Special Contribution: Our Space07-17-2020
Dariel Vasquez is a first generation college graduate from Harlem, NY. Dariel graduated from Bard College (Class of 2017) with a joint degree in History and Sociology, and a concentration in Africana-Studies. He is the founder and director of Brothers@. Youth development and mentorship is Dariel’s passion, and he’s been working with young men of color since he was 16 years old.
Six years ago, I left home to embark on this journey of higher education—a road filled with limitless possibilities and an unforeseeable future, steered only by the hopes and dreams my peers and I have clung to. A journey paved by generations of disenfranchised families—the great-grandchildren of former slaves, the daughters and sons of documented and undocumented immigrants, sharecroppers and laborers—in search of tomorrow’s promise that one day their struggles will find restitution in the lives of their loved ones.
And yet, for me and many of my peers who’ve managed to overcome all the challenges and hardships in our lives leading up to this road, our journey through higher education was filled with institutional barriers and social forces expecting us to once again prove our worth for a seat at the table. As if our experiences hadn’t overqualified us to begin with. As if our traumas and circumstances back home suddenly vanished the moment we stepped foot on campus. As if the only acceptable recourse is to be grateful this campus might grant us the opportunity to enlighten ourselves, when in fact our presence alone enlightens everyone in it.
Brothers@ Bard Open Letter
While colleges across the country concern themselves with creating “safe-spaces” in their classrooms, Black students on those campuses seek spaces that acknowledge and affirm them for who they are as individuals. These institutions concern themselves with creating “inclusive” spaces conceived within white liberal imaginaries and symbolic gestures; while Black students seek to create their own spaces where they can learn, unlearn, heal, and grow. Brothers@ Bard was created for that purpose, so young men of color (YMOC) could have a space of their own, a space for reprieve beyond those places we must traverse—on campus and in the rest of society—where the white gaze of the Other is inescapable.
Even after persevering through all the self-doubt and alienation, for many Black students the journey through higher education is the excruciating experience of navigating an institution that was not designed for us—and is plagued by objectifying spaces that remind us of that: the classrooms that tokenize our experiences, the conversations where we find ourselves speaking on behalf of an entire population, the social events with microaggressions at every turn, and the student “leadership” positions where we’re tasked with carrying the burdens of the institution and fulfill their diversity and inclusion work for them. The unsettling reality is not just the fact that many of us don’t complete this journey—it’s that those of us who do often pay the price of nearly losing ourselves and the Self.
We at Brothers@ have committed ourselves to this work—to create Our Space within academic places that have asserted or stated support for diversity yet fail to activate these commitments into systemic overhauling. We have committed to locating people of color as experts of their own experiences, and respect them as the best equipped to identify the opportunities and investments needed to move us beyond inclusivity shaped in the white libreal imaginary. A commitment to shared-ownership allows us to tap into the deep, authentic knowledge that POC possess—ultimately creating blueprints for purpose, persistence and achievement.
Our Space-making process is a response to the physical places created and governed by dominant white culture. Strategic yet organic, intentional yet natural, organized yet malleable— it is a process through which Black bodies attempt to exist in their entirety within structures or “places” that are not designed for us; “places” and societal structures that demand one compromises the Self, therefore creating conditions where one can only partially exist—fixed in “place”—and in a state completely and utterly defined in juxtaposition to the Other. It is the process of creating spaces in the void that exists between the worlds we’re a part of—a void that feels both familiar and isolating to the Self.
Through the Brothers@ Our Space methodology, Brothers@ Bard sessions and workshops repurposed classrooms on campus—sites where many YMOC often experience objectification, tokenism, alienation and self-doubt—and transformed them into spaces where we could talk about those experiences and freely express ourselves. We’ve repurposed high school detention rooms with our mentees, creating a space where our mentees could lead productive and challenging conversations with school administrators about discriminatory disciplinary practices and their ideas for restorative alternatives.
Our Space provides a sense of ownership over the places we inhabit by lifting the shared lived experiences of those within the space into positions of authority, an “experiential authority,” and a shared dominion over space and place. Creating a space through shared ownership and a common purpose allows one to critically question and challenge themselves and others, free of judgement and the white gaze, therefore allowing growth, (un)learning, healing and self-exploration to occur. Our Space is both composed and comprised of the experiences and the voices of individuals that choose to convene for the sole purpose of making, shaping, holding, owning and sharing space with one another as a means to reclaim the Self. A traditional “place” and place creation within white dominant structures exists as a product of the sum of its parts, Our Space creation functions beyond that and exists insofar as the Self remains the central focus—where we are fully acknowledged as individuals and can (re)define ourselves freely.
There are conditions and structures that are uniquely conducive for space-making. Institutions of higher learning are among these structures that create the conditions that push Black bodies to make space. These places and spaces—fostered and upheld by the white institutions—often require students to produce their own spaces within them. In this sense, the act of staking claim over these places on campuses—in other words, the act of repurposing “place”—can lead to the creation of space. It’s in this fashion that classrooms on predominantly white campuses, detention rooms in public high schools, or even cafeterias and dining halls, become repurposed and transformed into Our Space. The spaces we create exist within, yet beyond, the physical places they were produced in. The blueprint for cultivating safe, affirming, productive environments on college campuses for all students to thrive is located in the potential space-making has to transform these places. The process of creating a sense of ownership and safe-spaces—not in the manner used in ivory classrooms, co-opted and redefined by the academy, but in the manner through which black bodies have always created these spaces for themselves and for the Self—that is the process through which Our Space functions.
Support Brothers@ today to receive an invitation to a special webinar in which co-founders Harry Johnson and Dariel Vasquez engage in conversation with Roger Berkowitz and a special guest about their work with Young Men of Color at Bard and other colleges around the country. You can read more about this offer at our Membership page here.