately went back to bed!
What is a proud accomplishment that comes to mind from your time as founder and executive director of Real Images so far?
One that stands out is when COVID started, we had our Phenomenal Women luncheon slated for April. We decided to push it back, thinking we would do it in three months, but of course that ended up not being possible, so then we decided to do it virtually. I am not a video producer, and here I was putting on a completely virtual event which had pre-recorded segments and a live Q&A at the end — and this was during Mercury retrograde! But we did it, and there was still that magic. The honorees Jajuan Archer and Crystal C. Mercer were in tears at the end, connecting about carrying on their fathers’ legacies. The fact that it was a success and that the emotion of the event was still conveyed is something I feel proud of. Real Images Board member Kasey Carolina at the 2022 Phenomenal Women Luncheon.
Real Images is not an overtly political organization, but I am wondering if you see a connection between the work you do and the ongoing fight for reproductive justice in Arkansas, and now on the federal level with the leak of the Supreme Court draft overturning Roe v. Wade?
Yes, I do think there’s a connection there. We want women and girls to feel empowered and a big part of empowerment is making our voices heard. Women should be at the table about all decisions that affect our bodies, and I think that’s what’s sorely missing in a lot of these decisions.
What would be the best way for someone just learning about Real Images to support your mission?
Well, we are a grassroots organization, so getting the word out is key. Following us on social media and sharing information about our events is so helpful.
Letting your children’s school know we are happy to come in and do a workshop is a great way to help us connect with girls and families who might benefit from our services.
And of course donate, donate, donate — even if it’s a small amount. If you work for a corporation who loves what we stand for, approach them about matching your donation. And definitely come see us at an event! We have a Ladies’ Power Hour coming up in June and a fun run in September around fertility issues, called #SlashTheShame, which is timed to coincide with PCOS (Polycystic ovary syndrome) awareness month. We’ve done a panel on this before, and we know it’s something that is of interest to women from all different backgrounds. Oh, and if you’re a man, you can support us, too! I always say, at some point, every man has been guided in some way by a woman who has had a positive impact on his life. What affects women also affects men, even if they don’t realize it. When we work to help women, it impacts the entire community.