All It Takes is a Word or Two

Humans of New York (HONY) is a special interest Facebook page ran by thirty-year-old Brandon Stanton. It was founded by Stanton in 2010 and boasts 12.1 million followers on Facebook. After a quick look at HONY’s timeline, even if you’re new to the page, the concept will strike you as simple and beautiful. Stanton merely walks the streets of New York City and strikes up conversations with random people. He asks for permission to take a picture of them for the HONY page and posts the picture with a quote.

One of the more interesting aspects of the page is when Stanton runs into celebrities on the street or at a function. At the 2014 Met Gala, Stanton photographed Bryan Cranston—Walter White in AMC’s “Breaking Bad”—and Cranston’s wife Robin. Stanton asked Cranston “What’s your favorite thing about her?” to which Cranston replied “She still gets giddy when she sees a firefly.”

Stanton’s simple questions often elicit everything from beautiful to tragic responses; nothing is ever dull.

On January 19, Stanton was in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn and asked a young boy named Vidal who influenced him the most in life. Vidal answered “My principal, Ms. Lopez.” He explained, saying, “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.”

Stanton went to go visit Ms. Lopez at Mott Hall Bridges Academy three days later. Lopez told Stanton that the staff at MHBA doesn’t refer to their kids as students but as “scholars.” The scholars wear purple—the color of royalty—in order to remind them “…even if they live in a housing project, they are part of a royal lineage going back to great African kings and queens. They belong to a group of individuals who invented astronomy and math. And they belong to a group of individuals who have endured so much history and still overcome.”

After a brainstorming session between Stanton, Lopez, and MHBA’s Director of Programs Ms. Achu, HONY began reaching out to its followers to raise money for yearly trips to Harvard University. Brownsville has the highest crime rate in New York and they agreed that the scholars would need to see something more to believe there is something more.

By January 23rd, $365,000 had been raised for Mott Hall Bridges Academy; enough for trips to Harvard to become a permanent part of the MHBA curriculum. January 29th, 10 days after the original post featuring Vidal, more than $1,000,000 had been raised.

At a MHBA assembly that announced exactly what was going on, Ms. Lopez admitted something to her scholars. She had been perhaps mere weeks from resigning. She was giving up. Until she saw Vidal’s original HONY post.

“And I read what Vidal said, and I began to read the comments. And tears started coming down my face. Because even though I always tell you that you matter, up until that moment, I didn’t feel like I mattered.”

Beyond the trips to Harvard, there will now be summer camps every year to keep kids off the street as well as a scholarship fund named after Vidal—it’s first recipient.

Brandon, Vidal, and Ms. Lopez were guests on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and interviewed with Robin Roberts on ABC’s Good Morning America. The whirlwind experience ended in the Oval Office of the White House. Vidal and Ms. Lopez got to sit down with President Obama.

It was there that Brandon asked the leader of the free world—the president of the United States—the very same question that he asked Vidal.

“Who has influenced you the most in your life?”

“My mother… like a lot of single moms, she had to struggle to work, and eventually she also struggled to go to school. And she’s really the person who instilled in me a sense of confidence and a sense that I could do anything… and as I got older, like everyone else, I realized that my mother wasn’t all that different than me. She had her own doubts, and fears, and she wasn’t always sure of the right way of doing things. So to see her overcome tough times was very inspiring. Because that meant I could overcome tough times too,” said President Obama.

Inspiration can come from a multitude of places. It can come out of nowhere. And, as Humans of New York continually proves, all it requires is a walk down the street and a quick word with a fellow human being.

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