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.