It’s been a whirlwind for Nadia Lopez, the dynamic founding principal of Mott Hall Bridges Academy, a middle school located in the mostly African-American Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York.
A chance encounter between one of her students, Vidal Chastanet, and photographer Brandon Stanton thrust Lopez onto the national stage. Stanton travels around New York City, snapping pictures of ordinary people and asking them about their lives. He posts the image and comments to his site, Humans of New York.
Well, this encounter between 13-year-old Vidal and Stanton when viral. Here’s the teenager’s response when the photographer asked him to identify the person who’s been most influential in his life:
“My principal, Ms. 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.”
Brownsville, a neglected neighborhood with a heavy concentration of public houses, is one of poorest communities in the city. It’s no wonder that Lopez’s determination to see her middle schoolers succeed won her accolades, a book deal, and a meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House.
NewsOne spoke with Lopez to discuss her initiatives, which are setting young lives on a track that leads to college and personal success.
The principal’s “I Matter” initiative focuses on her male students. Lopez launched that program after mentors in the My Brother’s Keeper program routinely failed to show up to support the boys. Part of what inspired “I Matter” was a disturbing string of shootings, which included Trayvon Martin and several kids in Brownsville.
She asked herself: “How could these boys even think ‘I matter?’”
Lopez met with her staff and they decided to create “I Matter” as a way for the boys to “reaffirm to themselves that they indeed matter, even when society tells them they don’t.”
The principal, who grew up in a more middle-class section of Brooklyn, recalled consoling students after a grand jury decided not to indict a police officer in one of the cases that roiled the Black community.
“I told each of them to get up, individually, and say ‘I matter,’” she recalled. “I wanted them to know their place and their value in this world.”
Under the program, Black men working in the criminal justice system, entrepreneurs, and professionals meet with her male students. She has now taken the program into the local community so that more young Black males can benefit.
The principal also organized a mentorship program around the girls called “She is Me.” Women, from celebrities to local business owners, meet with the girls to share stories about their personal struggles and triumphs. The aim is to empower the girls by letting them know that women who appear polished and successful today once faced similar obstacles as they do.
When it comes to discipline, Lopez takes a nontraditional approach.
“When they get in trouble, I’m not quick to just suspend them,” she said. “I start with a conversation about what’s going on in their life. Someone coming in from the outside might say, ‘you do a lot of talking here,’ but it’s because no one listens to these students.”
Lopez emphasized the importance of giving her students a vision beyond what they see in their neighborhood. Although they live in the largest city in the nation, few of them have seen the skyscrapers in Manhattan. She takes her students every year for a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge to see the skyline and encourages them to enroll in high schools outside Brownsville. Annual trips to college campuses around the nation also give them a sense of what’s possible.
Stanton launched a campaign that raised about $1.4 million to take Lopez’s students on college trips, including Harvard University. And other donations came streaming in from around the nation. But don’t think Mott Hall, a public school, has a lot of cash and resources.
“Money, I don’t have a dime,” the principal exclaimed when asked. “I build relationships to get the resources we need.”
As a public school, the donations that came in were divided with other schools in the district: “So, things have gotten more—not less—challenging because of what people think we have.”
Nevertheless, Lopez continues to find ways to steer her students toward success. Toward that end, she understands how crucial it is to build relationships—what she calls “a village of supporters around my students.”
That’s what she writes about in her book, The Bridge To Brilliance, which is scheduled for release in late August. In it, Lopez gives an account of her struggle to establish a successful middle school in Brownsville. The takeaway, she said, is that it can’t be done in isolation. Fixing the problems requires a community of people who have a sense of higher purpose and service.
PHOTO CREDIT: Andrew Fennell, Twitter