The S.B. Questionnaire: Camie Barnwell

Talking Education and Evolution with the S.B. Unified School District’s Public Information Officer

Santa Barbara Unified School District Public Information Officer Camie Barnwell. (January 3, 2020) | Credit: Paul Wellman

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“We have one of the most unique communities,” says Camie Barnwell, who was hired last June as the Santa Barbara Unified School District’s public information officer. “Our educators have the challenge of meeting the needs of an affluent population along the needs of people living below the poverty line.”  

A longtime reporter for this newspaper and others, Camie is now on the other side of the desk, managing the school district’s communications and public relations strategies. 

“A big part of my job is helping to create the narrative around how people in our community view and understand our schools,” she explains. “As a journalist who once covered Santa Barbara schools, I have great respect for beat reporters who are trying to make sense of complex test score results, or crank out a story on deadline without all the information at hand.   It’s a very hard job and not for the faint-hearted. 

“At the same time, reporters often gravitate toward low-hanging fruit and controversy,” she says from experience. “That leaves a lot left unsaid. So my role is to use all the tools at my disposal to get accurate, engaging, and timely information out to our education community. That can mean everything from promoting an important district event, to helping a school navigate through a crisis situation and many, many things in between.”

Learning Camie’s personal story is essential to understanding why she believes this role was made for her. “I’m still pinching myself,” she divulges. “This is by far the job of my life.”     

Barnwell was born in Long Beach on April 10, 1970, and grew up in Huntington Beach. “I had a dicey childhood,” she confesses. “My mother was a single mom — a grocery checker by day and a belly dancer by night. We never had money, and I learned to stave off bill collectors.  One day we moved from one apartment to another in a shopping cart. We made the most of it. You become very resourceful.”    

Camie attended Edison High School and was point guard for their basketball team, which won the CIF championship in 1988. Encouraged by her AP English teacher, Camie applied to USC and was accepted. “My world opened,” she says. “A university degree is a privilege.”  

Majoring in print journalism and Spanish, Camie worked at the Daily Trojan and landed a paid internship at the Hollywood Reporter.   

“I’ve never considered myself a great writer,” she admits. “But what most of my editors have told me throughout my career is that I have a knack for connecting with people, sniffing out a good story, and getting at the heart of the matter. Once you have that, stories write themselves. If they don’t, you probably didn’t ask the right questions or listen closely enough.”

After graduation in 1992, in the midst of the Rodney King riots, Camie moved to Spain, using her Hollywood Reporter press pass to cover film festivals. She was eventually hired by Europa Press, the second largest Spanish news agency, which needed an English-speaking reporter to cover European royals.  “My Spanish really grew,” she says. “My first professional published stories were in Spanish.”  

She came back to California in 1994 and started working as a bilingual crime and immigration reporter for the Visalia Times-Delta. She’d been told to work for two years at a small paper before moving to a larger paper, so once those two years were up, she moved on to the Santa Barbara News-Press. She spent a decade covering schools, among other things, for the paper. “I was the reporter assigned to penetrate schools,” she says, “and now I’m on the inside.”  

As she’s telling me her story, Camie pauses and, like any good storyteller, takes hold of the narrative. “It’s very important to bring in Brian,” she says of her husband, former city councilmember Brian Barnwell. “Brian is my home.” They met on her first night of covering a school board meeting in 1997.

In 2006, Camie was the reporter who “wrote the story that caused the mass exodus at the News-Press.” Dozens of journalists from the once esteemed paper quit or were fired due to the owner’s meddling in the newsroom. 

After that widely publicized meltdown at the paper, Camie did public relations and guest services management for five years at the Chumash Casino, and then community outreach and customer relations at Citrix, but she was over the corporate gig after four years.   

Instead, Camie got a Master’s in education counseling from the University of La Verne and became a credentialed counselor in 2018. She conducted 50 hours of personal therapy and shadowed school counselors for 800 hours. “I now have an appreciation for the counselors who are taking care of our kid’s social and emotional well-being,” she expresses. “Students need to know how to cope, how to deal with stress. The job of our counselors is critical. Test scores are important, of course,  but so is knowing how to bounce back after a set-back or how to deal with depression.”   

Along the way, Camie wrote for the Santa Barbara Independent, writing numerous Fiesta cover stories and authoring major issues on education and careers. She and Brian also put five kids from kindergarten through high school in the Santa Barbara school district. 

“Being a tough education reporter is good, but add doing PR for the Chumash plus working for a tech company and earning a Master’s in counseling, it all has primed me to be ready for this job,” she says of her PIO role. “This is my biggest challenge professionally, and everything has to be done in both languages.”

Camie Barnwell answers the Proust Questionnaire.

What is your current state of mind? 

I’m always writing headlines and stories in my mind. So my current state of mind is toying with a headline that would go with my current state of mind: “PIO Teams Up with Michelle Obama and Ellen Degeneres to Close Santa Barbara Schools Funding and Achievement Gap.”

Where would you most like to live? 

Right here in downtown Santa Barbara. Same house. Same street. Our town is magic to me. In fact, I’m in a love affair with Santa Barbara. I write sweet notes to her, take her picture from every angle, and like to take good care of her.

What do you like most about your job? 

I still pinch myself every day that I somehow landed in a role that taps into all of the areas I’ve worked to develop personally and professionally throughout my life: writing, navigating the press, being a creative communicator, building relationships, teaming up to solve problems, serving the public, supporting our educators, and the icing on the cake — working in an environment that appreciates my ability to move between English and Spanish as needed throughout my day. 

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 

I have many variations on this, including but not limited to: toes-in-the-sand, page-turner in my lap and a bag of chips and salsa at my side; crowding our family into the red-leather booth at the Chase Restaurant for an evening of stories, laughter, chicken picatta, and a dry martini, double olive. On a grander scale, perfect happiness would be a redistribution of wealth and power so that there is enough to go around for everyone and everything on the planet. 

What is your greatest fear? 

Losing someone I love is my greatest fear. I also have a recurring dream about being in the backseat of a car being driven by no one as it careens along a narrow, curvy, cliff-hugging, one-lane road without guardrails. 

Who do you most admire? 

Throughout my life as a reporter, I’ve had the privilege of meeting many remarkable people. But one person comes to mind who I respect, admire, and whose good opinion I would not want to lose: Marianne Partridge, editor-in-chief of the Independent. Think about it. She is a critical person in our community and carries the weight of her responsibility with class and conviction. She has kind and knowing eyes. She is witty, refreshing, hilarious, honest, and frank. I just like her style.

What is your greatest extravagance? 

The scoop of vanilla ice cream my sweet husband puts in my coffee every morning. If we are out of ice cream, he goes and gets more. That’s how spoiled I am in this regard. Anyone who comes to our home gets the same coffee treatment. It’s heaven.

What is the quality you most like in people? 

I gravitate toward people who are warm, authentic, and sharp-witted. I like people who are enthusiastic and interested in their lives. I’m also floored by people who are good listeners. Most people do more talking than active listening. I’m also a complete sucker for anyone who can do impersonations or accents. 
What is the quality you most dislike in people? 

It’s sad that it was easier for me to spew what I don’t like about people than it was for me to write down the qualities I do like. Hmm. Note to self: be more positive. Anyway, I don’t care for self-promoters, manipulators, small-mindedness, know-it-alls, braggarts, complainers, blamers, and mean/grumpy people.
What do you most value in friends? 

I am lucky to have dear and true friends, near and far. The quality they all share: generosity of spirit. My friends tend to be salt-of-the-earth people who are always growing and learning, who can be tough-as-nails but aren’t too proud to show their vulnerable side and just come clean when they mess up.
What is your most marked characteristic? 

I felt this question would be best answered by others. So, I asked my peeps and they agreed that my most marked characteristic is my tender heart. I am also a very determined person and don’t give up easily.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse? 

I hate to think that I sound like a broken record repeating the same tired cliches over and over. Yikes. But, according to my peeps, I’m constantly prefacing my comments with “Long story short.” A close second is, “I’ve got to be honest.”
Which talent would you most like to have? 

I’d like to speak a third language, learn to swing dance, and have the time to learn to cook more exotic international cuisine. I read a frightening meme about how being an adult means having to figure out what to make for dinner every night, for the rest of your life.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? 

I’d like to be up with the sun every morning, but still stay up late at night, so I could pack in more of the things I want and need to do. My husband’s pet name for me is “Calendar Camie,” so you can see why more time in my day would be optimal. Also: I wish I cared less about what others think, but it’s not in my nature.
What do you consider your greatest achievement? 

My two kids, Alejandro and Sofia Chicote. On a personal note, I’m very grateful and proud to have been chosen for my new job with the school district. The group I work with is truly an A-team. 
What is your most treasured possession? 

I’m not big on possessions, but I do love the strand of pearls my husband gave me the year we were married. I cherish the beautiful white bone china set that my grandmother left me. My most treasured physical possession by far is the little Craftsman bungalow home where we have raised our kids.
What makes you laugh the most? 

I am told that I am a cheap laugh, which is a good thing I think. I’m also reminded that when I laugh my truest laugh, oddly no sound comes out. The funniest thing I’ve ever read — and actually can’t read out loud because I start cracking up so hard — is former Miami Herald columnist Dave Barry’s “Terror on Flight 611” about his adventure taking his baby on an airplane for the first time. 

By far the most naturally funny person I know is my best friend since college, Alice Cornejo. She is a prankster like me. She once left me a series of dozens of birthday messages using different foreign accents. 

What is your motto? 

Be grateful. I find that there is strength and power in gratitude, because it helps us not get weighed down by the inevitable negatives we encounter in life. I think another one of my catch phrases is “It could be worse,” which is kind of like gratitude.
Which historical figure do you most identify with? 

Lucy Ricardo. She may not actually qualify as historical, but she is definitely a figure from my history. She’s earnest, hilarious, and willing to put herself out there in a way that I admire. She’s also conniving, full of shenanigans, and lovable.
On what occasion do you lie? 

Along with being a good BS detector, I was a tremendous fibber as a child. I once ran my own Pepsi Challenge out front of the local grocery store, charging everyone $1 to take the “official test” following a fabrication about how my dad worked for Pepsi and was waiting on the results. I had the coolest mom on the block, and she thought the whole thing was a hoot. I also have been known to lie (cheat) when I feel the need to move along a stagnant board game. I do feel bad about it later though.

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