Nadia Lopez is shaking up education. The part-Guatemalan, part-Honduran Black Latina is the founding principal of Mott Hall Bridges Academy, a public school in Brooklyn, New York.
There, she's revolutionizing leadership with her child-first approach, ensuring that her students, often underprivileged youth of color, receive the resources, attention, support, confidence and inspiration they don’t usually get in academic spaces.
“I wanted to be a person in the classroom who believed in children of color, because where I come from, so many don’t,” Lopez, who grew up in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, told us.
Ahead, the Inspiring Latina, whose work has been recognized by the White House, talks barriers to education, encouraging disadvantaged communities, leadership and meeting the president and first lady.
Your mission, you say, is “simply to take care of kids everyone else seemed to want to forget.” When did you realize that was something you needed to do?
It started to resonate when I made the decision to become a teacher. I was reflecting on my own daughter and realizing that someone had to be in the classroom who believed in her and that I’d have to trust they would place her on a pathway to success. Also, I had a great example in my mom, who fought for education in my life, so I thought of all the children who may not have had a parent who knew how to be an advocate. I wanted to be a person in the classroom who believed in children of color, because where I come from, so many don’t.
What are some of the systemic and everyday barriers and difficulties impoverished students of color come up against that impact their education?
The barriers obviously have to do with poverty, because it limits access and resources. When you have a community that has to deal with so many variables that are against them, you find higher levels of violence, individuals with a lack of self-esteem, unemployment, mental health disorders and lower student achievement. All of this creates a pipeline to prison because, with a lack of education, you’re not in a position to be competitive in the job force.
Growing up as an AfroLatina in Brooklyn, was this something you experienced firsthand?
I grew up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. I started school in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, so I’m familiar with violence and the crack era and what that did to my community. There was a sense of hopelessness, so our schools became a safe haven. When you have great teachers, who don’t look at color or socioeconomics, just how they can best support kids and make sure they are great, it makes a difference, and I had that example. But I also had my parents. When you’re from a third-world country, as they were, you can be extremely poor but education is still a priority, so that was ingrained in me. You don’t have to have money in order to gain intelligence. You just have to have a willingness to learn and people who want to teach you.
How are you working to combat these problems at Mott Hall Bridges Academy?
For me, it’s about understanding the community and the dynamics that have led to the issues of being disadvantaged or disenfranchised, and then making no excuses. I hire teachers who focus on the child, people who are committed and developing high expectations in a culture that expects nothing from them, and who believe in a team approach, where we are all connected to succeed. These are the people I want responsible for these kids. It’s giving the child a space to be unique, talented and listened to as well as knowing where they are in terms of their learning level. Finally, it’s creating a community and culture that says, “we can do this,” as opposed to looking at what we can’t do.
That sounds like a lot. What is the most difficult part of your job?
Getting people to believe in this. When I hire teachers, they are filled with positivity. But after some time, dealing with the politics and seeing how discouraged the children are, they become jaded. The politics and the policies, which are always changing, can also be difficult. But what sustains me is my belief in these children and my vision to create a safe space to allow them to thrive.
What is the most satisfying?
Watching kids own their success and seeing their own progress. There’s nothing better than watching a class graduate, nothing more rewarding than having parents come up to you, whether their child is still in school or graduated, and say, “thank you for believing in my child.” We focus on children, but that offers hope to families as well. Some parents don’t understand they have been disenfranchised and denied resources to education, and their children making it means they made it as well.
Your amazing work has brought you to the oval office with President Barack Obama and granted you the Change Agent Award by first lady Michelle Obama at BET’S Black Girls Rock. What was that like? How do these recognitions make you feel?
It’s a humbling experience, and I say that because, when I decided to go into leadership, it was the same year President Obama came into office, 2008. To me, that meant change in the space of leadership, and not just because we have a Black male leading the country but because we can now teach our children that they can achieve this, too. It was full circle to have my scholars in the oval office, sit at the chair our president sits in, as he and I stand side-by-side. It just solidified this is where we can see our children. It’s no longer a hope or a dream; it’s a reality. And Michelle Obama is amazing. She has such a beautiful spirit, is so humble and does not stand in the president’s shadow. She is supportive but also owns her power and influence while changing the world for girls. It’s a fact: Behind every great man is a phenomenal woman.
In your book, you write, “What began to weigh heavy on me was that at the same time I was struggling to get my scholars and their families to believe in themselves, I was part of an educational system that, despite its best intentions, only reinforced their failures.” Do you have any advice for teachers, administrators, principals, especially those of color, who want to help but are struggling to navigate an inherently flawed system?
To be honest, what has gotten me this far is the advice I have to always give myself: Someone did this before me. I believe that we are in a civil rights movement, but there was always one before this, one where people died for us to be in leadership positions, to be in a classroom teaching children of color, so it goes back to staying true to your conviction and reminding yourself of your calling.
What do you want our Latina readers, many of them young people, to know?
I think like that Drake song: “What a Time to Be Alive.” Today, there are so many positive images of people of Latina descent doing amazing work. When I was growing up, I didn’t see images of myself, of us making tremendous strives. As a first-generation college graduate, it made me feel like I was paving the way for the generation coming behind me, so, similarly, they need to know they are creating a legacy for themselves and their families, and they are doing so in a great space where they don’t have to seek permission for others to be visible. Too long we have been placed in boxes, made to feel invisible and like second-class citizens. But we are a part of this country’s fabric of success. We have the talent and the honors. We need to create communities where we celebrate each other. There’s strength in numbers. Be proud. Be proud of your culture and who you are.