In January 2015, Brandon Stanton, creator of the popular photo blog Humans of New York, interviewed a middle school student named Vidal Chastanet. He asked Chastanet, who goes to school in Brownsville, a neighborhood with one of the highest crime rates in New York City, who had influenced his life the most. Chastanet told Brandon about his school principal, Nadia Lopez.
“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.”
The post immediately went viral. For many, Lopez epitomized the unsung heroes of the U.S. public education system: teachers and administrators who believe in children who struggle to believe in themselves. The attention prompted a fundraising campaign that raised over $1 million for Mott Hall Bridges Academy. A few weeks after the post went up, President Obama invited Vidal and Ms. Lopez to the Oval Office.
I spoke with Lopez, who founded Mott Hall Bridges Academy in 2010, about mentorship and what it means to become a child’s champion. This interview, part of The Atlantic’s series “On the Shoulders of Giants,” has been edited for length and clarity.
Caroline Kitchener: You’ve said that you started working with kids because you wanted them to have a champion. What does that mean?
Nadia Lopez: It’s not just about being present for the kids. It’s about having the audacity to fight for them: to fight for the opportunities they deserve, to make sure people know they are not invisible. A lot of my kids don’t feel like there is a place for them in this world. They don’t feel like they matter.
Kitchener: Growing up, did you have someone who was a champion for you?
Lopez: My mom. She fought for me to go to the very best schools. She made sure I was exposed to a lot. For example, growing up, even though we were nowhere near middle or upper class, she took me to Martha’s Vineyard. I didn’t know until I was older that this was a place for very affluent people. I just knew that I went there every summer. We went fishing, strawberry picking, bike riding.
When you’re exposed to something, it becomes your norm. For a family that was from the hood, a family that lived in the projects, a family that was “poor,” Martha’s Vineyard became the norm. It was for us.
Kitchener: Tell me about one particular mentee who has meant a lot to you.
Lopez: I have one who is currently in high school. When I first met him many years ago, he was just so angry. He literally punched the wall. He was angry that he didn’t have any additional income—his mom had lost her job, and he was under pressure to join a gang. He didn’t want that to be his option.
He was very interested in design, so I decided that I was going to take him under my wing. I introduced him to my cousin who has a high position in fashion, I took him to a fashion trade show, I bought him a sketch book. After all that, we went to the bookstore. He had never been to a bookstore. There aren’t any in Brownsville.
He developed a love of photography. He joined a community-based organization in Brownsville, and learned how to use Cut Pro and Photoshop. Then he told me he wanted to take photos professionally, but he didn’t have the equipment. So I was like, “This is what I’m going to do—I’m going to invest in your future.” I helped him buy the equipment on Amazon. And now he is well on his way to becoming a professional photographer. This is a kid who assumed his life was going to lead him into gangs.
Kitchener: Do you still keep in touch with him?
Lopez: We talk every single week. I sometimes drive to the area where he lives and make sure he’s not hanging out on certain streets.
Kitchener: How is the guidance you offer these kids unique?
Lopez: Sometimes I just have to ask myself, “Who is this scholar?” Take Vidal, the scholar who was featured in Humans of New York. There is incredible pressure for him to do extremely well—to be a star individual. But what folks fail to realize is that poverty still exists. He is still going to have to deal with so many additional trials and tribulations because he is a black man. If he decides that he doesn’t want to go to college, and that he wants to get a job right out of high school, that’s his choice. My job is to support him where he’s at.
Kitchener: And how do you do that?
Lopez: Say my mentee starts a retail job right after high school. I’ll say to him, “Let’s try to be the manager at this job.” If you’re a manager, that could lead to a job as a district manager. Success is relative to a person and their circumstances.
Kitchener: How do you know when to stop pushing?
Lopez: You have to know what they’re ready for. I don’t push my scholars to go to college. I push them to consider it. I know the difference between the scholar who says he doesn’t want to leave his neighborhood, and the scholar who really cannot manage the demands of college. We need to remember that everyone doesn’t need to go to college.
Kitchener: What’s the hardest thing about being a mentor for students at your school?
Lopez: Two years ago, for the first time, I had a student who was killed. The student’s brother was killed a few years before, and he’d really struggled with that. We’d just gotten him back on the right track: He was in a mentoring group, about to graduate on time after a lot of academic difficulties. And then he was shot and killed a block away from where his brother was shot and killed. That was probably the most devastating experience I’ve ever had to deal with. To this day I can still see that smile of his.
Kitchener: What do you do, as a principal and a mentor, when something like that happens?
Lopez: It gives context for conversations with my other kids. Sometimes they need an example because they don’t believe me when I warn them about potential dangers. Before my student died, we did a lot to try to keep him away from the area where he was eventually killed. After his brother was murdered, his mom moved away from that place. And I would tell the student all the time—don’t go back there. But it didn’t matter what I said, he felt a connection to that area.
So now, when I talk to kids about making better decisions, I tell them to watch the videos and read the news stories about the student who was killed. Or I tell them to meet the mom. That situation unfortunately is a way of saving another life.
Kitchener: What is it like to mentor a student and then see her succeed?
Lopez: I know that everything is stacked against my scholars. I know that from my own journey, and from living in a system designed to oppress children of color from low socioeconomic backgrounds. I see it, I feel it. And so when they win—when they go to college or get into a career that they love—it feels good to prove a lot of people wrong.