Straight Out of Brownsville: A Student’s Viral Image Salutes Revolutionary Brooklyn School Principal Nadia Lopez

One student’s tribute, posted by Humans of New York, allowed us all to be inspired by the work of Lopez—who leads a team at Mott Hall Bridges Academy dedicated to helping the school’s scholars win.

Mott Hall Bridges Academy Principal Nadia Lopez
Mott Hall Bridges Academy Principal Nadia Lopez Verta Ayanna/

Updated Jan. 29, 2015: In fewer than five days, more than $1 million has been raised for Motts Hall Bridges Academy; that’s close to an IndieGoGo record! The initial goal was $100,000 to send MHBA students to Harvard University for a visit. Once it reached $350,000, it was determined by Principal Lopez and Humans of New York founder Brandon Stanton that anything over that amount would go toward creating a much-needed summer program for the school. Once the campaign reached $700,000, they announced that all funds going forward would go toward the Vidal Scholarship Fund, which will assist MHBA graduates with educational expenses. Vidal will be its first recipient. To donate to the Vidal Scholarship Fund, click here.

His brown skin and twinkling eyes are what first captured my attention, his barely contained smile conjuring up feelings of forgotten innocence and memories of dodgeball and freeze tag.

The warmth of his youthful face contrasted with the coldness of the city backdrop, making the image even more compelling. And as with most of the other images that come across my Facebook newsfeed from the brilliant Humans of New York blog, my eyes slid down to read what he had to say.

“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.”

During these tumultuous times of unchecked police brutality and black bodies scattered across urban streets throughout the United States, here was a black child—loved and supported—saluting his school principal for telling him that his life matters, and, in turn, telling her that she mattered, too.

And to date the post, which has resonated with so many across social media, is closing in on 1 million likes and 130,000 shares.

Brandon Stanton, the founder of Humans of New York, sought out Nadia L. Lopez, principal and founder of Mott Hall Bridges Academy, a middle school in the hardscrabble Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville, to make sure she knew how much she had enriched the life of the boy in the photograph—and wrote his own follow-up post about Lopez that has garnered, so far, nearly 60,000 likes.

After meeting with Lopez and learning more about her vision, Stanton partnered with her to initiate an IndieGoGo campaign that will allow all incoming Mott Hall Bridges students to visit Harvard University.

“I want my scholars to know that there is not a single place they don’t belong,” wrote Lopez.

To date, the campaign, which began on Jan. 22, has raised $360,866 in 24 hours—361 percent of their $100,000 goal. Students will also be visiting an HBCU in February—possibly Hampton University or Howard University—a trip that was planned prior to the Harvard campaign’s launch.

A Home for Scholars

I caught up with the dynamic Principal Lopez Thursday to discuss the now viral image of her student. Our conversation eventually turned to education, inner-city blues and the reason she refers to her students as scholars.

“I was sitting in a theater at a play, with my daughter, when I got a text from one of my former scholars asking me had I seen it,” said Lopez about the viral image. She was still at work, and I could hear the hustle and bustle behind her as we spoke. “My first thought was, ‘What did Vidal do?’—not in a bad way, but wondering why his face was on a blog. Then, when I read it, I was just humbled.