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March is Women's History Month, and WGLT is recognizing 21 women who shaped Bloomington-Normal. New episodes every weekday in March.

From the projects to the bench: Carla Barnes-Wheeler's important journey

Carla Barnes-Wheeler poses for a photo
Charlie Schlenker
Judge Carla Barnes-Wheeler is one of WGLT's 21 Women Who Shaped Bloomington-Normal.

Children are supposed to have a childhood. In some ways Carla Barnes-Wheeler did not. Her father was absent. Her mother struggled with mental illness. Friend and Bloomington-Normal NAACP President Linda Foster said Barnes-Wheeler, the youngest of four children, grew up in a poor area of Chicago Heights.

"Because of what was going on with her mother, her as a child, looking toward the future maybe sometimes looked grim and gray," said Foster.

When Barnes-Wheeler was 12, the matriarch of the family, her grandmother, died. The children were scattered. Barnes-Wheeler came to Bloomington-Normal to live with her sister, a student at Illinois State University. For the first couple months that was living, very quietly, in a Wright Hall dorm room.

Uprooted. Absent father. Ill mother. Many people would be crushed by those hits. Barnes-Wheeler said it made her more determined.

"Well, because there is a certain amount of inner strength and never giving up, drive, determination that was instilled very early on and it was always just one of our core values and I just never really let it go. I stayed focused," said Barnes-Wheeler.

She knew she wanted to be a lawyer early in life.

"When we were in the projects, it turned from a point where everything was fine because most of the community was single mothers. And then slowly drugs invaded. Crime invaded our neighborhoods. I got introduced to law enforcement in a lot of different ways. And then I wanted to be a part of making communities better in a legal way," said Barnes-Wheeler.

She said her mother’s illness helped shape her.

"Oh! It made me work very hard. She was mentally ill but she was also instrumental in education. She knew that the way out of poverty for her children would be through education. When she was well she read to us all the time. She stressed the importance of finishing school and going to school and being able to take care of ourselves. She saw it as the only way out of the projects," said Barnes-Wheeler.

Barnes-Wheeler went to ISU as a single mom and then to John Marshall Law School. She had stops in private practice, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, and as a McLean County prosecutor. Then she became a public defender, the first African American woman to hold that role in McLean County. 19 years later she became a circuit judge.

Despite what could be viewed as that inspirational rise, Barnes Wheeler says the "you have to pull yourself up by your bootstraps" mentality is false.

"Well, we know that's not true because some people are born with no boots. And I get tired of hearing that. I get tired of hearing all you have to do is work hard because it is not true," said Barnes-Wheeler.

Foster said seeing Barnes-Wheeler on the inside of what has historically been a very white apparatus allows people to have a conversation with her and help people learn from each other.

“When you diversify, whether that is by sex, race, or religion, you have more of an opportunity to think outside of what you normally would have thought, by having those individuals who are different than you but are the same as you," said Foster.

Part of the work of her life — to interpret the African American experience to those who don't have it and don’t understand it — can be tiring, she acknowledged.

"And some of the questions that are thrown at you, you wonder was that thrown at another candidate? For instance, why are you asking me if I have a criminal past? Did you ask the candidate before me if they have a criminal past? So, you have to sit there," said Barnes-Wheeler.

Carla and Linda
David Proeber
The Pantagraph (Pool) file
Bloomington-Normal NAACP President Linda Foster, left, with new 11th Judicial Circuit Judge Carla Barnes at her 2021 swearing-in ceremony.

The positives keep her active. She has had African Americans walk by her courtroom and applaud just because she is there.

She said her background let her connect with many people on many levels and has shaped her approach to the law as a judge.

“It made he a compassionate judge, while understanding the importance of protecting the community," said Barnes-Wheeler.

She prided herself as a public defender on having good relations with prosecutors. She said those allowed her to help create diversion programs such as drug court, veterans court and mental health court to treat people and give them a chance to stay out of prison.

The wins help. For instance: a woman who lost all six of her children because of drugs and prostitution.

“At one point she told me you are the only person I ever encountered that told me I can do better. She eventually got off drugs. She's a drug counselor at Chestnut. She's been clean for well over 15 years. I see her all the time and she is just a ray of sunshine," said Barnes-Wheeler.

She cited another example of a felon who got his act together, got a commercial driver’s license and made the trek from Chicago to Bloomington to show her his uniform and thank her.

Now that she's a judge, Barnes-Wheeler said she has to continue to advocate.

"She is a trailblazer. She is a role model. She is a person that has dedicated her life and continues to dedicate her life to justice and equality for all," said Linda Foster.

Barnes-Wheeler said she will go and speak anywhere to anyone, increasingly to young people.

"To have these young people experience that and to feel as though they can conquer and be all," said Linda Foster.

Her status on the bench comes with a lot of responsibility. It also breaks a glass ceiling.

"Whenever you have a first, that means there is opportunity for a second," said Foster.

There are various actors in the legal system: police, social workers, judges, prosecutors, defenders, and so on. It can get frustrating when the legal system works less well than it should because there is a flaw in another area. Yet, Barnes-Wheeler said it is not difficult for her to keep faith that the system can produce justice instead of just a legal result.

"Because you keep doing the right thing all the time no matter what, even when it is not positive. You just keep doing the right thing. And it trickles down. And it makes a difference," said Barnes-Wheeler.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.