First Person

How the inspiring principal made famous on Humans of New York fixed a mentorship program that wasn’t working

The author, principal Nadia Lopez, speaking with former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. (YouTube / U.S. Department of Education)

Nadia Lopez has had an extraordinary year.

The principal of Mott Hall Bridges Academy in Brooklyn was thrust into the spotlight when Brandon Stanton, the photographer behind the popular “Humans of New York” Facebook page, snapped a few pictures of a Mott Hall student. The eighth-grader told the photographer about his inspiring principal, and soon Lopez was everywhere: on the news, at the White House, and taking students to Harvard, thanks to an online fundraising campaign that raised more than $1 million for the school.

Lopez’s new book, “The Bridge to Brilliance,” offers a more detailed look at how she founded Mott Hall Bridges and her ongoing fight to make the school a supportive place for her students. In this excerpt, Lopez rethinks a key mentorship program for boys.

From day one of Mott Hall, I had made it my mission to teach kids they mattered. That goal informed so many of my decisions, including who I hired as staff. I made sure I had male teachers of color, not the norm in New York City, because I needed men in the building who could talk to my boys.

Despite the powerful role models teachers like Mr. McLeod and Mr. Millard presented, it was still important to bring in other voices, because kids aren’t stupid. They know teachers are paid to be at school, so sometimes they are like, “Yeah. I hear you saying it, but you’re supposed to say that to me,” as opposed to, “Wow, this person actually took time out of his day to come talk to me.”

So during Mott Hall’s first year, we started a program called My Brother’s Keeper, in which I brought in adults from outside the school — fashion designers, music producers, mental health personnel, and college students. The point was to get the scholars in tune with individuals they wouldn’t normally have access to. I even got General Steele, a well-known rapper from Brownsville, to show up.

I went into My Brother’s Keeper confident of my ability to reach out to the community because of my past success with organizing workshops for young people. So I was totally caught off guard when My Brother’s Keeper didn’t work at my school.

In Mott Hall’s second year, when I hosted a weekend symposium, only about 35 people showed up — and that included the adult panelists. I decided it was an anomaly. They can’t all be great events, right? But the next year, it was the same thing. Maybe 70 people attended our Saturday event. Where are the men? I wondered. Where are the boys?

I was bewildered, because I couldn’t think of a place where boys and men needed to connect more than Brownsville. Marquis — my scholar who hadn’t walked in his graduation because he basically stopped coming to school — came to mind. I had tried to connect him with men while he was at Mott Hall. When the head of a local community organization came to school, he and Marquis had hit it off and he gave Marquis a pile of books, which excited Marquis and made him feel special. But the community organizer, who moved away, never returned to Mott Hall. While the loss was hard for me, it was par for the course for Marquis. Kids like him are used to having men disappear. The result, though, is that Marquis and others like him learn to identify with the neighborhood guys who are always waiting outside.

Then it hit me. It was the same as everything else at Mott Hall; we just had to keep telling them over and over in different ways, including the name we gave to the support group we created for our boys.

“I’m changing My Brother’s Keeper,” I declared, “to I Matter.”

It might not have seemed like a big change. But altering the name of this action group completely changed people’s perception of the group and their willingness to participate in its events.

My Brother’s Keeper implied the idea of men taking care of other men. That’s seemed to mean asking the men I wanted to reach to do something they had never been taught to do. There was no way they were going to put themselves out there like that. Meanwhile, the message of I Matter was “I am important enough to receive something I need and want.” Instead of being in charge of other people, this was about affirming yourself.

When we held the first of our four annual I Matter empowerment summits for eighth-grade boys, which we opened up to the larger community, the response was immediate. At least 200 boys and men attended the summit about government and the criminal justice system. That’s all it took — a name change!

We chose this theme because the law and law enforcement were pressing issues for our boys. They don’t respect law enforcement personnel and don’t understand government officials because no one has ever spoken to them about what these people do.

On that panel were five people representing community engagement, civil service, politicians, and police officers. And the panelists weren’t just any members of those professions but top in their fields, like Eric Adams, a Brownsville native who was then a state senator.

After that summit, we hosted a second one, about health and wellness, at Brookdale Hospital. Here it was the location of the event that was crucial in shifting perspectives. Brookdale is notorious in Brownsville as the “murder hospital,” because that’s where people go to die from gunshot wounds. “The shooting victim was taken to Brookdale” is all these boys hear of the medical center.

In approaching Brookdale’s director of community relations, I was very specific that for my panel I didn’t want doctors or the nurses whom the kids see all the time. I wanted anybody else instrumental in keeping the hospital running. This was a great opportunity to have these young men reengage with civic institutions that should be places of safety but instead had come to represent another threat. It would also introduce them to careers they had never heard of before.

And so we had eight terrific panelists, including the person in charge of ventilation at Brookdale (no one ever thinks that the ventilation in a hospital works because someone is in charge of it) and the head of the cafeteria. The cafeteria! After the hospital made food for the kids, they saw Brookdale in a totally different light.

From The Bridge to Brilliance by Nadia Lopez and Rebecca Paley, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. 

First Person

‘I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support’: Why it matters to have teachers who look like me

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

For 10 years — the first decade I was in school — all my teachers were white women.

As a Mexican-American kid, I didn’t get the chance to have a man of color as a teacher until high school. Going into my senior year, I like how diverse my teachers are now, but I wish I’d had the same experience when I was younger.

When I think about why it matters to have a teacher I can relate to, I think back to fifth grade. A classmate said to me, “Mexicans are illegal—they cross the border every day! How about you, did you cross the border?” This bothered me. So, after class, I asked the teacher for help. But all she said was, “That’s OK, he was just playing.” From there, I had nowhere to go. She was at the top of the food chain.

In 1990, before they met, my mother and father came over the border from Mexico. My mom’s parents weren’t making enough profit from their cattle ranch, so they had little choice but to immigrate. My mom came with them to the United States and worked at a restaurant so she could send money back home. My father followed his older brother here because he wanted to start a new life. Little did he know he would one day cross paths with my mother and eventually start a family.

But my classmate was “just playing” when he insulted all of this. I wish my teacher had done something else.

If I’d been the teacher, I would’ve taken a different approach and worked to understand why we were acting and responding the way we were. Maybe the other student and I could’ve found common ground. But, unfortunately, we never had a chance to try.

Up until ninth grade, I had zero male teachers of color. I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support when things like the fifth-grade incident happened. Many of us students felt that way — and that’s why I want to be a teacher, a fifth-grade teacher in particular. I want to make my culture an asset in the classroom and be a teacher students feel comfortable confiding in, no matter their background.

A teacher’s perspective: Cut from the same cloth: Why it matters that black male teachers like me aren’t alone in our schools

In middle school, I started seeing more male educators, but they were all white. Then, when it came time for me to start high school, I ended up going to school in a different neighborhood — an hour commute away—and things finally changed for me. Since starting high school, I’ve had six male teachers of color, and it’s made a huge difference.

My high school makes a big deal out of the whole “building relationships” thing. To my teachers and everyone else at the school, relationships are just as important as academics. At first, it was hard to get used to, but eventually it started making sense to me. I’m in an all-male mentorship group led by two African-American men who openly share about their struggles growing up in New York, and give us advice in any area of life — including what it means to appreciate our cultures. This is one of the things I like most about my school.

It’s hard to explain the way it feels to have a teacher who looks like you; they’re like older brothers who become a huge part of our lives, even if it’s just for four years. They make it easier to connect and socialize and help me feel more like I belong. To me, learning from someone who reflects who you are is one of the best things a student can experience.

Near the end of the school year, my mentorship group did an activity where we took turns getting asked questions by other students and staff. One of the mentors asked me, “What’s it like being Mexican American and how has your background influenced your goals?” No one had ever asked me that before, and it took a long time for me to process the question.

After a few moments, I spoke a bit about my family’s story and shared some of the stereotypes I had encountered and how they affect me today. Everyone was so supportive, and the mentors encouraged me to continue breaking stereotypes and defining myself rather than letting others define me.

It was nerve-wracking at first, telling my story in that group, but after three years of high school, we’d developed that level of trust. It was the first time I’d shared my story with that many people at once, but it felt intimate and very different from the time in fifth grade when that kid tried to tell my story for me.

Finally having teachers that look like me has made a huge difference. They don’t just mentor me and help me with my academics, they also make my goal of becoming a teacher seem more realistic.

Having men of color I can look up to and model myself after is a big part of why I have no doubt I’ll make it to college — and eventually be able to give other kids the type of help my mentors have given me. I know where I’m needed, and that’s where I’m headed.

Jose Romero is a senior at EPIC High School North in Queens, New York. This piece originally appeared on the blog of TNTP, a national nonprofit and advocacy group that trains new teachers.

First Person

A Queens teacher on Charlottesville: ‘It can’t just be teachers of color’ offering lessons on race

PHOTO: Bob Mical/Creative Commons

In a few short weeks, school will resume in New York and I’m already thinking about how we are going to address racism within the four walls of my classroom. I’m thinking about what texts, historical and current, we can read and films and documentaries we can watch to support dialogue, questioning, and solutions for combatting that ugly, pervasive thread in the fabric of our country’s patchwork quilt called racism.

Last year we read “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” a former slave turned abolitionist, and juxtaposed its reading with a viewing of Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th,” which discusses modern-day slavery in the guise of mass incarceration. Students asked questions of the documentary as they watched it and discussed those queries within their groups and with the class at large afterwards.

We do our children and ourselves a disservice when we don’t have these difficult conversations as a part of our collective curriculums. However, many teachers from various walks of life are neither well-versed nor fully comfortable discussing race on any level with their students. Not talking about racism won’t make it go away. If anything, not talking about racism in the classroom further perpetuates racist ideologies that are, at their root, born out of ignorance. Education’s goal is to dispel ignorance and replace it with truth.

With that being said, just how many teachers feel equipped to facilitate lessons that touch heavily upon race in the classroom? Not nearly enough.

According to Teaching Tolerance, “The dialogue about race should start in the classroom — the teacher-prep classroom, that is. Preservice teachers should be exploring multiculturalism and discussing ways to honor diversity in their future classrooms.”

But often, Hilton Kelly, a professor of education at Davidson College in North Carolina told the site, the coursework isn’t giving future teachers the training they need to talk about race. “Even when future teachers take courses on diversity and multiculturalism,” Kelly said, “those courses don’t take the critical approach to race that future teachers truly need.”

“Food, folklore and festivals are not the same as an analysis of race in America,” Kelly argued.

But an analysis of race in America is exactly what needs to happen. Furthermore, it can’t just be teachers of color solely facilitating such lessons in their classrooms.

I don’t want to write about the events going on in Virginia. I don’t want to think about it. I’m so tired of the hatred and I long for peace, but I can’t very well in good conscience remain silent. That would be akin to protesting with those hate-mongers in Virginia last weekend. I can’t just write about back-to-school shopping, lesson planning, and business-as-usual while my brothers and sisters in Virginia are being murdered in cold blood by white supremacist American Nazis.

Are the children of Virginia safe? Are our children anywhere safe? What can I do to make a difference within the hearts and minds of the children whom I teach? If education is our best vehicle for bringing about change — which it is— how am I going to infuse the lessons I teach with critical thinking and analysis about racism in the United States for the seventh-graders entrusted in my care? How are other educators planning to address these events with their students at every grade-level?

I pose these questions to all who are reading. Whether you are a teacher, a student, a parent, an administrator, or a community member, I plead with you to work together to create answers that work toward healthy conversations and hands-on action in the fight against racism.

Vivett Dukes is a teacher at Queens Collegiate: A College Board School. A version of this post first appeared on New York School Talk