Humans of New York donates $1 million: How to make a nice gesture sustainable

The popular blog Humans of New York has donated $1 million to help Brooklyn students pay for a visit to Harvard and scholarships. How can a one-off donation make a lasting impact?

Kathy Willens/AP/FILE
This Oct. 2, 2013 file photo shows street portrait photographer Brandon Stanton, creator of the popular Humans of New York blog, near Union Square in New York. A fundraising campaign inspired by the popular photo blog has raised more than $1 million to send middle-school students from a high-poverty Brooklyn school on field trips to Harvard. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The famed photo blog Humans of New York has raised more than $1 million to send middle-school students from a high-poverty Brooklyn school on field trips to Harvard.

What is meant for students might be best seen as really more of a community journey, due to the support network needed to send a kid to school.

“So Principal Nadia Lopez (aka SuperWoman) has a plan for her Brownsville middle schoolers,” reads the Humans of New York Indegogo fundraising page. “At the beginning of every year, she wants to accompany the incoming 6th grade class on a tour of Harvard. Since many of her scholars have never left New York, she wants them to know what it feels like to stand on the campus of one of the world's top schools, and know that they belong. She thinks the experience will broaden their horizons and expand their idea of their own potential.”

This fundraiser started on Jan 22 and will close on February 9.

I read that and I felt good, particularly since a study from the University of Arkansas published in 2013 revealed that culturally enriching field trips are in decline by about 30 percent since 2011, despite their proven academic benefits.

At a glance, the Brooklyn idea looks like a great opportunity and an inspired idea.

Then I worry, as I remember all the at-risk kids I have worked with from high-poverty areas over the years as a teacher, mentor, and volunteer.

I thought about the kids whose hopes and dreams I have seen blossom thanks to one-off, feel-good efforts only to fade due to lack of overall support from family and school systems.

In 2011, I taught English, British literature, journalism, creative writing, and US History for grades 9-12 for a year in a low-income high school classroom geared specifically to kids who were struggling academically and were considered at-risk due to previous and, in some cases, continuing drug, gang and domestic incidents.

Some of those students came to me after high school to rail at me for having given them what they called false hope.

“You ripped us off, Ms. Suhay,” one angry young man whom I had taught shouted at me as, at age 19, he and his pregnant girlfriend stood on my front porch last year. “You made us think we could go to college. But after you, nobody else was there for us.”

For these students, there was no reliable mechanism to help them pay the college and SAT application fees. In many cases, parents didn’t know how to help or were unmotivated because they themselves had not graduated high school. 

Those students who were accepted to a college (even a community college or certificate program) quickly found that they could not afford to continue past the second semester without the support from home or the finances.

It seems I was alone in my efforts and so were the kids.

I called my friend Dr. Arthur Bowman, professor of biology at Norfolk State University, part of the Historically Black Colleges and University network, for his insight on how the Humans of New York Campaign stacks up in his estimation for potential to succeed in making a lasting positive impact.

Dr. Bowman produces YouTube videos geared toward helping high schoolers and incoming college freshmen, many from high-poverty areas, get their basic science skills on point so they can get into college and stay there. He also works with accepted NSU freshmen to make sure they have the knowledge and support they need to make it to freshman year.                                                                                                         

“We see so many programs like this fundraiser come and go in academia,” Bowman said. “For this one to really succeed and do more than rise kids hopes it needs scaffolding.”

By “scaffolding,” he said he means a committed framework of people from parents and educators to the community and even Harvard itself to make a field trip into a real shot for these kids.

Two years ago, I tried to help serve as part of the scaffolding for a young woman who had dreams of going to Harvard. She had connections to me and Dr. Bowman through chess programs I help facilitate at schools and community centers.

At the time I had a raft of communications back-and-forth with Harvard’s admission staff in an effort to help Ugandan chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi (who was born and raised in a garbage dump in Katwe) achieve her dream of attending the Ivy League school.

Through email and phone calls, I worked with Harvard's admissions staff to find out what a student with few economic resources and perhaps less than stellar academic opportunities has to do academically in order to rise high enough to make it into the Ivy League.

When we first met, Phiona had no funding and in the past had spotty access to classroom education, but she was being hosted on a high-profile tour of the United States which included Harvard. 

As part of her American tour, Phiona beat Bill Gates in a chess match after playing chess Grandmaster Gary Kasparov and appearing on stage at an event with Oprah Winfrey.

A book has been written about her life story. In March, Disney begins filming the movie adaptation of her story, directed by Mira Nair, starring David Oyelowo as Phiona’s mentor Robert Katende and Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o as her mother in Queen Of Katwe in March. 

I reached out to Phiona's US sponsor, Rodney Suddeth of the Sports Outreach Institute in Lynchburg, Va., for an update on where her academic future stands at the moment.

“Well, after all we did Harvard dropped the ball on outreach but Yale stepped in and so did Norfolk State University with Dr. Bowman still reaching out to her to assist," Suddeth said.

“What it really takes for a kid from Katwe or Brooklyn to get into any kind of college is a mentor who pushes them on grades, faculty ownership and diligence, continued and repeated exposure to higher education beyond one trip, family buy-in and developing a healthy peer group of people who believe in the value of education,” Suddeth added.

It takes a big, complex scaffolding – family, educators, good Samaritans – to lift a student up high enough to not only see their prospects, but to reach them.

“Kids like Phiona need ongoing support in order to succeed,” Suddeth said. “Once they do succeed, they need to be held up as role models and examples for kids to follow. It may start with a field trip, but it has a long, long way to go beyond that.”

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