Featured Photo: Humans of New York creator, Brandon Stanton, Principal Nadia Lopez of Mott Hall Bridges Academy, and Vidal Chastanet, the student whose photo and testimony with HONY started the fundraiser, pictured together. Source.
When I first learned that Brandon Stanton—the human behind Humans of New York (HONY)—was using HONY’s online community to raise money to send students from Mott Hall Bridges Academy to visit Harvard, I thought it sounded like a good idea. Upon further thinking, however, I began to question whether Harvard is really the most appropriate choice for such a trip. The idea behind the fundraiser was to take sixth-graders from the school—which is situated in an under-resourced community of color in New York—on a trip to show them what exists beyond their neighborhood. Stanton and the school’s administrators hoped that broadening the students’ horizons would motivate them to work hard, strive for success, and to pursue upward economic mobility. And to be clear, I think that in itself is a very good idea. In a society where the expectations of youth of color from low-income backgrounds are often so very low, I think it’s smart to take students to a university campus in the hopes of inspiring them to go there. However, what I find problematic is that the administrators decided on Harvard as the most inspirational place to take them.
First and foremost, I think it’s dangerous to give these kids the impression that the picture of success is this predominantly white Ivy League institution. To me, that feels like they’re teaching the students, the majority of which are students of color, to aspire to a certain ideal of whiteness. It’s problematic because it equates “success” with a predominantly white university that has a long and nasty history of devaluing the experiences of people of color. Furthermore, it reinforces an idea that is already so pervasive in mainstream American culture—that white, middle class institutions are the pinnacle of achievement for the whole of society. There is this idea in mainstream society that underserved and disadvantaged communities aspire to imitate the lives and habits of the white middle class. Therefore many think that the best way to help these communities is to get them as close to the white middle class as possible. But in reality, it’s ridiculous to look at these kids, keeping in mind the discrimination they face, and assume that success to them would look anything like the whitewashed campus of Harvard. I definitely don’t think it’s bad to teach them to aspire to attend a great university like Harvard, but why not show them a top-notch historically black college or university (HBCU) where they could see a campus full of successful students who actually look like them? HBCU’s tend to validate the experience of students of color in a way that predominantly white universities simply cannot. It would be paradoxical for the kids to aspire to Harvard when so many other predominantly white institutions are constantly working to marginalize them. I’m talking about institutions like the justice system, our prisons, the education system, and even the government, which all work to prevent people of color from achieving the very upward social and economic mobility that mainstream society defines as success in the first place. And being from the area of New York in which they reside, these kids will grow up knowing this better than anyone. So why teach them to aspire to yet another institution that is not wholly accepting of their existence?
The program is problematic because it’s showing the kids a version of success that is likely to only feel wholly successful to white students. I say this because a large portion of the black students at Harvard has made it painfully obvious that many of them don’t feel included or fairly represented on campus. In March of 2014, some members of Harvard’s black student community launched a photo campaign entitled; “I, Too, Am Harvard.” The campaign’s central goal is to “highlight the faces and voices of black students at Harvard College” because they feel that their opinions, experiences and voices are so often ignored and devalued. I’m not saying that this campaign is representative of every black student’s experience on campus, I’m sure that many students of color graduate from the university with no racially motivated complaints at all. But it’s dangerous and irresponsible to hold Harvard up as a model institution for Mott Hall Bridges Academy students, trying to convince them that they “belong” there, when so much of the Black community on Harvard’s campus already feels so ostracized. For a project whose goal is to show “every child who enters (Mott Hall Bridges Academy) … that they can go anywhere, and that they will belong,” Harvard is certainly not the most welcoming choice.
All of this is to say that I think the money raised could be better spent. As of January 27th, the HONY community had raised $700,000 for this project—enough to keep up the Harvard field trip for the next ten years. Sigh. What if, instead of sending the kids to an institution with a history of racism, that money was given directly to Mott Hall Bridges Academy and other low-income schools in the area? Or to organizations working to end the school-to-prison pipeline? Or to community projects that could provide some economic empowerment? Or, as I originally suggested, to take the kids to an HBCU? And to be fair, I want to acknowledge that some of the money will go to two much-needed causes, the first of which is a summer program. Because the school’s surrounding community experiences high rates of crime, which is often a result of unjust police practices, most students are forced to stay indoors pretty much all summer because it is simply too dangerous to be outside. And since many of the kids typically come from low-income families, they don’t have the means to do much but stay at home all summer. So part of the money raised will go to establishing enriching summer programs for the kids for the next ten years as well. And I think that’s awesome. Secondly, the school intends to set up a scholarship fund, named for the young scholar Vidal Chastanet who inspired this whole campaign, using the leftover money from the fundraiser to get the scholarship started. And I think that’s awesome as well. However, I think it’s imperative that administrators and the HONY community reevaluate the Harvard trip. The kids deserve better than to aspire to an institution where students of color feel that they simply do not belong.
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