Our member spotlight this month is on Ahmad Yassir, an artist and media specialist based in Bennington, VT who relocated from Lebanon to attend school at Bennington College. Although the lack of public transportation was difficult initially, Ahmad finds that the support he has received in his time in VT, as well as the deep friendships he has made, have been a critical part of his time living here. As an artist, he is “…hoping to prove to everyone that artists are capable of doing pretty much anything, with an extra spark of creativity…” and hopes that leadership positions and continued collaborations within the community will help him to achieve that.
Tell us a bit about your background before arriving in VT.
Growing up as the youngest of six children in one of the least fortunate parts of the Middle East, I developed a strong passion for education, arts and community. Throughout my childhood, my focus was on my education and developing my skills as an artist. I was fortunate enough to receive several awards in contemporary art and Arabic calligraphy, which helped me secure scholarships to continue my education. I attended the United World College in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Bennington College in Vermont, where I had access to incredible opportunities, resources, faculty, and community.
During my time at college, I was supported by faculty and Field Work Staff who connected me with opportunities and resources to pursue my passion for teaching art and peacebuilding internationally. I had the opportunity to explore curriculums and art in Kilis, Southern Turkey; Hargeisa, Somaliand; and Beirut, Lebanon, before finally immersing myself in the community and culture of Bennington Town. I am grateful for the experiences I have had, and I look forward to continuing to use my skills and passions to make a positive impact in the world.
What do you enjoy about being a professional in VT?
In short, I find the sense of community around me to be incredibly inspiring. I value the fact that my perspective is respected, and the balance between tradition and innovation is unique and refreshing.
I feel fortunate to be surrounded by a variety of communities that I cherish. I have remained in touch with some of my former college faculty and staff, who have become my friends. Additionally, the Bennington business community, particularly the Southwest Chamber of Commerce and Shires Young Professionals, serve as a source of inspiration for me as they bring together people from various places and industries, and being around them gives me a strong sense of belonging. I believe that these communities serve as excellent models for anyone looking to establish a strong sense of community and belonging.
What impresses me the most about these communities is their inclusiveness and their focus on meaningful work that contributes to the revitalization of the entire area. I am grateful to be a part of this community, and I feel that I belong to it even though I have not been here for long, thanks to the Chamber, and Susan and Jordan of VT News & Media (Bennington Banner/Brattleboro Reformer/Manchester Journal/VT Country Magazine).
What are some challenges that you’ve faced living in VT?
I don’t have much to complain about, but when I first moved here it was the limited public transportation.
What are you looking forward to within your own career?
Developing more connections with more people and getting to collaborate with as many people, organizations, and businesses as possible. There are a lot of people here that are full of life, who are also excited about being here and contributing to the greater good of this area and community. But in general, I’m hoping to prove to everyone that artists are capable of doing pretty much anything, with an extra spark of creativity, so i’m hoping to gain leadership positions and continuing to advance my work through collaboration, creativity, and community building.
In what ways could the community or state of VT support BIPOC businesses?
A proactive and targeted approach is needed to provide meaningful support to families and professionals of color who have recently moved to Vermont or are planning to move soon. This can be achieved by developing comprehensive retention programs in partnership with local community organizations, which take into account the unique needs and challenges of BIPOC individuals and families.
These retention programs should focus on identifying the specific needs of BIPOC individuals and families in Vermont, exploring opportunities, services, and resources that can support them during their stay, and addressing any barriers they may face in fully integrating into the community.
One potential solution is to offer direct grants that support the establishment of diverse businesses that cater to BIPOC needs, while also fostering connections between businesses through business-to-business networking. Additionally, community events can be organized to help promote inclusivity and foster a sense of belonging among new BIPOC residents.
Furthermore, offering town loans to businesses that have a mission and background aligned with the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion can also be an effective way to encourage the development of a new BIPOC community in Vermont. By implementing these initiatives, Vermont can become a more welcoming and inclusive state for professionals of color and their families.
What advice would you have wanted to receive about being a person of color (POC) living in Vermont before arriving?
Before arriving in Vermont, as a person of color, I would have appreciated advice that accurately reflected the opportunities and challenges I would face in the state. While I initially had concerns about limited opportunities, I have come to realize that Vermont is actually a great place for young entrepreneurs, creatives and community-minded individuals looking to make a positive impact.
One key piece of advice would have been to actively seek out social groups, places to hang out and resources and support networks that are available for POC individuals in Vermont. This could include connecting with local community organizations, as well as reaching out to other POC individuals in the area. It’s important to remember that while Vermont may not have the same level of diversity as other places, there are still many people and resources available to support and uplift the POC community.
Additionally, it’s important to approach any challenges or barriers with a sense of resilience and determination. As a person of color, it may be necessary to advocate for oneself and seek out opportunities that may not be immediately apparent. However, by building strong relationships with the local community and actively pursuing one’s goals, it is possible to thrive and make a positive impact in Vermont.
What do you think can be done to increase the representation of people from diverse racial backgrounds in mainstream media, and how do you think your work as an artist contributes to this goal?
Increasing Diversity in the Spotlight!
The Outpost Foundation located in Shaftsbury, VT is an excellent example of an organization doing great work in Southern Vermont. They host two BIPOC writing residents from the United States or South America for two weeks. The residents are given stipends to stay, get inspired by the Green Mountains, and create new work. After that, they host community events and readings that are free and open to the public, where the residents share their new work.
The VT PoC Network is another great organization that is a valuable resource for any BIPOC person who runs into it online. I’m not saying that because they’re interviewing me, this network genuinely encourages BIPOC to move or stay in the state, just because they exist. However, it seems that more funds are needed to increase their media work in Southern Vermont. Therefore, someone should reach out to them directly with a blank check, thanking them for their work and supporting them financially to expand to every part of the state.
It is essential to support such organizations and encourage other organizations to do similar work by developing grants, spaces, and award opportunities for Vermont arts organizations. This will specifically invite traveling shows in dance and theater, music tours, and contemporary artists. These efforts will not only increase the representation of BIPOC in local media outlets but also encourage more BIPOC to share their art in Vermont. It will be hugely impactful in the minds of all young children of color in the state.
Unfortunately, most children in Vermont don’t grow up seeing a person of color in a leadership role, whether it is a teacher in the classroom or the main performer on stage. This lack of representation in the arts community is a significant issue that needs to be addressed to achieve greater racial representation. With the arts events and shows come huge marketing money and publicity avenues, which will only help increase visibility.
As an artist, my work aims to show that there are many connections between us, such as the landscape and sense of community. In my work in media, I advocate for the representation of all new businesses and organizations, especially grant opportunities for BIPOC through the Vermont Community Foundation. In our community, I’m proud to be the connection point between a new BIPOC business and the media and business communities in Bennington.
In your experience, what are some of the biggest obstacles to achieving greater racial equity and inclusivity in the arts industry, and what steps do you think can be taken to overcome them?
I can go on and on, and i’m not sure how productive I will be but in short:
“Having a seat at the table instead of being on the menu.”
Because there’s a:
-Lack of BIPOC decision makers.
-Limited contemporary gallery spaces.
-Historical underfunding of BIPOC arts organizations and artists.
To overcome these obstacles, steps can be taken such as intentional recruitment and training programs, as well as creating space for BIPOC voices to be heard and valued in all aspects of the organization’s work.
Another important step is to invest in BIPOC arts organizations and artists, providing them with the funding and resources they need to succeed. This can involve creating dedicated grant programs, funding research and data collection on racial equity in the arts, and supporting partnerships between BIPOC and white-led organizations.
Overall, achieving greater racial equity and inclusivity in the arts industry in Vermont will require a concerted effort from all stakeholders, including arts organizations, funders, policymakers, and the wider community.
Has your own art addressed any experiences related to your being a person of color, and what message do you hope to convey to audiences through your work in this regard?
Yes, my art has addressed my experiences as a person of color, with a message that we have a lot in common despite our differences.
One example is from a group art exhibit curated by Jamie Franklin at the Bennington Museum a few years ago. The theme was Snowflake Bentley, and I focused on drawing connections between Lebanon and Vermont. I used traditional symbols and organic visual vocabulary to speak to the commonalities between the landscapes of the two places. I also abstracted Arabic calligraphy to repeat “Bennington Vermont” many times until it formed the shape of a snowflake.
Additionally, I am proud to have joined the organizing team of the North Bennington Outdoor Sculpture Show, where I will be collaborating with Matthew Perry, Executive Director of The Vermont Arts Exchange, Jamie Franklin, curator of the Bennington Museum, and Joe Chirchirillo, curator of the show for the past 11 years. This is a significant moment for the show as both a Bennington College graduate, and a person of color, to be on the organizing end of the show. Together we can develop the show, make the artist application more open and accessible, and hopefully, create more artists’ residencies in the coming years. The 26th annual NBOSS will take place on June 17th, 2023 at 48 Main St, North Bennington from 4-8pm.