Activist Spotlight: Harry Johnson and Dariel Vasquez

Written by Najwa Jamal

“Yeah, we gonna figure this out! ‘Cause we had no idea what we were gonna do.”

It was this go-getter mentality and aspiration that has helped shape what Brothers at Bard (BAB) is today. Harry Johnson ’17 and Dariel Vasquez ’17, the founders of BAB, began from humble beginnings as two students of color acclimating to Bard with a unique vision, which has flourished into the intricate, blooming network and organization that BAB is today. Ingenuity seeped out in their responses during my conversation with the pair, who are referred to across Bard as the “dream team.” The title is clearly deserved; they’ve turned various problems they faced at Bard, as well as issues they registered in the community around them, into change. Their insistence on ownership of their own experiences and creation of space for others like them is a dream to witness.

“You know the dream team, it’s the dream to be able to have the ability to control or fix or find solutions for your own problems,” Vasquez said. showing the strength of their dynamism as a pair of close friends and colleagues, Johnson followed up with, “But it’s ownership in the hands of those who are facing the problems and we’re coming at it and fixing those problems. That’s what inclusion is.”

Johnson and Vasquez found solace in the ownership of real-time issues they viewed around them. Feeling empowered by this ownership, they began meeting with other men of color on campus in hopes of creating a space to talk about their experiences. Vasquez said that the group found common ground in spite of their differences. He noted,

“Regardless of our very, very diverse backgrounds, a lot of us found similar themes that we were struggling with at Bard. We came from all these different backgrounds and we got together in this room and we were all like ‘yo this place sucks! And this is why I want to leave […] and this is why I feel uncomfortable and this is what I’m experiencing on campus.’”

Johnson and Vasquez grew a solution for positive change out of an otherwise tolling problem. But, the problems on the ground at Bard were not the only instigators of change. Both men were actively involved in surrounding community programs. Johnson’s participation as a Trustee Leader Scholar with the Dream to Achieve program, a sports-based youth development program in Hudson, and Vasquez’s previous mentorship training aided in building BAB into more than an informal support group. By engaging with their community, Brothers at Bard found solutions for themselves. “And rather than our problems being answered by the college, we answered our own problems, and that’s a big piece of Brothers at Bard,” Johnson said.

By creating a collective vision of changing the issues inherent to their experience at Bard and the surrounding areas, a unique group dynamic and space blossomed. The communal experience of all the men involved pushed Johnson and Vasquez in their pursuit for change. Johnson describes,

“We see it like I said, it’s not a space, it’s a network built through common experience and relationship. And that’s where it started, why guys kept coming to that room, the sky room, was common experience and where it’s grown from there […]  it’s really amazing.”

In addition to pursuing change at an institutional and community level, Vasquez and Johnson had a vision for how BAB can extend beyond the Hudson Valley. Dariel explained,

“We see Brothers at Bard as a network that is built through relationship, like all networks are, and trust and we use that network and those relationships to help other men, black young men, and men in college too.”

As much as Johnson and Vasquez spearheaded this initiative, there is an emphasis on an extended network mentality. There is no monolithic experience of being a man of color. Instead, a kaleidoscope of values, cultures, and lives are what formed the tight-knit interrelations within BAB: “No matter how far you go away from Bard, you’re still a Brother at Bard,” Johnson said.

The BAB program began to spread its wings and catapulted off the ground as an official TLS program. Necessary relationships were being formed from the ground up with Kingston faculty at the Kingston high school. Johnson and Vasquez integrated into the Kingston community through these integral relationships with administration, like Angela Armstrong, assistant principal at Kingston high school.  “She welcomed us with open arms,” Vasquez said.

“She really put herself out there to let us start through our program with these youth. But the reason why she did this is because you know, we had tapped into something at this moment and we didn’t even realize what we were tapping into; access to positive black male role models, access to black male educators.”

Soon, the Kingston space morphed into their own, as it became occupied with rigorous volunteer and program work. “We were in somebody else’s space in the school, which evolved into us getting our own space,” Johnson said.

“Which evolved to us, like Dariel said, mentoring two times per week rather than one time per week. So now our programming by the end of junior year was two tutoring sessions per week and two mentorship sessions per month, plus exposure trips once a month.”

Themes of ownership and finding solutions to your own problems helped solidify the ties between Kingston and the dream team. As much as a bond with other men on campus was vital in building up the BAB program and network, the personal and rather tender connection that was found in the welcoming of two young men with their passions in flight helps define the human touch behind what BAB aimed to achieve in their volunteer work. The relationship that developed between the BAB mentors and high schoolers and middle schoolers was an integral piece in the creation of the BAB puzzle.

“It’s not just running a mentorship program […] Dariel is really a part of these kids lives,” Johnson said.

Johnson and Vasquez’s distinct life courses and experiences helped to develop the individual roles they carried out within BAB. Both men grew together as students, close friends, and co-founders of BAB. They continued to grow as their post-graduate lives began, even as their paths began to diverge. Vasquez remained at Bard as a full-time employee of BAB.

“Dariel was full time supporting the guys and mentors here on campus, running a program and supporting the youth in the community, ” Johnson said.

Vasquez’s work remained grounded in keeping the program and all of its intricacies running. By shouldering the emotional toll and investment such activism can have on an individual, he grew as a leader and human.

Traveling abroad on a Watson scholarship, Johnson realized that the grassroots sports development programs he was working with bore striking resemblances to his work with BAB. This year abroad prepped him as a returning Bard employee for BAB. Johnson discussed what each of them has been able to bring to the initiative:

“[Dariel] dove into the dynamics of Kingston and the dynamics of Bard and the dynamics of mentorship in the space of black men, as opposed to where I was at; I was way more macro in looking at program design and program development and what’s a scalable program and how do you create a sustainable initiative around mentorship.”

Johnson and Vasquez worked in unison, using what they learned in their year apart to fuel their dynamic as co-founders seeking to constantly improve upon their work. And they reaped the benefits of that labor, as BAB’s increased exposure led to increased institutional funding for future programming. BAB’s future is bright, as Johnson and Vasquez have a multitude of plans on how to continuously expand upon the hard work they already do today. Despite all of the change that BAB has undergone, the concept of building an all-encompassing network remains a core value. Vasquez spoke to this characteristic, and its ability to foster new passions and ideas:

“You actually bring to the space your voice, your ideas and then you can go off [and] BAB as a trampoline.”

BAB has created a space that applauds individuality among men of color. Vasquez elaborated on this:

“Within one group, guys from the south, guys from the city, guys from the West Coast, […] BAB brings all that and shatters the narrative and shatters the idea of being a monolith.”

Johnson added that BAB has the potential to connect campuses across the Bard network, including the Bard High School Early College campuses and Bard Simon’s Rock. BAB serves as a platform not only for men of color on the Annandale campus but also as a binding network, connecting the men of color community across all Bard locations. Vasquez shared their outlook on the potential of work throughout the network:

“So now if the young men of color we work with within the BHSEC schools in the future, whether it’s Baltimore, Newark, DC, or whatever… now we’re trying to create a pipeline or a pathway that connects them to Bard Annandale, where they can see themselves coming here like ‘oh, they have Brothers at Bard.’”