Editor’s Note: When photographer Brandon Stanton of the popular blog Humans of New York encountered 13-year-old Vidal Chastanet in Brownsville, a neighborhood with one of the highest crime rates in New York City, he asked: “Who has influenced you the most in your life?” Chastanet’s answer — his school principal, Nadia Lopez — spread around the world and inspired Stanton to create a fundraiser for the school on Indiegogo that so far has raised more than $1.2 million, hundreds of thousands of dollars above its original goal. The money will fund student trips to Harvard as well as scholarship opportunities.
Below, Lopez talks about why her school’s story went viral and what other educators can learn from it.
Can you describe the students at Mott Hall Bridges Academy?
A large majority, about 85 percent, are African American and low socioeconomic status. The highest income community-wide is about $28,000; 32 percent of the residents here graduate high school, 14 percent have a Bachelors, and 3 percent have a Masters.
Most of the challenges that we encounter are around the achievement gap. A lot of them are below grade level. Our proficiency is rather low across the district. Over the years, it’s just been really hard to close the achievement gap from elementary all the way up until middle school. Also, what we find to be a challenge is mental support for the scholars and their families, because they have a lot of issues — post-traumatic stress disorder, sense of abandonment, abuse, poverty, lack of employment, high pregnancy rate. We have the highest incidence of HIV and AIDS in all of central Brooklyn. So there are a tremendous amount of challenges, to say the least.
"Who's influenced you the most in your life?" "My principal, Ms. Lopez." "How has she influenced you?" "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."
How does your school address those challenges with students?
What made you want to enter education?
I actually entered education after I had my own daughter. I decided that I wanted to be the very thing that I experienced in the classroom. I wanted her, and so many other children who would set foot in a classroom in any school, to know what it was like to have someone who had high expectations and someone who was going to be supportive, someone who was going to be their champion. So that’s pretty much grounded my decision.
When did you first become aware of the Humans of New York post where Vidal talked about you?
I was ready to quit, I was ready to resign, I was done, and my mother told me to pray on it, and I just felt like I didn’t want to pray on it, I wasn’t ready to pray. It was on the Monday that Brandon had put the post up. I only knew because some of my staff members and one of my former scholars sent me a text that basically said, Hey, did you see this? This is amazing, look at what people are saying, and I couldn’t even understand or comprehend what was going on.
I saw what the texts said, but immediately I was told that I had to turn off my cell phone, because I was in a Broadway play. I was like Oh my God, I don’t even know what this means. By the time intermission came my daughter said, let’s go, you have to actually see what’s going on.
It was just so heart-warming and touching to see that my scholar had thought enough of me to even include me in something that was so innocent, just a couple of lines that he mentioned me, enough to say that I influenced him the most, when he really could have said his mom, who I think is dynamic. So it really touched me. After that, I went home and I started reading a lot of the posts, and I was just overwhelmed. I was overwhelmed with joy and filled with tears because it made me feel significant at a time when I didn’t really feel like I mattered in my work anymore.
Why did you feel that way?
To be honest, this work of being a leader requires so much. It’s never about getting accolades, it’s never about the pomp and circumstance. With education leadership, you’re never going to see the fruits of your labor until 10 or 15 years down the road. But when you’re in the midst and the moment of it, and you’re managing adults — and adults have their own behaviors and their own needs that almost supersede that of children — and then on top of that you still have the children and you still have their families, because the families have expectations of what things have to happen at Mott Hall Bridges Academy. And then you have a community that is itself broken, it can’t see how great and significant and phenomenal they are.
At some point it feels like this pressure and you just can’t manage it anymore, because it seems like all of the negative and all of the feelings of “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t” start to outweigh you. Which is probably what my scholars feel on a day-to-day basis, because every time they turn, something is telling them that they can’t.
I was ready to quit, I was ready to resign, I was done, and my mother told me to pray on it, and I just felt like I didn’t want to pray on it, I wasn’t ready to pray. I was angry. I’m a faithful person, but I was angry at that time. I did pray about it Monday, and God showed me how much of a significance I was, not only to Vidal but to people around the world who could identify what it was like to know someone who was their champion and pushed them through.
Why did your story resonate with so many people?
I think because of the transparency, actually. When was the last time you heard a principal say, “I was broken and I didn’t want to go on”? Or the last time you heard a child even mention a principal’s name? Most of these schools that you go to, kids know their principals’ names but don’t know their principal like that, don’t know the inside of the principal’s room. The principal doesn’t come to their classrooms every single day to check up. I make sure that I know every scholar’s name, I make sure that I at least say hi to them every single day, because that’s just the way I practice my leadership. I also feel that the school is not big enough for me not to know all of my kids, so I don’t have an excuse that I wouldn’t know them on that level.
How has this impacted your students?
Oh, they talk about it all the time. They actually are really proud. They are ecstatic and it gives them a sense of feeling that they are worth something beyond just the city of Brownsville. They really feel like there are individuals that care about their well-being.
Do they read the comments about your school on the Humans of New York website or Facebook page?
They have read the comments. There are so many that they can’t keep up with it. Definitely, they are paying attention. They are sharing the pictures online. They’re doing a lot. It’s just about it being a blessing.
Has there been any backlash?
The work that we’re doing is great and ultimately what it highlights is that there are no excuses as to why we can’t. We are showing why we can do it. And if we can do it here, it can be done anywhere.There have been some people who have questions like, If you’re going to Harvard, why can’t you go visit other schools as well? And the reality is that we have been doing that. I think people get so caught up in what the media is sensationalizing right now, but we’ve always taken our scholars to see local colleges, especially those that are CUNY-based, Ivy League private schools like Columbia University, we’ve taken them to Vassar, and we also have a trip planned for them to go see Howard University.
But people aren’t asking those questions. They’re seeing that money is going specifically to one college. And I’m OK with that. Those people who are making the comments are the same individuals who don’t go and find schools and say, How can I help you? They would rather criticize what’s already being done without trying to be the change that they would want to see. So we give them their moment to speak, but at the end of the day we know that our focus is on the success of our scholars.
What can other educators learn from this?
As educators, I think we’ve taken a beating because there’s been so much change in the standards and curriculum, and there was never any time to process and really come together with a cohesive model of what that’s really gonna look like. There’s a lot of time being spent on how do we make kids pass a test, and how validated we are by numbers, but through that process we’re stressing ourselves out, and we’re losing the passion behind education.
I think that we need to start becoming a community, so that it’s not always left to just the schools to make a difference. There’s so much that people on the outside can do rather than just either pass judgment or turn a blind eye to it.
What comes next?
I don’t really have plans about what happens next. I’m still worried about today and tomorrow and my scholars. I didn’t even foresee this far; I just kind of allow what’s supposed to happen, happen. God got me this far and he’ll continue to guide me where I need to go. So that’s yet to be determined.
Has anything about your school been misrepresented?
I think what’s been misrepresented is that there are no other schools that exist like this. But there are amazing faculty and staff members in schools that are doing exceptional work.
I think what has been highlighted are other communities of need. Even in New York City, if we talk about Far Rockaway, that’s an island in and of itself. At least we’re connected more to the city, where you can take the train and be in the Manhattan in 20 minutes. But Far Rockaway, that’s almost an hour and a half.
The work that we’re doing is great and ultimately what it highlights is that there are no excuses as to why we can’t. We are showing why we can do it. And if we can do it here, it can be done anywhere.
Nadia Lopez is principal at Mott Hall Bridges Academy in the Brownsville neighborhood of New York City.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.