Sometimes I don’t know how to start a blog post. It can be hard to think up an introductory paragraph that’s witty, funny, heartfelt, and overall engaging, without trying to detract from the message I am trying to get across. This post in particular is very difficult for me, because I am in so much awe, feel so much gratitude, and feel just so much love for the world with what has happened for Mott Hall Bridges Academy this past week.
You Humans of New York (HONY) fans already know what went down, but for those of you who don’t follow HONY I’ll briefly explain. HONY is a site run by photographer Brandon Stanton, in which he photographs and interviews random people on the streets of New York and shares these snippets of their lives on his website. What started as a pet project quickly became an international phenomenon, with people all over the world following due to Brandon’s unique talent of capturing the human essence of every day people. He captures the problems and joys people face, and shows not only how diverse the people of New York are, but how everyone around the globe at times experiences those same feelings. That we are all diverse, yet so similar in our basic human struggles.
A unique thing about HONY is that Brandon rarely asks for money or starts charities based on his stories, no matter how sad they may be. Every once in a while he does, but he is very good about not asking people for money by linking the fundraisers in every picture. In one case, the man refused the money because he knew others needed it more. Brandon also does good work by connecting people who are alone in NYC for the holidays with families who will host them, thus spreading cheer and happiness without asking for a dime (this is actually organized by his girlfriend). But just recently, Brandon met someone who really changed everything.
He met Vidal Chastanet.
Brandon photographed Vidal as usual, and posted two photos and quotes from their interview on his website. One dealt with the troubles of living in a bad neighborhood, and the other about the most influential person in his life: his principal, Nadia Lopez.
Vidal’s story intrigued Brandon, and he soon visited his school, Mott Hall Bridges Academy, to meet its principal. Inspired, Brandon decided to profile the school in a photo series, and work with Ms. Lopez to raise money to fund programs for the school it couldn’t normally afford. According to Ms. Lopez:
This is a neighborhood that doesn’t necessarily expect much from our children, so at Mott Hall Bridges Academy we set our expectations very high. We don’t call our children ‘students,’ we call them ‘scholars.’ Our color is purple. Our scholars wear purple and so do our staff. Because purple is the color of royalty. I want my scholars to know that even if they live in a housing project, they are part of a royal lineage going back to the great African kings and queens. They belong to a group of individuals who have endured so much history and still overcome. When you tell people you’re from Brownsville, their face cringes up. But there are children here that need to know that they are expected to succeed.
So they decided to set up a fundraiser on Indiegogo to raise money for the school. Because one of the biggest challenges facing these scholars is the limited exposure they have to the good things in the world outside of their neighborhood, the assistant principal, Ms. Achu, had the idea to send all the incoming scholars (6th grade) to Harvard, to give them something to strive for in their studies. They estimated it would cost about $30,000 to send all the scholars for one year, so they set up a goal of $100,000 so they could send three years of scholars on the trip.
They exceeded that goal in less than an hour.
You can access the fundraiser here. As of now, they have raised over one MILLION dollars. They have updated the fundraiser twice, roughly after each $300,000 mark, to make more improvements to help their scholars. They now have the funding to do 10 years worth of Harvard trips, 10 years worth of summer school programs so the students have a safe place to go and learn during the summer months, and roughly $300,000+ in scholarship money for the Vidal Scholarship Fund for Mott Hall Bridges Academy graduates to pursue their dreams to go to college, which will last depending on how much they grant every year. The first recipient: Vidal.
Brownsville is the perfect example of the problems facing much of our nations underprivileged youth. Brownsville is only 1.9 square miles in area, but yet had the largest homicide rate than any other part of NYC last year. While crime fell by 30% in NYC this past decade, serious crimes in Brownsville only fell by 9%. This is compared to similar once-violent crime neighborhoods, like the south Bronx, where violent crime fell by 25% within the same decade. Brownsville also has the highest concentration of public housing developments in the country. Of its 86,468 residents, about 43,695 receive income assistance. That’s 50% of the population. Is it a surprise to anyone that when you look at the racial demographics of the area, this is what you get:
Now, some people would look at this chart, and look at the poverty in that area, and think that it means that minorities are lazy and don’t want to work or get educated and just want to live off the government. Those people are ignorant, and it’s our job to educate them on the facts. Ignorance causes the economic class gaps to continue to widen in our country, and why non-white people are being left further and further behind. It’s the attitude, whether conscious or subconscious, that minorities are not on ‘our [white] level’ because they don’t want it enough. It’s the belief that America is the land of equal opportunity, when nothing could be further from the truth.
Did you know, that when submitting a resume with high quality education and work experience, that ‘white-sounding’ names have a 30% call back rate, compared to a 9% call back rate for ‘black-sounding’ names?
Did you know, that in 2014 UCLA published a study that placed New York as the most segregated school system in the country, with the most segregation happening in NYC schools?
Did you know that white police officers generally misjudge a male black child’s age by as much as 4.5 years, meaning a 14 year old boy can be mistaken for an adult by the officer? This was found to lead to more arrests for blacks than for whites, and harsher punishments for the same crimes.
Did you know, that black children are more likely to be disciplined in school than their white peers, despite that they are found to act out as much or less than their white peers?
The Kirwan institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity attributes this to “cultural deficit thinking.”
This process creates the perception that poor African American and other marginalized students and their parents are disconnected from the education process. Consequently, teachers and other school personnel may harbor negative assumptions about the ability, aspirations and work ethic of these students—especially poor students of color—based on the assumption that they and their families do not value education in the same way it is valued by middle- and upper-income White students.
Plainly put, teachers see children who come from uneducated families and assume they don’t care. They dole out harsher punishments due to ‘zero tolerance’ policies, because they believe these children need more tough love than their white peers. They believe these kids aren’t getting parented properly at home, so they take it upon themselves to dole out consequences for them. Meanwhile, these kids are the ones who need the most love and encouragement, because their childhoods contain the most struggle. Children from poorer families don’t have the luxury to worry about whether or not their homework is done- they have to worry about food and shelter too. They may be not paying attention at school because they are hungry, or sleep deprived, not because they disrespect the teacher. Our society perpetuates this cycle, because even when a student does break free from the cycle, and achieves a higher degree, they have to face discrimination in the workforce. They are lucky if they have no criminal record, even if it’s just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong skin color. They are lucky if they get a call back from their resume. They are lucky if they don’t face racism every day in the work place, and if they get paid the same as their white peers.
Now, these are facts based on geographical and demographic data. They are not the same person to person. But they do show what happens to the majority of people, and how the majority of people think. And it’s important to be aware of this, because otherwise how are we supposed to break the cycle?
Of course there are people who break out of the cycle of poverty in these situations. They get graduate degrees, move up the economic ladder, and prove to the world that it’s possible. But the point is that it shouldn’t be that challenging. It shouldn’t be that special. Why is that a success story? When a middle class white kid goes to college and get’s their BA, that’s called normal life. It’s expected. But when a Black person from a lower economic class goes to college and gets their BA, it’s a success story. Why? Because it surprises us. Because deep down, we all know the system that is in place, and we know it’s partly our fault, and we don’t want to face that.
When looking at the crime rate this past year in Brownsville, and how their crime rate went down 20% less than the rest of the city, the police pledge to commit to having a larger police presence in the areas with the highest violent crime. But that’s a solution that can only go so far. Why are we focused on putting the bad guys behind bars, instead of preventing them from becoming bad guys in the first place? Charles Barron, a long time City Council member who represents the Brownsville district, says it all:
This is not about blanket police work, this is about economic development and job creation. If you’re serious about crime, instead of building Yankee Stadium, build some youth centers in our neighborhood, fund our schools and teach science and culturally-relevant topics, build self-esteem.
Other community leaders agree. Rev. Cheryl Anthony of the Judah Internation Christian Center said that her and other leaders in the community are focusing on “changing mindsets and behavior.” They are “speaking to caregivers about gangs, helping the poor, providing support and sharing faith.”
And this is where we come back to Ms. Lopez, or as her friends on the internet have coined it, “The Lopez Effect.” Mott Hall Bridges Academy shows what caring can do. It shows that one person can make a difference, and it has a ripple effect throughout their community. Through her dedication and enthusiasm, Nadia Lopez affected one young man. She told him that he mattered — not just him but all his peers. And he told a man on the street who wanted to take his picture, and the whole world answered. Because of Ms. Lopez’s love, and because Vidal accepted it, more than $1,000,000 have been raised for this school, and there are still eight days left to donate. Students will have a safe place to go for summer programs, so they won’t ‘backslide’ during the summer months. Besides the money donated, teachers in NYC are volunteering to work for free in the summer program to help out this amazing school. Kids will be able to see a real Ivy League school, so they can see the reality of their dreams, and work towards it. And kids will have the chance to win scholarship money when they graduate, and succeed.
I know this is a long blog post, quite possible they longest I’ve ever done, but this topic hits so close to home for me. This is exactly what I think needs to happen for us to make this a better country to live in. To truly give us all equal opportunities. It’s not about respectability politics. It’s not about giving people special treatment, it’s not about being patronizing to people of a different skin color (how absurd). It’s about giving everyone the same education and the same opportunity to succeed. And it’s about doing it exactly this way- with love, understanding, and truly believing that everyone can achieve their dreams. In case you skipped over it in the picture, here it is again, in Vidal’s words, how Ms. Lopez influenced him:
When we get in trouble, she doesn’t suspend us. She calls us to her office and explains to us how society was built down around us. And she tells us that each time somebody fails out of school, a new jail cell gets built. And one time she made every student stand up, one at a time, and she told each one of us that we matter.
I hope you all find this story as heart warming as I do. And I hope you also realize that giving money isn’t the end- all solution. It’s the first step. Our attitudes matter. Being aware of our thoughts matter. If you are a teacher, think twice when you are disciplining students of the same age but different race- are you treating them equally? Are the consequences the same? If you are a police officer, security guard, or neighborhood watchman, are you treating youths of different races the same or different? Do you jump to conclusions more with one race than the other? Employers, politicians, neighbors, the message is all the same. Think twice, and be aware of not just your actions but the thought process leading to them. Only you can change your world- let’s make it a better one.
If you would like to donate, click here.
- White people are not always above the poverty line, and non-white people are not always below it. However, in our society, race and poverty increasingly go hand in hand, to the point where it is impossible to talk about one without the other, especially when discussing an area such as Brownsville. See here for more information.
- I am a white, middle class female. I do not claim that my views are the right views, or that I understand what it is like to live with racial discrimination or poverty. I can only do what I can to be an ally towards the cause of equal rights for all races, educate myself on how to be a good ally, and support the right causes. For more information on how to be a white ally and do what you can to make a difference, see here and here.