Mott Hall Bridges Academy Principal Nadia Lopez
Verta Ayanna/vertaayanna.com

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“I had recently been wondering whether I was really making a difference because sometimes it’s hard to see the change,” Lopez continued. “And out of all of the people in the world, he picked me. I was grateful and appreciative. All I could say was, ‘God, I hear you. I get it.’”

Although Mott Hall Bridges Academy is located in Brownsville—Brooklyn’s murder capital and one of the New York City borough’s poorest neighborhoods—Lopez refuses to allow that stigma to cling to her students.

“I have very high expectations,” said Lopez. “First, I call my children scholars—my staff, as well. Everyone in my building are lifelong learners. We wear purple and black every day because that is the color of royalty. I want them to know their lineage, that they are descendants of African kings and queens, and to know their culture.”

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Lopez, who founded the school in 2010 with business partner Monique Achu, has nurtured Mott Hall from four teachers and 45 students to 30 staff members and 191 students. “I don’t do this alone,” Lopez said, something she wanted to make very clear. “This is not a one-woman show. I have an amazing team, and they are loved.”

We wear purple and black every day because that is the color of royalty. I want them to know their lineage, that they are descendants of African kings and queens, and to know their culture.

Focusing on STEAM—science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics—rather than the more typically heard STEM, without the “A,” Lopez believes it’s imperative that children of color are able to express themselves artistically.

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“Arts and culture aren’t often prioritized for children of color,” said Lopez. “But in a world where so many are making money off our culture, millions off marketing negative images of us, it’s important that they make that connection. Critical-thinking skills influences art and culture.”

After Lopez pitched the academy to the Department of Education in 2008, the school was finally given the green light in 2010. Since that time, two classes have graduated. But the school almost never existed.

“I went to school to be a nurse,” Lopez said with a laugh. “I decided that I didn’t want to do that, but I did love learning a person’s story. A good doctor diagnoses, but a nurse learns the patient’s story—how you got to the hospital, behaviors and habits. When I got into education, those skills are what I used. I strive to understand what’s causing problems for my scholars so that we can overcome them.”

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These Young Lives Matter

One huge problem, according to Lopez, is that limited access to options in Brownsville leads to limited imagination in her scholars, and she encourages them to dream bigger and to dig deeper.

“Like Vidal,” says Lopez, circling back to the student who brought her phenomenal work to the world’s attention. “I love all of my scholars, but he’s my boy. He wants to be in culinary arts, and he decided that after taking the required seventh-grade entrepreneurial class.”

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Lopez says that though she has been inspired by the #BlackLivesMatter uprising sweeping the country, she has long instilled that truth in her scholars.

“My concern,” said Lopez, “has always been, how do they know that they matter?” She added, “How do we let them know that someone cares? What do we say to them? And that’s how ‘I matter’ became our mantra.

“I’ve been fighting and rooting for my boys. I’ve been saying that they matter,” said Lopez. They need to know that they are born with three strikes: You’re a man of color, you’re a boy and you’re from Brownsville. That’s why we have gender-specific programming. We do She Is Me for our girls, and that’s been very successful. But the boys’ programming, I couldn’t get anyone to show up.”

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That all changed in 2013, according to Lopez, when 1-year-old Antiq Hennis was shot and killed in his stroller around the corner from the school in a gang-related shooting.

“We do five events a year now: Law and Order, because they’re angry, a lot of times, at law enforcement, and they feel like they don’t have a voice; Health and Wellness; Behind the Athlete, because they all won’t have the skill to play sports, but there are lawyers, NBA executives, athletic directors and sports agents; Financial Literacy; and Entrepreneurship,” she said.

“They don’t understand that the clock is running against them. There is a system waiting for them,” Lopez said, referring to the ever-looming school-to-prison pipeline.

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“Everything around them in these streets reminds them that they’re not going to make it,” she continued. “I just want to make sure they come back the next day. And that they know that there’s a prison or a graveyard waiting for them if they don’t.”

As dedicated as Lopez is to her students, there are times when she feels overwhelmed. She credits Selma director Ava DuVernay with giving her the strength to continue her mission when she was in a very dark place.

“Right before the holiday break, my spirit felt heavy after the Eric Garner and Mike Brown grand jury cases,” said Lopez. “But after seeing Selma, I felt renewed and was clear on my purpose. Ava DuVernay may not have won a Golden Globe, but her work has inspired me to continue to fight for the dream.”

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As previously reported by The Root, a collective of prominent African-American business executives created a fund that allowed 27,000 New York City students to see Selma free of charge.

Of course, Lopez’s scholars were in attendance.

I really, really want my scholars to win. Despite us being in a neighborhood that is tough, I want them to know that they can survive.

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“We made an entire day of it,” she continued. “The morning started with my eighth-graders taking voting tests so they could see what their ancestors had to go through. They watched videos and read articles from the historic Amsterdam News about the four little girls. Then we went to watch the film together.”

Lopez believes that an education is every child’s birthright and makes it her business to connect the struggles her scholars face on a daily basis in Brownsville to a legacy of triumph.

“I really, really want my scholars to win. Despite us being in a neighborhood that is tough, I want them to know that they can survive,” she said. “That we are black people who have been through it all and that they’re going to get through it, too.”