Who Is Kevin Barnett?
By Elizabeth Lepro
Kevin Barnett founded CoolxDad in a time of crisis.
People were rising up against the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the country was still in partial lockdown, devastated by the effects of COVID-19.
“I remember shedding a tear and thinking, ‘How can I be part of the change I want to see in the world?’” Barnett said. It made him think about his own childhood, when, lacking a consistent father figure, Barnett felt adrift. “I was thinking about how I could assure more children weren’t put in the same position I was as a child,” he said.
That’s how CoolxDad — a membership-based, culturally relevant organization that connects fathers to each other and their communities — came to be. Two years later, CoolxDad has hosted gift drives and community events, partnered with local artists and the Houston Rockets, and created a network of men interested in contributing to healthy narratives of fatherhood. Barnett is continuing to find fresh ways to engage dads in CoolxDad’s mission and to encourage men to stay present with their families, advice he says he’s working on taking himself.
You grew up in Brooklyn. How did the journey to Houston happen and why have you decided to make a life here?
I was actually born in Houston, but I ended up in Brooklyn, N.Y. because in the early ‘80s I was diagnosed with a rare childhood cancer called Wilms tumor. My family had to make a fast decision to move me to New York to be treated. Later on, after my mother and sister relocated to Houston, I wanted to be closer to my family so I joined them here. I ended up falling in love with Houston immediately, established a promising career, met my wife, and had my first child. Plus, I found my passion in life and created CoolxDad.
Tell us about your daughter.
Her name is Knox Jean Barnett, and Wednesday (11/17/21) was her birthday so I want to say one last special happy birthday to her. My daughter changed my life, she opened my eyes and allowed me to see what life is truly about. She’s a combination of my wife and me: She’s beautiful, intelligent, hilarious, sociable, caring, confident, and now a big sister — my wife and I are expecting our son in February.
You were raised by a single mother and your childhood later inspired your mission to create CoolxDad. Tell us a little more about that inspiration, and how you now see your childhood through adult eyes.
Becoming a father, husband, and always being the nucleus of my friends, I’ve realized that my upbringing has helped to shape me into the person I am today. Growing up in Brooklyn in the early ‘90s, there was no social media, cell phones weren’t common, and trying to formulate a sense of self was rough, especially without a male figure consistently in my life. It made me realize that I had to be the man I desired for my mother and sister, even though I was the baby of the family.
During the lockdown in 2020, I began to reflect on what I really wanted to do in life. After hearing the horrible news of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, I remember shedding a tear and thinking, ‘How can I be part of the change I want to see in the world?’ That’s when I began to reflect on my childhood. I was thinking about how I could assure more children weren’t put in the same position I was as a child — feeling the need to grow up too quickly. That thought led me to a gift given from God, which was CoolxDad. Fatherhood was the one thing I enjoyed more than anything in life, and my own feelings of loneliness and uncertainty as a child made me yearn for a better example. Now was the time for me to tap into the millions of men out there who wanted the same, shaping and telling truer narratives of fatherhood within communities of color.
Obviously CoolxDad is the opposite of stodgy (it’s in the name) so how do you manage to keep it fresh and appealing to new generations of fathers? What does the brainstorming process look like?
Staying authentic is the key to connecting with fathers for us. I strongly believe that people are less guarded when they feel a sense of connection.
We stay culturally relevant. I wanted to bring a new perspective to the nonprofit space. It’s been the same way for years and I think the reason why people feel jaded is because the culture of nonprofits aren’t keeping up with times. CoolxDad has brought a fresh approach. We’re utilizing our creativity, our fashion sense, our knowledge of social media and photography, and our experience in marketing/branding/advertising, while also staying connected to the ways the world is shifting.
The brainstorming process is fun, difficult, and rewarding. My creative director Melton Bell is the engineer behind our brand presence. William Issac, our brand image director, is the eye behind all of our imagery; he’s the best in the game when it comes to lifestyle story telling. The board members and I are constantly coming up with ideas to help us reflect a more accurate narrative when it comes to people of color and fatherhood.
Tell us about your wife and how she (and fatherhood) changed you. What does she think of CoolxDad?
My wife is my backbone and she has the key to my heart. She’s taught me so much; we just celebrated our five-year anniversary of being together, and we got married in March of 2021. Lacee is intelligent, gorgeous, funny, and an amazing mother. She’s the one person I know that pushes me and isn’t afraid to call me out on anything. Lacee is a hard worker, which is something I thought I knew until I saw it in real time. My wife wants what’s best for our family but more importantly she wants me to be great and enjoy what I’m doing in life.
Lacee loves CoolxDad, she’s a big supporter of everything I’m doing. She is always giving me ideas and making great suggestions (don’t tell her I said that!). She sees how important our mission is and whatever she can do to help amplify it, she’s down.
Part of CoolxDad’s mission is also about supporting mothers. How does CoolxDad encourage that and where do moms play a role?
To be a CoolxDad doesn’t mean you have to be a male or a biological father, actually, being a CoolxDad is a philosophy. We wanted to ensure that messaging was ingrained into our organization so that’s why we incorporated the “x” between “cool” and “dad.” This symbolizes breaking down the gender role of being a father and allows us to incorporate women who’ve held the roles of being both the mother and father figure to their children. We encourage moms to get involved with everything we do. We’ve also created an all women-led advisory board to help balance the perspective of the organization.
What is one specific memory or project that makes you most proud of what CoolxDad’s become?
Our first in-person conversation was held in June 2020. We hosted a live viewing of our podcast show “Living Room Conversations” with guest Kareem Day. I remember standing in the back of the room looking at all 15 dads arriving and gathering together with their masks on talking and networking, and it hit me: “CoolxDad needs to be here.” Men need this outlet. That was the turning point for me. I knew I couldn’t stop because there is a community of fathers and children that need us.
Tell us what you find most challenging about fatherhood, and what you find most rewarding.
The most challenging part of fatherhood is that there’s no manual to it. We live in a world now where if we have an issue or lack information, we can find an answer easily online. That’s still not the case for fatherhood.
The most rewarding part of fatherhood is seeing your children grow into self-sufficient individuals. I look at my daughter all the time and reflect on her being that small newborn we took home from the hospital and now she’s this awesome little girl who’s full of ideas and abilities. It brings a tear to my eye every time!
We ask everyone, so time for you to answer: Top underrated — but totally necessary — dad skill?
Being present. I haven’t mastered this skill as of yet, but I’m conscious about it and that’s the first step. I once said in a meeting “my goal is to have my family see me in real time.” After the meeting, one of my colleagues said they wrote this down and wanted me to have it. He said it was the most powerful thing he’s ever heard. At times we’re all so busy that we don’t even realize that we’re working on autopilot. So having a goal to have your family see you in real time stood out, because, what does that truly look like in today’s society?
Written by Elizabeth Lepro
Photography by Fred Agho, William Issac, Jontrice Murray