The Easy Compassion of the Internet:
How a Humans of New York Photo Made Us Care
about (One) Public School

Last week Humans of New York (HONY), the Tumblr/Facebook page project of photographer Brandon Stanton posted a picture of a young man from the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. A typical HONY portrait, this one was a crisp close-up of an African-American boy, his thoughtful face framed by the hood of his jacket, big brick buildings and gray sky in the background. The caption beneath it read:

“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.”

A week later over a million people have liked that picture and it’s been shared over 140,000 times. A couple of days after that picture was shared HONY posted a portrait of Ms. Lopez herself. Sitting in her office, a pleasant look of quiet determination on her face she described the challenges the children in her school, Mott Hall Bridges Academy, and in the neighborhood face. Her words were powerful and naturally led to even more portraits of even more teachers at Mott Hall Bridges Academy who told their own stories of their own classrooms and the difficulty of educating children who often have an impossible time envisioning a world outside their own small neighborhood much less a future of limitless possibilities.

People on Facebook instantly asked what they could do to help these heroic educators and the children in their charge. The response from Ms. Lopez, that they would like funds to help all children take a regular field trip to Harvard University so that they can get a glimpse of a broader world and understand the value of a life devoted to academics, was funded so quickly that it has become a permanent part of the Mott Hall Bridges Academy curriculum. The caption on a more recent photo posted stated that all moneys over $700,000 will go into a scholarship fund, the first recipient of which will be the young man from the original picture. As of this writing over a million dollars has been raised.

And the internet breathed a collective sigh of relief and went to bed knowing that they had made the world right and good.

No.

Other people have made better arguments than I can make about how the overt sentimentality and white male gaze of HONY gives a distorted picture of what it means to be a New Yorker or to even be human. There is a lot to unpack about the person taking the pictures but I would much rather discuss us, the people viewing the pictures.

The first picture of the young man instantly went viral and it’s not hard to see why. It tells the story of a transformational educator who does what we dream all educators will do, lift up our young people and show them their value while at the same time deconstructing the knee-jerk stereotypes of so white many people by depicting a young person of color who is non-threatening and speaks respectfully of adults and education. When the photo of Ms. Lopez was posted three days later I not only liked it myself but I shared it with the caption “This woman and all educators like her.” Because in my experience this woman is not the exception that the thousands of comments on her photo would have you believe, she is the rule. Just like the exceptional young man in the first photo, so responsible and good and clever is the rule. And his mother, hardworking and devoted is the rule. It is telling that so many comments directed towards the young boy’s mother are downright hateful implying the ugliest sorts of neglect because how could this exceptional young man be forced to exist in this world of violence and lack of possibilities if his mother was any good? The idea for too many being that the only people who live in poverty or challenging situations are bad ones.

In my experience working with children in underserved communities and in our public schools I see incredible children like this every day. I see principals whose cars are parked in the school parking lot until late at night and then all day on the weekends. I see teachers who work long past their contract hours and who speak with compassion and motherly love to the young people in their care, who show up for meetings at 7am because they know their students’ parents have to get to work, who take kids in their class home as foster parents because they don’t want them to go to a stranger’s house. I see parents of my kids’ classmates in the drive through windows of fast food places working swing shifts to make sure they can afford things like “family night” just like the young man in the photo’s mother described.

And I see people on the internet clicking like on a picture and sharing it and commenting like these people are something rare, like this isn’t something going on in their own backyards, like there aren’t schools in their own town that could also use their money or their volunteer time. Or just importantly, their support in elections when they routinely vote for politicians who will gut the education budget and the social safety net that allows this child’s family and so many others to have some semblance of warmth in the winter and food in their homes, their teachers to have salaries that reflect the amount of time and effort and love they put into it and resources in their schools like clubs and sports and music which are the first things to get axed when the money is gone. How easy it is for us to sit back and click on that picture and bemoan the state of a country that would allow these hard situations to exist while at the same time being completely blind to the fact that we are the reason this situation exists.

My challenge to all those who have followed and been moved by the story of this young man and his school on Facebook is to understand that there is work to be done in your own backyards. Reach out to your local school division to look for opportunities. Even better, find the school closest to you and go visit and ask what you can do to help. I can guarantee they need some ink for the printer or some money for the incentive fund or someone to come play basketball with the kids at recess.

They call them “public schools” for a reason. It is up to us to make sure they are strong and well funded and that the children in them have the resources they need to learn and succeed. The children at Mott Hall Bridges Academy are incredibly lucky that one of their own was in the right place at the right time to have the opportunity for the spotlight to shine on them. It should not take a similar strike of lightening to make us realize that we have not only the power but the moral obligation to make a positive difference in our other schools too.