A little more than a week ago, Humans of New York creator Brandon Stanton posted the above photo to Instagram of a young boy named Vidal, a sixth-grader at Mott Hall Bridges Academy, in Brownsville. When asked who has influenced him the most, Vidal named his school’s principal, Nadia Lopez. “When we get in trouble, she doesn’t suspend us,” he said. “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.”
From their conversation, Stanton learned about some of the problems Brownsville youth face, and about the heroic efforts extended by Mott Hall to prevent its students from falling into the same grim cycles of poverty and violence. Following their meeting, Stanton met with Principal Lopez, and together they developed an idea: start an Indiegogo campaign that would fund an annual trip to Harvard for Mott Hall’s sixth-grade students. Which, what? As Stanton writes on the campaign’s page, “Sometimes a visit to Harvard is more than just a visit to Harvard,” particularly for students from low-income neighborhoods like Brownsville, where higher education is not a reasonable priority. The idea here being: show kids they belong at a place like Harvard, and maybe their horizons will expand.
Brownsville is, by many measures, the most beleaguered neighborhood in New York. It has the nation’s highest concentration of public housing, and the city’s highest murder rate. It’s also isolated, way out near the Canarsie Flats, at the end of the 3 and L lines. This physical isolation is mirrored by a psychological one. Entrenched poverty, cycled through generations, diminishes what seems possible. I spent a lot of time in the neighborhood in 2013 reporting a story for the web magazine BKLYNR, and heard from a lot of people that they’d never left Brownsville, and never planned to.
This, despite signs of change on the ground. Principal Lopez is one of many people in Brownsville working with outsiders to bring in opportunities and foster reinvestment in the neighborhood. Some of these changes feel heartening, and some like white knight interventionism. This one belongs in the former category. “This is a neighborhood that doesn’t necessarily expect much from our children,” Lopez wrote on the Indiegogo page. “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.”
The Indiegogo was launched on January 22nd. Stanton and Lopez set the initial fundraising goal at $100,000—enough to fund three annual trips. That goal was met in less than an hour (HONY has major reach, eh?) As of this writing, $926,540 has been donated by 31,000 people. Stanton announced yesterday that every dollar above 700,000 would go into a scholarship endowment for the graduates of Mott Hall Bridges Academy, to be awarded by a committee of MHBA educators and administrators. It is called the Vidal Scholarship Fund, and the first recipient is Vidal, who kinda got this whole thing started in the first place by being at the right place at the right time. It’s rare that you could say that about Brownsville.
If you’d like to donate to the campaign, you can do so here.
Follow Phillip Pantuso on Twitter @phillippantuso.