The Curious Case of Vidal and the Stranger with the Camera

Vidal is a student who attends Mott Hall Bridges Academy, a middle school in Brownsville, Brooklyn. I know this because over the last week, I have become acquainted with this young man, the school he attends, Ms. Lopez (his principal), some of the teachers at the school, and his mother and siblings. I am one of several million people who came to learn about this young man – and the constellation of people to whom he is connected, who impact him and in whose lives he has made and continues to make an impression* – as a result of a photograph taken Brandon Stanton, the photographer behind “Humans of New York.”

The story goes like this: Stanton is a street photographer who launched “Humans of New York,” a photo project in which he aims to photograph everyone in New York City. He shares his photographs on his blog and his wildly popular facebook page, which is where I first encountered his work and he had a mere few thousand followers. (That number is now nearly 12 million.)

Brandon Stanton is a bond trader turned photographer who has captured and captivated people’s attention with the simple act of creating photographic portraits on the streets of all five boroughs of New York City. But he does more than take people’s pictures. He engages them in a conversation, asks them questions, and, in the last year or so, he has been asking his subjects a rotating set of questions, among them:
  • What is the saddest moment of your life?
  • What are you most proud of?
  • What do you want people to know about?
  • What’s your biggest fear?
  • Who has influenced you the most in your life?

One day last week Stanton asked the last question to a young man with whom he crossed paths in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn.  

"Who’s influenced you the most in your life?"
“My principal, Ms. Lopez.”
“How has she influenced you?”
“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.”
"When you live here, you don’t have too many fears. You’ve seen pretty much everything that life can throw at you. When I was nine, I saw a guy get pushed off the roof of that building right there."
Of the many stories that could be told about this interaction and the series of stories and events that have unfolded since, I am most curious to know why young Vidal stopped to talk to Brandon that day.

At a time when differences among strangers are more liability than possibility, the likelihood of a young man taking up the invitation to talk by someone who does not look like him, outside of the (theoretically) safe walls of an institutional context like school, seems increasingly rare.
  • Would there have been such an outpouring of support – in the form of comments and donations – if Vidal had been older? Didn’t smile?
  • What if Vidal had selected someone other than Ms. Lopez as a big influence in his life?
  • How have the unsettling ways in which schooling is criticized, under-funded, and legislatively manhandled increased public sympathy for the daily work of educators and the young people with whom they spend their days?
  • What impact do the ongoing discussions of #Ferguson, #EricGarner, and #BlackLivesMatter have on how people are seeing/reading/responding to Vidal and to the photo-action project he inspired Brandon Stanton to pursue?
  • Did Juno (the Blizzard that could), by keeping many people at home, inadvertently drive the total closer to one million dollars?

The story has been picked by various news outlets and some of the descriptors used to tell the story (and the images and meanings they are meant to evoke) make me bristle. But I am forcing myself to weigh the bristling against the humanizing narrative that has unfolded from a single interaction – the HONY page is filled with portraits of other teachers from Mott Hall, follow-up images of Vidal, including a photo of him with his mother and brothers.

Following a conversation with Ms. Lopez, the subject of Vidal’s first interaction with Stanton, the photographer decided to tap into his millions of fans to launch a fundraiser to support some of the principal’s goals for her school and students (whom she calls scholars), among them: taking her sixth graders on a trip to Harvard and funding a summer program. The results have been staggering: the goal of $100,000 was raised in one hour. (Read the fundraising page for more info on what the monies will be used for.)

Stanton is doing two things at once with his larger HONY project: bringing forth the extraordinary that lurks behind any human encounter, while at the same time rendering ordinary that which may have been viewed only through extraordinary or sensational lenses. The photograph and the accompanying snippets of story, borne out of these human interactions, humanizes strangers and invites other strangers to recognize a glimpse of something familiar. We all have sad moments, fears, and people who have influenced us. HONY urges its fans and followers to slow down long enough to recognize the same in others, if only for a fleeting moment.

Famed photographer Gordon Parks, in a series of photographs that has been circulating recently and which are on display at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, similarly sought to depict ordinary Black life for an assignment for Time Magazine. Time never ran the images. An excerpt from the Slate magazine article on the collection suggests why:

“In this period, Life stories were told through the framework of the white middle-class American family. When stories did appear about African-American subjects, they were either about celebrities or athletes or people in very dire straits. Parks set out with this project to really counter those stereotypes.”

I read this article the day before Vidal appeared on my Facebook feed and so the two pieces seem intertwined to me: the pursuit of rendering the extraordinary in the quotidian and offering the dignity of the ordinary to everyone.

Regardless of why and what additional questions this story raises (this could be the subject of another post -- on how education is valued, funded, supported; whose humanity is recognized, in what ways, and how we might nurture this inclination in friends and strangers, alike...), Vidal, Ms. Lopez, and the story of Mott Hall, rendered in photographs and story bits, has moved many of us – over 30,000 people have donated to the fund raiser already.

At the time of this writing, the total is $873,550 $877,477 $877,477 $877,771
$883,226 $893,512 $895,803 $929,094 $943,850 $948,990 $950,949 and increasing steadily, with people donating every few minutes. 

The donations seem to average $20, but the $5 – and even $3 – donations really lifted my spirits. I was momentarily caught up in a wave of Obama ’08 fundraising nostalgia, a campaign built on the idealism of the $5 and $10 donations. Every one can participate (provided you have a credit card).

Ok, I’m going to go and donate now before it reaches its first million.

Before I go, a few links that may be of interest:

A Pinterest Board (where I’ve curated all of the HONY portraits related to this story, as well as a number of relevant articles)

*I suspect the latter number has increased a few million-fold by now.


Listening to and with the lives of adolescents

It's been far too long since I posted an entry here. I have no one to blame but myself... but for good measure I'll also give a little credit to the very long and not always voluntary todo list that consumed me for the past many months.

But another reason is a very good one -- the publication of a new volume that brings a focus of arts and aesthetics to the work my research team and I have been doing over the past several years. Arts, Media, and Justice: Multimodal Explorations with Youth features contributions from graduate students, youth researchers, arts educators, and established literacy scholars who take up various contours of the intersections of the titular concepts of the book. The book is co-edited with Tiffany DeJaynes, a wonderful colleague and friend who is up to some amazing work of her own with high school students turned budding qualitative researchers.

Building from this volume, that draws on the Reimagining Futures Project, last year some colleagues, graduates students and I launched the Youth, Media, and Educational Justice Project -- a consortium that we are building in an effort to bring participatory approaches to the study and support of the lives of court-involved youth, including the young people involved in the Juvenile Justice system with whom we have been working for the past near decade (and a bit longer than that for some of us...!) as well as young people in foster care who will likely age out while still in the the care of the child welfare system.

What, pray tell, might this have to do with adolescent literacies? In this work we are deeply informed by the basic ideas that have always grounded my study of young people's literate lives:

  • youth are engaged in myriad forms of expression and communication (thus rendering the use of "illiterate" utterly moot); 
  • found within adolescents' literacies are markers of affiliation and connection (to communities, to people, to texts, and more);
  • the varied contours of youths' literate lives are replete with evidence of their ways of knowing -- of knowing about the world, of making themselves known in the world.

We bring to this set of underlying assumptions new questions about belonging and becoming, questions that gain new urgency in the current and ongoing discourses of laws and policies that place adolescents' wellbeing at a far remove from decision making. Most notably, these concerns are brought into stark relief in the ongoing and deeply divided debates about the NYPD's #stopandfrisk policies, including today's ruling on the policy.

We take as our mission four entry points into the pursuit of educational justice for court-involved youth in which our position and posture is that of listening both to and with young people:

  • Media making
  • Mentoring
  • Research
  • Education

I, along with my YMEJ team members, will be blogging about these and related ideas over on our YMEJ blog. I encourage you to follow and also to keep up with us on Twitter.

Next up here -- a short post about some of the excellent reads I encountered this summer, all of which touched, in some way, on adolescents' ways of communicating, knowing, being, becoming, and belonging...

Wishing you a restorative August in the meantime.


So that we may shame the shamers

The beginning of the autumn semester brought me into contact with Jessica Ringrose's research on sexting and the related practices of shaming going on in the daily, digitally mediated practices of some adolescents. This past month has brought into stark relief the ways in which shaming and symbolic violence are manifested as actual, heinous, unimaginable violence and violation of another human being. 

Here, I've curated a selection of artifacts -- articles, media, and more -- that touch on various aspects of shaming. These aren't intended to sensationalize, glorify, or horrify. They are meant, simply, to educate, inform, and generate further inquiry. I'll continue to add more over the next few weeks, as well.
  • On "slut-shaming" -- a collection of cites inspired by a youth-produced radio piece 


Calls for scholarship: On Media, Literacies, Pop Culture, and more...

Two calls for proposals and one call for papers -- 

1) National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) Annual Conference - July 12-13, 2013 - Call for Proposals
Deadline: January 21, 2013

About the conference:
We are currently inviting proposals for participation in our 2013 NAMLE Conference to be held in Torrance, CA July 12-13th. As a membership organization, NAMLE celebrates the diversity of voices, pedagogies and technologies that comprise the growing field of media literacy education. 
2013 Conference Theme
Intersections: Teaching and Learning Across Media
Disruption is a watchword for the time we live in: competing social networking platforms, ever-shifting working styles, novel job descriptions displacing the old, manifold curricular and performance demands. With all these possibilities vying for our buy-in, it is vital to seek commonalities. It is at the intersections that we will begin to make sense and make use of a media revolution well underway and yet incompletely understood by our educational infrastructure. This conference will highlight the role of media literacy educators’ capacity to take a leading role in this nationwide task.
Read more here.

2) Media In Transition (MIT) 8: Public media, private media - May 3-5, 2013 at MIT, Cambridge, MA.
Deadline: March 1, 2013

About the conference:
The distinction between public and private – where the line is drawn and how it is sometimes inverted, the ways that it is embraced or contested – says much about a culture. Media have been used to enable, define and police the shifting line between the two, so it is not surprising that the history of media change to some extent maps the history of these domains. Media in Transition 8 takes up the question of the shifting nature of the public and private at a moment of unparalleled connectivity, enabling new notions of the socially mediated public and unequalled levels of data extraction thanks to the quiet demands of our Kindles, iPhones, televisions and computers.  While this forces us to think in new ways about these long established categories, in fact the underlying concerns are rooted in deep historical practice.  MiT8 considers the ways in which specific media challenge or reinforce certain notions of the public or the private and especially the ways in which specific “texts” dramatize or imagine the public, the private and the boundary between them.  It takes as its foci three broad domains: personal identity, the civic (the public sphere) and intellectual property. 

Read more here.

Deadline: June 30, 2013

About the special issue:
What is the role of popular culture in primary, early years and secondary literacy curricula? In what ways can children and youths’ popular culture knowledge and familiarity with the artefacts of their popular culture be viewed as an asset that can be utilized in their literacy learning?
This special edition of  Literacy,  focusing on popular culture and curriculum, aims to
explore different perspectives about the place of popular culture within children’s literacy 
education.  Contributors are invited to submit articles that focus on popular culture, 
curriculum and literacy from different theoretical, pedagogical, practical, policy and/ or 
research perspectives.

Read more here.


2012 - A year in photos

LondonLondonLake Vembanad, India.Kumarakom, India.Munnar, India.Munnar, India.
Munnar, India.Munnar, India.Palghat, India.Kalpathi, India.Kalpathi, India.Kalpathi, India.
Perinkulam, India.London.LondonNicosiaNicosiaNicosia
For complete set, click: 2012 (flickr).

A few of the thousands taken in 2012, a year of moving and being moved, of kind invitations and newly nurtured friendships, of breaking bread and sharing drink, of seeing and hearing and falling in love time and again, and an intimate understanding of the word gratitude.


Essayer -- Writing as Offering, Writing as Provocation

"If at first you don't succeed, 
try, try again."

Long before I was taught hand claps and nursery rhymes, years before I had any sense of children's literature or playground games, this refrain was imprinted onto my consciousness -- so palpable was its presence, I sometimes thought it really was tattooed across my forehead, nevermind that at two or three years of age I likely had no idea what a tattoo was.

Perhaps the great irony was that success never really factored into my mental equations about effort. Dwelling in the trying, that is to say in the doing of whatever happened to captivate my attention, was far more interesting to me than the winning or whatever other form success took. I read with great interest the article that Bronwyn Williams (@bronwyntw) shared  today via twitter, in which the author noted how much more content Bronze medalists seemed to be than those who had earned a Silver, the latter being among the many who lament what might have been (read: Gold) and the former characterized by a brow-wiping thankfulness that they earned/performed well enough to stand on the podium at all. 

The French verb essayer translates into english as "to try." An essay, thus, might be a trial of ideas, a beautiful proposition when you think about it, especially in a world where demonstrations of definitiveness and certainty are privileged over any form of unknowing. The essay is a genre of writing that Michel de Montaigne is credited with originating--that is, if genres are ever really originated, rather than merely being affixed in human history in association with a moment, event, or as in this case, a person. It helps, I suppose, that Montaigne's collection of writings that traversed the tricky terrains of a multitude of topics, was aptly named "Essays" (or "Essais") owing to their ponderous nature. Montaigne's essay, whose title is alternatingly translated as either "On Cannibals" or "Of Cannibals" from the French original "Des Cannibales," was written over 400 years ago and it, along with "Of Cruelty" are both included in that volume. I return to them often, and as such they have become, regardless of their relatively brutal monikers, my favorites, each holding amidst the words on the page (or screen, as it were...) an eerily calming prescience.

Montaigne's gifted the world with the essay -- of writing as a trial of ideas, an attempt, a discursive venture -- one that has become bastardized in many school-based curricula. How might he have responded to the ugliness of the phrase "five paragraph essay." How can you know it will take five paragraphs, he might have exclaimed with a start. What if I need three paragraphs to set up the experience? And what of paragraphs? Must a sentence necessary fall within the sweet spot of between 8 and twelve words? Some necessarily linger across more than a few lines. Shouldn't the question be whether you are able to come with me on this rhetorical ride, and not how well I can arrange words into the mold awaiting to be filled? And what's with all the words? Does argument or rhetorical offering lie solely with the word?

This week alone there have been several essays that caught my attention, gave me pause and moved me to wonder, brought me fully in while also pushing me to quickly look up a term or historical event or click on a link. They fulfill Emerson's postulate: "Truly speaking, it is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul."

Go ahead. I dare you to try and remain unprovoked.


adolescents and literacies - a few headlines to ponder

Headlines that caught my eye this week, which, because of other looming deadlines, will remain on the back burner... for now.

And a project that has me scratching my head, pulling out my beat up copy (no pun intended) of Discipline and Punish, and just feeling a bit uneasy all around: What does the geography of incarceration in the United States look like? - @joshbegley via @jamilahking

Just because I haven't had time to further ruminate and comment, doesn't mean you can't enjoy some food for thought.