Breaking Brigade Barriers

Midshipman 1st Class Sydney Barber, from Lake Forest, Illinois, is slated to be the Naval Academy’s first Black female brigade commander. The Brigade Commander is the highest leadership position within the brigade, and is the only “six striper”–a reference to the collar insignia worn on the midshipman uniform, the rank of midshipman captain. (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Nathan Burke)

USNA’s first Black female brigade commander ‘leads with her heart’ 

By Keri Luise 

Sydney Barber, 21, has become the first Black woman to hold the position of brigade commander at the United States Naval Academy. She is responsible for all 4,400 midshipmen and serves as a key link between the brigade and the Naval Academy’s commandant. 

“Sydney is a passionate leader who leads with her heart,” says Commandant of Midshipmen Capt. T.R. Buchanan. “She brings an incredible amount of energy to the obstacles presented in her path. She is an exceptional communicator who is embracing the challenging role as Brigade Commander.” 

Barber is hoping to shift the focus of the brigade back to strong leadership after the struggles of COVID-19 consumed much of last semester. According to Barber, the Academy has been able to keep the pandemic “contained and controlled in our environment.” 

“I think the most important thing for us to do is steer away less from our focus on managing and more on what we came here to do, which is to lead,” Barber says. “I think what I bring to the table is that, even regardless of the circumstances that we’re in, my objective still is to develop leaders and to inspire people to feel like they have a purpose here.” 

Barber says she wasn’t set on applying for the position of brigade commander when she came to the Academy but ended up chasing it because she felt she “had the heart to do it.” 

“I definitely had the passion and the drive, I felt the calling in knowing what we needed,” Barber says. “I’m extremely excited about what the next semester is going to bring for both me and the brigade as a whole.” 

Being the first Black female to hold the position, Barber says she feels some pressure but views it positively. She says she feels honored to be breaking down the barrier as well as opening the door for those behind her. 

“It’s pressure that makes us who we are and that shapes us into being the best versions of ourselves,” Barber says. “It’s an opportunity and a privilege for me because I’m very excited about what it entails, I’m excited to carry on the legacy of those who came before me who didn’t have the same experiences that I did and struggled…and just knowing that I can live out their dream and their legacy is quite a privilege for me.” 

Outside of her new position, Barber is heavily involved in other aspects of Academy life. The mechanical engineering major is on the track team, co-president of the Navy Fellowship of Christian Athletes Club, and a member of the Midshipman Black Studies Club, National Society of Black Engineers, and USNA Gospel Choir. 

Last semester, Barber served as the 1st Regiment Executive Officer, a position in which she was primarily in charge of special projects. In that role, Barber developed a program called the Midshipmen Diversity Chain. 

“[We worked] on different ways to promote an inclusive environment within the Academy from thinking of ways that we can foster empathetic attitudes within the brigade of midshipmen and expand cultural consciousness,” Barber says. 

Being so involved, Barber relies greatly on her faith as a motivator to keep her going. She grew up going on mission trips and “loved being involved in a service.” 

“I remember those as some of the fondest experiences and memories that I had,” Barber says. 

U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Nathan Burke.

Barber’s family also plays an inspiring role in her leadership, specifically her younger brother. 

“He was born blind and deaf and was given two days to two years to live, but we just celebrated his 19th birthday,” Barber says. “He’s someone that constantly motivates me—that every day is a gift and to not take advantage of any day in my life, to make the most of every opportunity that’s been given to me.” 

Barber’s father attended the Naval Academy, the class of 1991, and her mother was a doctor in the Navy. But Barber was initially reluctant to join the Academy because she wanted to make her own path. 

“I did finally come around and I decided that this was the place that I wanted to be,” Barber says. “The second that I came here and visited, I felt at home…I finished my application within a week or something, and I haven’t looked back since.”