February is notable as a month-long celebration of Black history and culture. However, it should be noted that our regard of the celebration must not only be reserved for twenty-eight days, but rather for the entire year. Recently I have reflected, not only on history, but on the stories unfolding now, right here at Brandeis. In an attempt to make a small difference I am shining a spotlight on the contributions of Black Brandeisians. I am documenting who they are and how they are making a positive impact on the Brandeis community.

Bernyss Kekah ’24 

Bernyss Kekah ’24 is renowned for her role in Black African Student Organization (BASO) which is the Intercultural Centers’ club celebrating Black African students. Kekah has been immensely immersed in her African culture; she speaks Togolese and after matriculating to the University, knew she wanted to join a cultural club. “I wanted to be a part of cultivating a safe space,” Kekah said in a Feb. 5 interview with The Justice. While her initial interaction with the club was primarily online because of COVID-19, she attended every meeting and had a strong desire to work behind the scenes.

Kekah, a double major in Health: Science, Society, and  Social Policy and African and African American Studies, now serves as president of BASO and has been proud to see all her work come to fruition through her team at BASO.

She takes on the role with gratitude and pride but also admits that behind the glamor, there is work to be done and a need to navigate issues within Brandeis as an institution. “Even with everything beautiful on this campus, there is always a dark side,” she explained. From funding struggles to not being recognized or not being taken seriously as a club, she is persistent in making change for future leaders.

“Every single time, I would do it again,” Kekah said. As president, she strives to cultivate a space that ensures that people feel like they belong. She fosters that feeling  through showcases of talent and events such as fashion shows. It is not news that Brandeis overlooks fashion as a key piece of culture and identity, which has heavily impacted BASO and other clubs. Nonetheless, Kekah and her team have been relentless in their efforts to continue fostering a community.

“I try my best to maintain a positive environment, especially for my E-board,” she said. 

 Students sometimes have to make space for themselves. “Through creating cultural clubs [we] find [our] voice,” Kekah expressed.

Academically speaking, Kekah decided to major in AAAS due to the curriculum and the amazing professors she has the opportunity to engage with. However, what she really is passionate about is medicine. She plans on attending medical school after graduating and her dream is to become an OBGYN and emphasize care for the Black and Brown communities.

Parker Jones ’24

Parker Jones ’24 has always been a curious person. He began his journey in the sciences as a young boy building legos and exploring the natural world. He fondly recollects “breaking open rocks and looking at insects” and while he is now a young man, his interests and curiosities remain the same. A HSSP major, Jones has gained experiences in research labs at Brandeis and beyond, leading to an informative realization. 

Jones credits his passion for STEM research to his educational career. His passion stems (pardon the pun) from wanting to help others. While the sciences are in desperate need of diversifying, Jones feels compelled to create a sense of belonging through his aspirations and expresses d“feel[ing] comfortable to put [his] dreams out there,” as he has a community of family, friends and colleagues supporting him academically and socially.

His impact on Brandeis goes beyond academia, of course. He is not only athletic as seen through his involvement in track and field, but creates community for young people like himself through the Men of Color Alliance as the co-president. 

Zaire Simmonds ’26

Zaire Simmonds ’26  is probably most famous for making history as the youngest employee in the New York City Department of Education, but there is much more to his story. Simmonds is the Undergraduate Representative of the Education Studies program and the president and founder of the Brandeis chapter of Aspiring Educators. He has been teaching for nine years and is passionate about being an educator.

In a Feb. 2 interview with The Justice, Simmonds shared his inspiration behind his involvement in education: “My mom was my first student, her room was my first classroom.” While he is a Black man, he explains that Black women were more impactful in his life not only because his community was primarily Black women but because he witnessed Black women making change in the education space first. A prime example is Meisha Ross Porter, who was the first Black woman chancellor and previously worked in Simmonds’ high school. 

His advice for students interested in pursuing a career in education is to gain experience before declaring the major and know the challenges and characteristics of the classroom environment. His favorite moments have been working with middle schoolers and specifically witnessing their joy and humor. “I get to watch them grow up and that is the more emotional aspect of education.” When asked about his dreams of becoming a teacher he confidently stated, “For nine years I have been fortunate enough to live that dream.”

Splendid Hall ’24

Splendid Hall ’24, also a double major in HSSP and Anthropology, is president of the Brandeis Black Student Organization. 

On Feb 7., Hall shared the challenges of being president in an interview, “I don’t have a vice president and my [executive board] consists of underclassmen who are still figuring out their role and responsibilities.” Nonetheless, she has performed in her role and helped guide the e-board in the right direction. “BBSO is near and dear to my heart,” she added. “One of my favorite events is SpeedFriending because networking and building relationships is so important, ‘’ Hall explained. 

Clubs like BBSO and BASO provide a platform for marginalized groups to not only be seen and heard but supported and celebrated on campus. They use creativity and freedom of expression as extensions of identity.

As for Hall, she plans to continue to make change within the health system. She addressed the issues within Black maternal health, and through her commitment to BBSO and her academics, she is on the way to achieving her dreams.

Aaron Kelly ’24

Aaron Kelly ’24, who is known to his friends as “Ace,” is a senior majoring in Film, Television, and Interactive Media studies. He is a multi-hyphenate artist creating and producing music as well as creating films. He credits Prof. Lauren Woods (FILM) and her Introduction to Video Art class for igniting his passion for finding his voice in art.

In a Feb. 11 email exchange, he reflected on growing up around art and how his motto “dream big to change the world” has always kept him grounded in his creative ability. 

Capturing the moment is a large part of why Kelly is so passionate about creating art. He has worked primarily in the medium of video art.  He explained that for him there is an avant garde vision that comes to life with video art because it is not one singular medium but an intersection between the film and art that is experimental. This form allows you to capture a different narrative. He said that “art allows you to think freely and openly.” 

He believes that his art is a way to challenge preconceived notions and to create a platform for his work to be seen and appreciated. He is also passionate about creating a space for other Black artists to have their voices heard. He has been a part of Basement Records, which, while not exclusively focused on creatives of color, helps uplift underrepresented artists, musicians and other creatives.

One of the challenges he has faced as a Black artist is being stereotyped which can diminish the way others value his work. “People assume that I do rap or that I don’t take art seriously,” Kelly said. 

Regardless of how Blackness is perceived in the art world, nothing is going to stop Kelly from creating. His works often feature music, but his goal is to create powerful messages, such as raising awareness about environmentalism.

His advice for students that are passionate about the arts is to be confident and themselves. Especially as a Black student, being able to “just be yourself because it can be important to the work you make.” 

Kelly’s ultimate goal is to have fun with his work. “I just want to create something for everyone, to connect with other people,” he said. He wants to be a creative film director but plans to work his way through screenwriting and editing before creating his own films. But more importantly, he wants to imbue positivity in his work.