Nevertheless, She Persisted: An Interview with City Councilwoman Andrea Barefield

Article written by Samantha Baker, Special Events Marketing Coordinator at the Greater Waco Chamber, published in the 2019 third-quarter edition of Greater Waco Business magazine.


If you’re living in Waco, chances are you know Andrea Barefield. Andrea currently serves as the Mayor Pro Tempore for the City of Waco representing District 1 and is the Executive Director for Texas Brazos Trail Region, which is part of the Texas Heritage Trails Program.

If you’d asked Andrea when she was a teenager if she thought she’d be living in Waco serving on City Council as an adult, she probably would’ve thrown her head back and laughed. ​However, the native Wacoan,​ born to Mae Jackson and ​Howard Jackson​, ​did indeed find her way home. Andrea’s parents, who lived in East Waco once married and at the time of her birth, decided to move the​ family to Chalk Bluff when Andrea was still young.

Being the youngest of three, survival of the fittest is key, so leadership came naturally. Throughout her formative years, Andrea was called to​ several​ leadership roles; she served as class president​, student council, FBLA (Future Business Leaders of America)​ and drill team manager at Connally High School ​to name a few​. After graduating high school, Andrea left Waco to attend Sam Houston State University (SHSU), where she majored in public relations and minored in communications and marketing. During her last year of college in a biology lab, Andrea met a young track star from Bay City named Elijah Barefield III.

Andrea and her mother, Mae Jackson

The two dated for just four quick months before becoming engaged. During that time, she graduated in December 2000 from SHSU and moved back to Waco briefly while Elijah continued studying for his master’s degree at SHSU. Shortly before she moved back to Waco, her mother Mae called her with news. Ready to see change in her community and tired of waiting to see it happen, Mae Jackson decided to move the family home back into Waco so she could put in her bid to run for City Council in District 1, where ​she lived and worked​. “I was at Sam Houston State, and she called me one day,” Andrea said. “She told me, ‘I have decided that I want to run for office, and I can’t do that unless I live in the city, so I’m moving. Come on home this weekend and pack up the stuff you need.’”

Soon after ​graduation and ​moving back to Waco, Andrea accepted a job offer in Austin working for the Lonestar Girl Scout Council. She made the move to Austin while her fiancée continued working on his master’s degree. “It was a great first job,” Andrea said. “I had a great time creating and developing programming for everyone from the Daisies to the ​S​eniors, and I really enjoyed that.”

Elijah and Andrea Barefield

After being engaged for a year and a half, Andrea and Elijah were married in October 2002. Elijah had completed his Texas teacher certification and Andrea was working for the Lonestar Girl Scout Council. While they were on their honeymoon, an old family friend contacted Andrea with an appealing offer. “She wanted me to move to Houston and be the marketing director for The Ensemble Theatre, one of the oldest African American theatres in the southwest region,” said Andrea. She and Elijah discussed the opportunity, and with Austin ISD on a hiring freeze, the couple decided the timing was perfect. “I came back from my honeymoon and handed in my resignation at my job in Austin — who does that?”

Andrea grew up with a deep appreciation for performing arts, dance, poetry and prose, and always had a passion for being in the spotlight, and the job she was offered at The Ensemble Theatre was a perfect fit for her. She and Elijah moved to Houston in October of 2005; Andrea started work at The Ensemble Theatre while Elijah secured a job as an elementary school teacher in Houston ISD. The next summer rolled around, during which time The Ensemble Theatre hosted a summer program for youth in the area. Andrea realized what an important resource the summer program was for the community, giving kids the opportunity to learn about and develop a passion for the arts, kids who may not have ever had an opportunity like this before. “I said to my boss, ‘We should be hosting this program more often. What would happen if hosted it during spring break? Or after school?’” Andrea explained. “You’re further developing the actor or dancer or singer in that child.”

Theatre leadership was not as excited about the prospect of additional programming as Andrea was. After a shift in leadership, she again asked about the possibility of expanding their programming; again, she was told no. So she decided to take it into her own hands. “I knew I could do this myself,” she said. “So, I did.”

Andrea decided the risk was more than worth the potential gain; she quit her job at The Ensemble Theatre and created Stage Presence Performing Arts Studio, a training facility and program for youth in music, dance and theatre. “Boy I was terrified to tell my mama,” Andrea said, shaking her head and laughing. “I was so scared to call my mom – I mean, this was Mae Jackson, THE Mae Jackson. Quitting your job like that and taking such a huge risk wasn’t logical.”

Andrea recalled the call she made to her mom about her sudden career change. “I called her and told her what had happened. She was quiet for a minute, and then she said, ‘Okay,’” Andrea said. “And then, she wrote me a check that paid for all of the build-out we needed to do in the space, and she was probably the best advocate and cheerleader for me that I could have ever imagined. My mama was firm but fair – a good idea was a good idea. She knew I had always had a passion for the arts, and my focus here was providing an opportunity for children who didn’t have as much exposure to the arts.”

Photos from Stage Presence through the years

The mission of Stage Presence was simple: “To Find and Make Your Mark on the Stage of the World.” Andrea was committed to providing a caring, intentional environment for young people in her community to come and learn and grow their passion for music, dance and theatre. Andrea has always understood the importance of relationships, but during the development of Stage Presence, she learned just how important relationship-building truly is. “I connected with one of my sorority sisters who was a marketing manager for Sharpstown Mall in Houston, and she mentioned they had a nonprofit wing,” said Andrea. “She told me I should utilize that space for my business.” The first home of Stage Presence didn’t cost Andrea a penny, thanks to the offer from her sorority sister. The check her mother had written her helped cover the installation of new floors, mirrors, and the building of a big new stage.

In December 2004, before officially opening to the public, Stage Presence had its soft opening, and Andrea’s mother Mae, who was then serving as the Mayor of Waco, came to Houston from Waco to see her daughter’s new business and see what her financial contribution had helped create. Andrea remembers how proud her mother was, seeing what her daughter had created out of her passion. Just two months later, in February 200​5,​ Mae Jackson died suddenly and unexpectedly. Her death rocked the City of Waco and shattered the hearts of her family. “That was… that was nuts,” Andrea said. “I was in just as much shock as Waco was.” Andrea knew her only choice was to continue making her mother proud and honoring her mother’s legacy through her work and her life, so she persisted on with opening Stage Presence.

After Stage Presence opened, Andrea decided to make a bold move. She knew that world-renowned choreographer Debbie Allen hosted an annual intensive workshop in Fort Worth; she also knew that Debbie Allen was originally from Houston. “She was from Houston, but she didn’t have any workshops in Houston, and I decided she needed to be here,” Andrea said. She drew up a proposal and sent it to Debbie Allen’s office in Los Angeles and waited.

Andrea got an email from Debbie Allen’s office that Debbie would be interested in having a conversation about coming to Houston to teach a workshop. Much to Andrea’s surprise, she soon received a call at Stage Presence from Debbie Allen herself. “I picked up the phone and said, ‘Stage Presence Performing Arts Studio,’ and I hear, ‘Is Andrea Barefield available? This is Debbie Allen,’” Andrea recalled. It was during that conversation that Debbie Allen agreed to host the first-ever Debbie Allen Dance Institute in Houston at Stage Presence.

Starting in 2006, the Debbie Allen Dance Institute was held at Stage Presence for four summers, and each summer the program expanded more and more. The first year it was held, one student received a scholarship to attend Debbie Allen’s summer-long intensive workshop in Los Angeles. Debbie was so impressed after the first year that she decided to award two scholarships to her intensive in LA and two scholarships to a tap-dance festival in New York City the second year. In the third year, eight scholarships were awarded, and the fourth year even more scholarships were awarded. The dedication that Andrea had to the studio and the students was paying off in huge ways and her work was positively impacting the lives of the students who attended Stage Presence.

The Barefield family

While Stage Presence flourished and grew, Andrea’s family also grew. She gave birth to her first son, Drew, in 2006, with his brother Jaxon following in 2008. Unfortunately, in 2008 the U.S. economy was hit hard by the Great Recession of 2008, and Stage Presence felt the economic downturn in a major way. “I mean we had to decide, did we want to keep the studio open, or keep the lights on at home?” Andrea said. She and Elijah made the difficult decision to close Stage Presence.

Shortly thereafter, Andrea began working at Lone Star College as the director of continuing education. “That was really cool,” she said. “Continuing education classes, it’s way more than just basket weaving, you know?”

Being the persistent and creative individual that she is, Andrea noticed the college had fully equipped kitchens that weren’t being utilized. Through her leadership, the college partnered with Outback Steakhouse and Starbucks to create curriculum programs for the students, including a barista program where Starbucks opened a location on campus and trained students to be baristas in the campus store.

After working at Lone Star College for a time, Andrea and her husband had a conversation about the future of their family. Elijah had earned his principal certification but wasn’t advancing in Houston ISD the way he wanted to, and he brought up the fact that they ​had paid off the house in Waco. He asked Andrea why ​pay a ​mortgage when they ​didn’t​ have to, why don’t they just move to Waco and live in ​the family​ ho​me​? He talked her into making the move back to her hometown in 2015.

All of the hard work, persistence, and trials Andrea had experienced throughout her life had culminated to this point. The family made the move back to Waco, and immediately Andrea was on the hunt for a job. Andrea had never worked at a for-profit company, and continuing work in the nonprofit sector was important to her. She called Virginia DuPuy, who was ​on City Council with Jackson and ​elected Mayor after Jackson’s death.  ​Because DuPuy was and is​ and a very well-connected Wacoan, ​Andrea figured if anyone would know, she would​. Fortunately for Andrea, Virginia mentioned that her daughter-in-law was about to leave her job at City Center Waco and encouraged Andrea to reach out to Megan Henderson, executive director at City Center Waco. Andrea quickly contacted Megan, and after meeting for coffee, Megan welcome Andrea to the City Center Waco team as the Main Street Manager.

“Waco became a Main Street City in 2014,” Andrea explained, “which mean​t​ there ​we​re opportunities to lend economic development, historic preservation, promotion and marketing opportunities for downtown businesses.” The Main Street City designations ​became more important​ after downtowns around the country began dying. “I worked for City Center for a couple of years and got really rooted back into Waco. Doing Main Street allowed me to go everywhere, even outside of downtown, and get active and involved with all aspects of what Waco was becoming and growing into,” Andrea said. “It was a great time to be a Wacoan, and it was also a tremendous eye-opener as to what has happened and what hasn’t happened in the community, and that began to pull at me.”

Andrea knew what her mom had envisioned and set in motion for the community during her tenure in City Council and as the Mayor, but now, a decade later, Andrea realized that her mother’s vision had gone out of focus. Andrea then realized that she was being called to continue fighting for what her mother had worked so hard to change. “Things have to happen at a policy level,” Andrea said. “You can’t change policy ​from the sidelines, you have to be in the game.”

Andrea related politics to religion: “If you were born into active political or religious families, you either embrace it, or you run from it,” she said. “I never saw myself as a person in politics; I was so surprised when my mom told me she was running for office. But, again, there were things that she wanted to see done that weren’t being done, and my adult brain now totally gets that. If you don’t do it, you cannot assume someone else will.”

In 2016, Andrea applied for then-District 1 councilperson Reverend Austin’s expired term, which she did not get. But she didn’t let that small setback stop her from putting in her application again in January 2018 when the seat became vacant – in fact, Andrea was the first person to apply. “I ran my campaign with Truth, Vision and Voice,” she said. “Transparency is something that was missing from the process, it was missing in the way things happen in City Hall. Everyone who has a responsibility to this city needs to be able to know its truth, needs to expect its truth.”

Elm Street once served as the main street in​to​ town and the history and roots in the East Waco community run strong and deep. Andrea recognizes this and recognizes that voice and transparency are absolutely vital to building trust between a councilperson and their constituents. “To really be a champion, you have to get in there and meet people where they are, hear their stories, do your best to better the way for the entire district,” she said. “I believe I can do that, I believe I am doing that.”

Equitable economic development has become a point of focus for Andrea, and she often questions what the community as a whole is doing to attract business owners of color specifically to put down their business roots in Waco. While the need for a more diverse business landscape is obvious, Andrea realizes that systemically and cyclically, there are a whole lot of other things that will have to be righted in order for ​equity​ to flourish and ​inclusion truly ​have​ an impact — things like living wage, access to capital, access to information and education, and access to quality public transportation all affect the people of District 1 much differently than other districts.

There has been a shift in the focus of the way things are done in Waco; there is more focus than ever ​on creating an overarching lens of equity more than ever before. Andrea mentioned Start Up Waco and Hustle, the intention that went into developing that organization and the importance ​of creating it through a more equally equitable lens.

“We can glaze all we want to,” Andrea explains, “but equity wasn’t a priority for Waco for a long time. The ‘why,’ I can’t concern myself with, because it’s always been a priority for me. But now we’re in a position to make change. City Hall has never had equitable policy, so now we’re drafting some, because again, ​as Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm said, ‘​if you don’t sit at the table, ​you’re on the menu.’ ​You can’t create the policies, you can’t dictate change unless you’re there.”

Change and growth take time and dedication. In 2016, Waco Foundation hosted Waco’s first ever Race Equity workshop, and Andrea, ​along with an ​impressive number of change-makers were present at that first workshop, including Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver and then-city manager Dale Fisseler.

So the majority of leadership in Waco is agreeing that race equity is important… but what does that look like in implementation? How do you roll out such big changes that are long overdue and long overlooked? What does race equity even mean? Andrea explained it very well:

“Let’s say we’re in a race. Before the starting gun goes off, one of us will take three steps back. Another will take two steps back, and the third will start at the starting line. The starting gun fires, everyone is starting at the same time, that’s ​equality​. But is it equitable​? Are we starting at the same point? A lot of people don’t understand that. From a policy perspective, when we​ begin to acknowledge and then deal with​ race equity, some of the other issues will naturally rise and become better. Bias is bias, we all have it; realize you have bias and adjust. Tweak your lens until it’s clear.

This work is like the first time you decide to really work out. You go out and buy fancy new workout clothes, the shoes, the nice water bottle – you’re ready. You go to an exercise class and you kill it, because you’re really dedicated to this workout. Then, about four hours later, you’re starting to regret your entire life, because you have pushed and pulled and run and danced and used muscles that haven’t ever been active. You go to do simple things, like sit down or laugh, and you ​wonder is it really all worth it​?  You lay down to go to bed realizing that you have to get up in the morning and do this all again. Completion of this work is like getting up again – it’s going to hurt when you go to put your workout clothes on on day two, but when you start running, it doesn’t hurt as bad. It hurts, but that muscle isn’t as challenged, you start to step up your game and challenge new muscles. You’re strengthening yourself, becoming faster, better. The more we strengthen and build our equity body, the stronger we all are, together.”

Andrea believes that as both a community and as individuals, we have to decide what motivates us to work towards equity. Everyone is motivated differently, but we all have to run this race together, so we have to find what motivates us to work towards change in a positive, collaborative way. You may be asking yourself, “What can I do to make a change? How do I go about getting involved in steering policy?” When asked this question, a big smile spread across Andrea’s face. “I’m glad you asked that question,” she said.

“You don’t have to run for City Council to get involved,” she explained. “A big problem within our education system is that kids are exposed very minimally to civics and government, and then the system expects those students to become civically-minded adults, and clearly that’s a big FAIL.”

There are actually quite a number of different ways you can get involved and make change in the community, and one of the easiest ways to do so is to join a board or commission with the city, where seats must be filled by citizens​, also joining your neighborhood association​. Additionally, Andrea stressed the importance of showing up to vote in every election, both big and small, and said, “It is your right and your privilege to vote! Lend your voice to the landscape of policy-makers. If you don’t vote, you’ve given away your right to complain about things happening in your city, your state and your country.”

There is also a misconception that the only ​elections​ that matter are the big ones – presidential, senate and house ​races.​ But Andrea says that ​is most untrue​: “The municipal level is the most powerful level to vote on — most people have that backwards. Listen, if you have an issue with one of my decisions, it is incredibly difficult for me to not talk to you on the bread aisle at H-E-B, or at church, or the car wash, wherever! The people involved on a local level are people you see every day, people you ​have the most access to​.”

The passion Andrea has for advocating and leading change for her community is so apparent when you talk to her about it. She is confident in her abilities and strong in her convictions; she is obviously the daughter of a strong woman. Mae Jackson left big shoes to fill, but Andrea knows she’ll never truly be able to do that. “I cannot fill shoes that were not mine,” Andrea said, “but I sat at the knee of a brilliant woman and was given a birds-eye view of a blueprint for Waco. Is it her vision that I’m dealing with now? No, because Waco has changed tremendously since she was mayor. But she developed an amazing path for me to follow in my own shoes, in my own way. I pray daily that I’m honoring her legacy, and oftentimes she shows up in me, because you know, my mother was a force. I am blessed to have been her daughter, even pre-election, I was exposed to so many things and experienced so many things because of her.”

Throughout her life, often in the face of adversity, Andrea has taken big chances following her passions and has been rewarded with success and happiness. She is confident in her ability to lead District 1 and is hopeful for what the future holds for her community, and is so excited to see how her role in the future of Waco plays out.