Uncovering the Gold – Understanding the Magic and the Nuance Happening in Innovation: An interview with Harry A. Johnson, Jr.

Photo of Harry Johnson, co-founder of Brothers @ Bard

During February, Broadsight’s founder, Jessica Payne had the chance to re-interview Harry A. Johnson, Jr., a co-founder of Brothers at Bard (BAB) and its nonprofit arm, Brothers@. In 2019-2020, the two co-created an evaluation study of BAB alumni that explored the transformative power of ownership when young men of color create programs by and for themselves (Jessica’s first interview with Harry took place then). Extending from that earlier work, the interview focused on themes of ownership, while also delving into the impact of the evaluation process itself.


Harry A. Johnson, Jr. is the Director of Strategic Performance Management at The Partnership for Education Advancement where he works closely alongside HBCU leaders on strategic planning initiatives and outcomes. Prior to joining Ed Advancement, Harry served as a Senior Business Analyst at McKinsey & Company where he supported higher education institutions and philanthropic foundations through cross-functional transformations and strategy development. Harry was the co-founder and Executive Director for Brothers@, a NY-based non-profit supporting higher education institutions and corporations in designing, developing, and implementing asset-based initiatives aimed at supporting the educational outcomes of young men of color. Harry understands the value of lived experience when looking to best serve minoritized populations and believes in the power that HBCUs have to inform the ways students are served by education institutions across the nation. He earned his B.A. in Sociology from Bard College.




An interview with Harry A. Johnson, Jr., by Jessica Payne, PhD

February 6, 2023


JP:  What has ownership looked like and meant in your life and career?

HJ:  My mother was somebody who was severely affected by the financial crisis of 2006-2007. I understood very early in my life that hard work, talent, doing things the right way, and following all the rules did not equal success. There is no one plus one equals two. I knew that at 15 years old. My mom, a teacher of 15 years, lost our home. I was shaped by the understanding that hard work and talent does not does not equal or guarantee success, does not mean that you will be successful when it comes to changing your own life, changing your family's life, changing your community, changing the world.

[Dariel Vasquez and I] founded Brothers at Bard for ourselves. We were men of color on a campus that had universal supports, but no significant support targeted toward who we were. We created it for ourselves, right? And so automatically, from day one, we owned this solution. [We started by offering a space, we call it “The Space,” where Bard men of color could meet up and talk about what was really going on for us living on that campus. Darial and I], we were actively, intentionally shaping the conversations that happened there, in a way that would liberate those in conversation to really be bold and take The Space, to be themselves and make it their own.

JP:  You mention members’ use of the phrase “The Space.” How is language an important aspect of ownership?  

HJ:  One of the most illuminating times was when I ran a workshop for us as an organization and I realized I wasn't being as empathetic as I should have been. To really understand where people were coming from and why they had the positions and perspectives they had. During a workshop, I asked our team to write down three of the best systems they've ever been a part of. They couldn't think of any. The words ‘good’ and ‘system’ didn't go together, it just didn't mesh for them. ‘System’ was a negative thing. [One person] said the best system he'd ever been a part of was his high school education system. [Another] said the best system he had ever been a part of was his family. They all had the same idea that a system was a structure for learning something, the way you learn from your family or from a program. This was common ground that we could land on. In that moment we realized that as we start to hire, as we start to build out, we can't use the word ‘system’ because there's such a visceral reaction. We can't use that language, but we have the luxury of making whatever language we want to make. What do we want to call it? They came up with the term M.O. or  modes of operation. It was very culturally specific. It was like, “Yo, what's your M.O.”? We started to build our systems around this, we called it the Brothers at Bard MO.

JP:  How has your recent work informed your understanding of ownership? 

HJ:  That experience comes to mind because it was part of the process of facilitating ownership. It clarified how important it was to talk and listen and go deeper as a way to get at experiences and concepts that truly reflected us, how we operate, our point of view, our space.

I think the next step of philanthropy and service is facilitated ownership, which is about developing systems and structures that actually create the conditions for communities to thrive. Too often philanthropists are just handing it over, saying, “Here you own it”. I think there's a step beyond that: Here's the know-how; here's the access to networks; and here is the support you need in those critical moments when you might fall off your path.

I saw this so clearly with Brothers@. Brothers@ would not exist today without those of use who really owned it – Dariel, myself and all the other guys that started the program. But it also would not exist today without Bard College. Bard facilitated our ownership. Because initially we were two low income students. They paid us a stipend to build this program, they rewarded it, they helped us navigate conversations with the school district to get this program going and they gave us legitimacy. Bard gave us vans to drive over to the high school so that we could be there and connect with young men of color in the local high school. They paid for the gas. You combine that with the fact that we knew these students like they were our own family because we were in their shoes. We knew what they were going through and what they needed the most. We could talk to them and get them thinking about what they wanted. We were ideally positioned for that. So we had full ownership and we knew it was ours, yet Bard was there to make sure we were successful. It takes facilitation with people who truly believe in your capacity to create innovative, sustainable solutions. That's how I would frame how Brothers@ developed through facilitated ownership.

And this theme – that ownership needs to be facilitated – constantly comes up throughout my career, my time at Brothers@ and as I go on. I stepped away from BAB for a year after graduation, and then jumped back in. Dariel had been running the program for a year by himself. He had full ownership. And the work had grown. I had spent a year talking with people who were successful social entrepreneurs, and I knew that Dariel was that. In one of the first conversations we had when I got back, I was like, “Yo, you're a genius. When you speak, I hear all these people that I've been working with around the world.” I said, “You have gold there”. If I was a philanthropist, I would say, “Go ahead,” and I would've kept throwing money at this person. And I'm sure good would have come out of it.

But at the end of the day, ownership continues to need to be facilitated to a degree. 100% ownership, but also a person–or an entity, a system, or structures–to be on your side, to help ensure that you will be successful. Some there to be asking questions, introducing new information, introducing it in a way that people can understand and grapple with it and take it and make it their own. Over the next few years we built our systems and saw a lot of success. Throughout that time, I saw my role as facilitating ownership.

But at the end of the day, ownership continues to need to be facilitated to a degree. 100% ownership, but also a person– or an entity, a system or structures–to be on your side, to help ensure that you will be successful.

JP:  Can you talk about your experience with the evaluation we did?

HJ:  As a community who is apprehensive towards evaluation – quantifying something that is more spiritual or centered around a community, a family, putting numbers to that and interviewing – it’s very daunting. It was daunting for me as somebody who was seeking it out, so of course, it was daunting for the folks in the organization that were not seeking it out. I knew I wanted to push the organization in this direction, that doing this evaluation work would be vital for the long term success and sustainability of the organization.

You facilitated the evaluation in a way that gave us ownership over the process. Instead of a process that was rigid, sharp, or sterile, you came in and asked “Who are these people? How do I best become a part of this thing so that I can actually understand it? And how do I do that, while also leveraging the fact that I'm not a part of this group and I can give an outside perspective on what's going on here”? You facilitated an experience and an evaluation that allowed us to be 100% ourselves. It allowed you to understand what we were saying and also get underneath what we were saying.

As we worked together, I was learning the process of conducting an evaluation. I was learning it in a way that would allow me to do it continuously in a more quantitative fashion as well. You were also learning from us about what we were doing. You came in with an open mind to say, “What's going on here”? Even if it doesn't fit into any box I've seen before.

We worked so closely putting together the interview questions, setting up the space with the guys, making sure people felt comfortable. We were so intentional about who was in the space, what spaces we used to conduct the interviews. We were intentional about bringing you around to one of our events probably six months in advance, just to be in the space and to be a person around our people. You met us where we were.

Throughout that process, you gave me all of the confidence to bring that to other spaces where I'm going as a leader. We knew that what we were doing, what we were bringing, was gold. So everything you wrote in the report on your findings, we felt it, we knew it. When you have a mirror pop up and it's written - sharp and clean - you feel as though your work has been truly understood by an outsider.

There's a lot of effects from that – like confidence, being more steadfast in your understanding of what you're doing, confidence to stand behind it, to stand on it. Your ability to communicate, and your ability to move forward as well. Because you could be in a loop, right? You're an innovator and you're doing something brand new and no one's ever done it and you can get caught in that loop. The work you did allowed me to lift my head up. It liberated us to think further. We knew what we had created, but having you mirror it for us freed us to think forward to where we wanted to take it next.

I'm not at Brothers@ in the same capacity anymore, but they're continuing to do more evaluation, in real time with the programs. They understand evaluation at its core as a process that they can own themselves, that they feel comfortable with because of the experience they had in that first evaluation. If you go out and try something new, that first experience is so important and vital, especially when working with populations that don't have an understanding or just awareness of what evaluation is.

JP: Four years after the work we did together, what still resonates with you?

HJ:  The biggest thing that comes to mind is a push or a want for more [adventure in these areas of work and learning]. I worked at McKinsey for two years and currently I'm working with the HBCU, Delaware State University, leading a transformation effort.

First, there needs to be a fundamental, authentic belief that the folks that we’re serving have gold hidden from the rest of us. We have to facilitate a process in which we can uncover this gold. The space that we operated in with BAB - and in your evaluation – was a true innovation space. I think service work like what we do in Brothers@ has stepped into a space of truly valuing communities and wanting those communities to have ownership.

But that's not how I see work being done today in the profit driven structures and urgency culture. It’s crucial to recognize that you can want someone to own something without believing they have gold there. Ownership could be negative. I've seen ownership used against people. It's ownership without all the pieces for those folks to be successful. There are a bunch of stories of folks who just had gold and they didn't have the resources and true investment. I believe there’s work to do to redefine what ownership and innovation is in the context of community development, youth development and service.

The second thing is the truly fundamental belief that these communities have the capacity to build, innovate, scale, and sustain solutions in their own communities. And that there's genius that we really have not tapped into and that we should be chasing every moment of every day, pursuing it and trying to unleash it. Those two things–How do you pursue and release the genius? And how do you ensure that these communities have all the tools that they need to be successful?

I work at an historically Black college. I approach my work there with the confidence gained from what we did at Brothers@, and the confidence of the language that we put together in the evaluation. I have the confidence in understanding that what we did in the evaluation is huge, something that is really unique, innovative. I have no problem pulling up the report and sending it to somebody and saying, “Yeah, that's what I did.” And as I work with other organizations, I encounter a blatant disregard for the notions that, “Hey, these people have some type of genius that we need to tap into and how can we scale that.”

JP:  Is part of what you’re getting at the challenge of working in settings where there’s a top-down approach to systems change?

HJ: Yes, but even that is complicated. Because by contrast, “bottom-up” approaches to ownership and innovation have become a get out of jail free card. You can do something bottom up and not believe that there's gold there. You could do something bottom up and really not do everything you can in your power to make sure that your people will be successful. So it's,“Hey, we did this thing bottoms up” and being rewarded for that even when it’s not sustainable. I see that a lot right now. “Ownership”. “Bottoms up”. That language is going to very much be taken. We're going to have to be creative in how we continue to push the envelope, because I don't think it's going to be taken and used in a way that is best for our communities.

JP: So what does that mean for people centering ownership in innovation?

HJ:  I think we don't know how to facilitate ownership. So we’ll step fully into just giving the ownership over, which has its place. I've been reading a lot about the studies on Jeff Bezos and Mackenzie Scott's philanthropy and there's great results coming from that type of giving. I think it's going to push us into a space of full ownership. Which to a degree may not be negative. But more and more I’m thinking there will need to be these translators, these intermediaries that actually facilitate ownership in this work. What does that look like? Well, instead of saying, “There's gold there and now let's extract it,” I'm saying, “There's gold there. Let's go learn from it, let's understand it and let's go deeper with it.” I don't believe that’s happening in the contexts that I'm in right now. The marginal gains we see in what does happen, can blind us from seeing what could have happened if we do that deeper digging to understand that gold. There’s a huge missed opportunity until we make that shift.

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