Lilian Min
January 30, 2015 6:05 am

One of the biggest complaints about social media calls to action (aka “hashtag activism”) is that they don’t bring about “real change.” Complaints sound something like, “well, you can dump a bucket of ice water on your head without doing anything for ALS,” or “half the people writing #JeSuisCharlie have no idea what that really means!” And perhaps that’s true. Hashtag activism draws extreme awareness but awareness doesn’t always lead to direct change. Or so the argument goes.

Well Humans of New York just proved that social media movements can in fact do enormous good. Real good with real change. Photographer Brandon Stanton, the eye and mind behind Humans of New York, used the HONY social media channels to raise over $1 million (yes, $1 million) for a middle school in NYC. And it only took five days.

It all started with two photos Stanton posted to his account on January 19:

The photos show a boy named Vidal praising his school’s principal for showing him and his fellow classmates that there is more to life than what they see in the projects. Vidal called his principal Ms. Lopez the person in his life who had influenced him the most 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 is known for showcasing the unique stories of New Yorkers and is brilliant at capturing soundbites from his subjects. But there was something special about these posts. HONY readers across social platforms latched onto Ms. Lopez, super-principal. But, since Stanton rarely follows up with his subjects, nobody expected what happened next.

On January 22, Stanton revealed that he’d not only met Ms. Nadia Lopez, but he, Vidal, and the administrators of Mott Hall Bridge Academy (the middle school Vidal attends) had met and were crowd-sourcing a scholarship fund for the school.

Stanton wrote in the above photo’s caption: “Ms. Lopez’s school is situated in a neighborhood with the highest crime rate in New York, and many of her scholars have very limited mobility. Some of them are very much ‘stuck’ in their neighborhood. And many have never left the city. “It can be very difficult for them to dream beyond what they know,” Ms. Lopez explained . . . We want to create a fund that will provide each incoming 6th grade class at Mott Hall Bridges Academy a chance to get out of their neighborhood and visit a new place. And that place is Harvard University. “I want every child who enters my school to know that they can go anywhere, and that they will belong,” said Ms. Lopez.” 

The original goal for their Indiegogo campaign was $100,000. Enough to fully-fund at least three class trips out of Brownsville to Harvard University. Well obviously they made $100,000 and then some, in fact they raised enough to make the annual Harvard trip a permanent fixture for the sixth grade. In the days since the campaign reached its goal, Stanton and the MHBA administrators have set aside the additional funds to start a summer program and to create a scholarship fund: the Vidal Scholarship.

The response to the fundraiser has clearly gone above and beyond what its founders had hoped, and the extraordinary thing about its astronomical intake is that it’s made out of tens of thousands of small donations: the average amount donated comes out to about $30. Some HONY fans even went outside the digital realm to send flowers and cards to the school.

This isn’t the first time Stanton has used the feel-good force behind his account for good, partnering with Tumblr to raise over $300,000 for Hurricane Sandy relief in 2012. And, as recently as this past Christmas, HONY attempted to raise money for another one of his subjects, only for that person to turn the help down:

In one of the most recent HONY photos from the middle school, there is a photograph of Ms. Lopez speaking to her students.

The caption reads, in part, “Before all of this happened for our school, I felt broken. And I think the world felt a little broken too, because a lot of bad things have been happening lately, especially between black people and white people. But all of you gave people a reason to feel a little less broken. And the craziest thing about all of this is that it’s happening in Brownsville. Before this, people watched the news and read the newspapers, and some people even thought that all we do here is fight and act crazy. But now there are so many people out there that care about you and want to know more about you. People are even emailing me and asking if they can meet you and mentor you. Not just people from Brownsville, not just people from Brooklyn, not just people in New York, but people all over the world. So I need all of you to work a little harder. Whenever you don’t feel like doing your homework, I need you to remember that you’re helping tell the story of Brownsville to people all over the world.”

That is feel good to the umpteenth. The Internet can be a beautiful place sometimes. They raised $1 million. $1 million! And more importantly, they changed the lives of a handful of students and teachers forever.

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