Foundation father Baraka Stewart, whose son Braylan is an 8th grader at Eagle Harlem, recently fielded some questions from Charlie Hanger, digital content manager for The Foundation.
CH: You are a native New Yorker with deep roots in Harlem. Tell us about your time growing up in the city.
BS: I’m originally from the Bronx, but I claim Harlem as my home, too, because my grandmother lived on West 126th Street her entire life. My parents are both New Yorkers. My dad was born in Jamaica, Queens, and my mom was born in Harlem Hospital. Growing up, we spent a great deal of time in Harlem, and the church I attended, Transfiguration Lutheran Church, was also in Harlem.
I have an older brother, with whom I shared a bedroom for over 15 years, and a younger sister, and I’m close with both of them.
My mother wanted to provide us with the best education she could, so she enrolled us in P.S. 41, The Greenwich Village School. The commute from our home in the Bronx, on Ogden Avenue near Yankee Stadium, was a long one, but it was worth it. P.S. 41 was diverse socioeconomically, unlike my neighborhood schools, and my brother and I still maintain relationships with some of our friends from the school to this day. While it was a very good school — to me, the best! — it was also close to my mother’s job at the Village Nursing Home.
After attending I.S. 70, The O’Henry School, in Chelsea for 6th and 7th grade, I skipped 8th grade and joined my brother at Fordham Preparatory School in the Bronx. Upon graduation, I matriculated at The Wharton School at The University of Pennsylvania, where I received my Bachelor of Science degree in Economics with a concentration in Accounting. I’ve made my career in the asset-based lending arena, helping companies use their assets as collateral for loans.
CH: Braylan moved in with you when he was 9 after spending most of his early years with his mom in Mississippi. How has that transition been over the past four years for both of you, and what’s it like to be a single dad in New York?
BS: Braylan is a light for me, and seeing him with his younger brother, Dane, is the real joy of fatherhood. I am very close to my brother, so I think that relationship between Braylan and Dane is super-important. Sometimes, it feels like I am an afterthought when they are together!
Being a single dad can certainly be challenging, particularly in a hectic, always-on city. One of the primary joys of being a parent is sharing the experience with another person, both the fun times and the inevitable challenging moments. If one parent needs a break, they can walk away for a bit. I don’t have that luxury as often as I’d like, but I’ve been blessed with two wonderful boys who forgive me for these challenges, thankfully.
CH: Education is a priority in your household. How is Braylan doing in school?
BS: Braylan is a good student and has made me proud with his academic achievements. I expect nothing less than excellence from him, and to always strive for the No. 1 spot. More than anything, however, Braylan is a good citizen and comports himself well in all settings.
I want Braylan to be even stronger than I was at his age in the “hard” skills — reading, writing, and arithmetic. To that end, I stress the importance of reading and writing often, and not only for the purposes of getting a grade in school, but for lifelong enrichment. I’d like him to develop the same love and passion I have for math. I have to give an abundance of credit to my mother for her example. She was so resourceful in putting my siblings and me in the right environments to learn and excel. I truly cannot give her enough kudos for her efforts. Black mothers are special!
CH: What’s he been reading lately?
CH: What was your motivation for enrolling Braylan in our after school program?
BS: From the time I first heard about the program, I wanted Braylan to participate. I enjoy both playing and watching golf, and I wanted him to learn the game in a structured environment and while taking lessons. I’ve cobbled my swing together over the years, and The Bridge Golf Foundation should help him avoid some of the mistakes I’ve made over the years since I first picked up a club and started playing.
Braylan started in the 2017 summer program and is in his second year in the after school program, and it’s been fantastic. I love that it allows him to learn the game that I’m passionate about, and that he is getting to learn the game properly. I never took lessons and have just tried to work it out on my own, and I don’t want him to have to go through all that struggle!
Golf has also been helpful to me in making connections in the business world. A lot of my friends, and a lot of people who work on Wall Street and in the business world, play golf. Golf remains an enjoyable way to forge business relationships, in addition to spending quality time with friends who play the game. The more skills you have in life, the more experiences you have, the more you can share with other people, and the more potential opportunities you will have. Golf is great for that reason.
In addition to the focus on STEM and golf, I’ve really liked that The Foundation has included presentations in its curriculum. I think public speaking and the ability to do research and put together a coherent presentation are important skills.
CH: When did you get into the game?
BS: It was around the year 2000. People at my job played, and I wanted to play, too. I wasn’t very good, but I got hooked. As long as it was above 40 degrees, I would be out there, mostly at Pelham Bay and Split Rock in the Bronx, and at Overpeck Golf Course in Teaneck, NJ.
Tiger Woods also played a major role. He’s changed the face of the game and gotten a lot of people interested in golf. I even modeled my swing after him! Not many people can do what Tiger does, however, swinging with such great speed and precision. My eye-hand coordination just isn’t on his level. But it all started with Tiger.
CH: When we interviewed Braylan for the Student Spotlight, he said you practice at home?
BS: Yes, I’m always swinging the club. My clubs are always out, so I’m always trying to work on getting square and seeing the ball better. I used to lift my head a lot, and I would step out, and I still do, but after 18 years I’ve finally slowed my swing down a bit, and that’s been very helpful.
CH: How have you seen Braylan change since joining the program?
BS: He’s embraced the program because he likes both golf and STEM. With golf, he’s still not as fanatical as I am, but his game has really improved, and he now has the ability to hit the golf ball consistently. In lots of ways, though, I think Braylan has preserved and strengthened his best traits. He’s never been disruptive, and he’s quite responsible, helping me a great deal with his younger brother. I admire Braylan so much; I should praise him more often. He understands acceptable social standards, and I believe that’s carried over to his behavior at The Bridge.
CH: When Braylan got to attend the Heisman Trophy Gala as a representative of the Foundation, he was primarily interested in the food, but he said you were jealous because Tony Dorsett was there and you’re a huge Cowboys fan. How did you adopt Dallas while growing up in New York?
BS: The Cowboys were always on television, including every Thanksgiving, and I think my aunt maybe had a crush on Tony Dorsett, so we would always watch! I’m old school, and Tony Dorsett is my favorite Cowboy of all time, but I loved all those old players — Harvey Martin, Bill Bates, Randy White, Ed “Too Tall” Jones — those were my guys. My brother bought me a vintage Tony Dorsett jersey, so that’s my prized Cowboys possession.
CH: Your name sounds a little like our former president’s. How did you end up as Baraka?
BS: I’m named after Amiri Baraka. He was born LeRoi Jones but changed his name in the late 60s. He was a poet, writer, educator, and public intellectual, a brilliant man. His son, Ras Baraka, is the current mayor of Newark. I appreciate the name.