Nadia Lopez: Why open a school? To close a prison @ TED Talks Live

TED Talks Live were held at The Town Hall Theater in NYC, in November of 2015. I had the pleasure of attending all six nights to hear speakers present impactful Ideas Worth Spreading. This post is an analysis of a talk by Nadia Lopez on the power of the education system to change lives.

As some of you may know, I worked on two events held inside a state prison. TEDxDonovanCorrectional was an eye-opening experience, as the men that I coached often told me stories about growing up without a proper education. It wasn’t an uncommon story for a teenager to drop out of school and join a gang. Nadia’s story is a reminder that changes to the education system are possible, but it takes a new vision and a dedicated team to make that happen.

Watch Nadia’s TED Talk. It’s an ideal example of personal storytelling that is effective within a short timeframe. Then review your own manuscript. Have you tightened your prose to be direct and impactful? Does every sentence matter?


(my notes in red)

When I opened Mott Hall Bridges Academy in 2010, my goal was simple: open a school to close a prison. Now to some, this was an audacious goal, because our school is located in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn — one of the most underserved and violent neighborhoods in all of New York City. Like many urban schools with high poverty rates, we face numerous challenges, like finding teachers who can empathize with the complexities of a disadvantaged community, lack of funding for technology, low parental involvement and neighborhood gangs that recruit children as early as fourth grade.

Notice how much the first line, in just 20 words, says about the story. Her action – opening the academy. When action happened – 2010. Her goal – opening a school to close a prison. We don’t know what that means, exactly, so she’s caught our interest and we want to know the answer. In the next 2 sentences she goes deeper into the background of the story – the neighborhood, poverty rates, finding teachers, lack of funding, parents and gangs. All of this is revealed in less than a minute. She makes every word count.

She shows a slide comparing the rate of shootings between the Brownsville section of Brooklyn to all of Manhattan. The visual is easy to understand – the comparison startling.

So here I was, the founding principal of a middle school that was a district public school, and I only had 45 kids to start. Thirty percent of them had special needs. Eighty-six percent of them were below grade level in English and in math. And 100 percent were living below the poverty level.

Nadia uses 3 key statistics to illustrate the difficulties that she faced – 30% special needs, 86% below grade level, 100% below poverty level. With few words we come to understand the extent of the challenge that’s ahead of her.

If our children are not in our classrooms, how will they learn? And if they’re not learning, where would they end up? It was evident when I would ask my 13-year-old, “Young man, where do you see yourself in five years?” And his response: “I don’t know if I’m gonna live that long.”

In a longer talk Nadia could have given us more background on her son, but I doubt that it would have done anything to increase the impact of considering a 13-year-old who doubts whether he will celebrate his 18th birthday.

Or to have a young woman say to me that she had a lifelong goal of working in a fast-food restaurant. To me, this was unacceptable. It was also evident that they had no idea that there was a landscape of opportunity that existed beyond their neighborhood.

We call our students “scholars,” because they’re lifelong learners. And the skills that they learn today will prepare them for college and career readiness. I chose the royal colors of purple and black, because I want them to be reminded that they are descendants of greatness, and that through education, they are future engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs and even leaders who can and will take over this world. To date, we have had three graduating classes, at a 98 (applause) At a 98-percent graduation rate. This is nearly 200 children, who are now going to some of the most competitive high schools in New York City.

The narrative shifts from background to the students in her school, with a brief description of her philosophy, and ending with a statistic – 98% graduation rate – that is in stark contrast to the opening set of statistics. Contrast is a powerful way to use statistics.

It was a cold day in January when my scholar, Vidal Chastanet, met Brandon Stanton, the founder of the popular blog “Humans of New York.” Brandon shared the story of a young man from Brownsville who had witnessed violence firsthand, by witnessing a man being thrown off of a roof. Yet he can still be influenced by a principal who had opened up a school that believes in all children. Vidal embodies the story of so many of our underprivileged children who are struggling to survive, which is why we must make education a priority.

The narrative shifts again, this time to a specific student and a blogger – a story block about other people. Showing a picture of Vidal also serves to humanize the segment. We are now able to experience more than her words. Vidal is a vivid part of the story too.

Brandon’s post created a global sensation that touched the lives of millions. This resulted in 1.4 million dollars being raised for our scholars to attend field trips to colleges and universities, Summer STEAM programs, as well as college scholarships. You need to understand that when 200 young people from Brownsville visited Harvard, they now understood that a college of their choice was a real possibility. And the impossibilities that had been imposed upon them by a disadvantaged community were replaced by hope and purpose.

Nadia then shares the result of that blog post, using a statistic – 1.4 million dollars – and what that number equates to – field trips, STEAM programs, college scholarships. We easily follow the chain of events – student, blogger, post, donations, programs – it’s clear in our mind.

The revolution in education is happening in our schools, with adults who provide love, structure, support and knowledge. These are the things that inspire children. But it is not an easy task. And there are high demands within an education system that is not perfect.

But I have a dynamic group of educators who collaborate as a team to determine what is the best curriculum. They take time beyond their school day, and come in on weekends and even use their own money to often provide resources when we do not have it. And as the principal, I have to inspect what I expect.

So I show up in classes and I conduct observations to give feedback, because I want my teachers to be just as successful as the name Mott Hall Bridges Academy. And I give them access to me every single day, which is why they all have my personal cell number, including my scholars and those who graduated — which is probably why I get phone calls and text messages at three o’clock in the morning.

We come back to the topic of education, the revolution that’s happening, the educators dedication, her personal commitment to everyone involved in the process. And she turns the spotlight on the people who are part of the team to give them credit for their contribution.

But we are all connected to succeed, and good leaders do this. Tomorrow’s future is sitting in our classrooms. And they are our responsibility. That means everyone in here, and those who are watching the screen. We must believe in their brilliance, and remind them by teaching them that there indeed is power in education.

In her closing, Nadia brings the audience into the narrative and emphasizes the responsibility that we all share, to support the power in education. There’s no specific call to action – to volunteer at your local school, or donate money, or write to a politician – it’s a simple reminder that we hold the future of these young students in our hands.

Thank you.

Note her composure on stage, and her measured pace of speaking that makes the narrative and underlying message easy to understand. Yet you can still hear the passion in her voice. Without moving across the stage Nadia turns to address each section of the audience, making direct eye contact. She also uses her hands in a way that emphasizes key words.

At under 7 minutes this story says a lot, and serves as an example of how much can be said in a short amount of time. But in my opinion, I would appreciate a longer talk, maybe in the 12 minute range, as I know she has so much more to say. But that’s just me. How about you? Where there questions on your mind at the end, or issues that you wanted to hear more about? This is one of the biggest challenges we all have when crafting a personal story. Maximizing the impact in the time allowed. So make sure every word counts.

[Note: all comments inserted into this transcript are my opinions, not those of the speaker, the TED organization, nor anyone else on the planet. In my view, each story is unique, as is every interpretation of that story. The sole purpose of these analytical posts is to inspire a storyteller to become a storylistener, and in doing so, make their stories more impactful.]

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Crimson Letters: Voices from Death Row

I’ve spent a lot of time in prison. Not as an inmate, but instead coaching inmates, helping them craft their personal stories. Stories destined to land on a stage at TEDxDonovanCorrectional in 2017 and 2018. Donovan Correctional Facility is a California State prison, located at the very southern edge of San Diego County, overlooking the international border shared with Mexico.

To say that the experience was profound would be an understatement. Many of these men had spent the majority of their adult lives incarcerated, which in the beginning led me to question whether they had much in the way of wisdom to share with an audience. But over a two year period I continued to be impressed by the insights, the compassion, and the empathy that formed the foundation of their stories. If I had been talking to them on the phone, I would have assumed they were college educated.

The Longform Interview

So when I read the description for the Longform Podcast with Tessie Castillo and George Wilkerson, I dropped everything to have a listen. While I had heard many stories from prison, none of those stories had come from inmates on death row.

“I want other people to see what I see, which is that the men on death row are human beings. They’re incredibly intelligent and insightful and they have so many redemptive qualities…I don’t think I could really convey that as well as if they get their own voice out there. So I wanted this book to be a platform for them and for their voices.”
–Tessie Castillo

“For me, writing was like a form of conversation with myself or with my past, like therapy. So I just chose these periods in my life that I didn’t really understand and that were really powerful and impactful to me, and I just sat down and started writing to understand them and make peace with them.”
–George Wilkerson

Instead of the usual format, whereby host Aaron Lammer interviews an author, in this case Tessie Castillo, the twist to this episode was calling death row inmate George Wilkerson to bring his voice from inside prison to the outside world.

As often happens in life (I could never have predicted that I would spend time coaching inmates inside prison) Tessie had no connection to death row or the death penalty when she met someone at a Super Bowl party who happened to be a psychologist working with death row inmates at a prison in Raleigh, North Carolina.

When she found out that the new warden was permitting classes on death row, Tessie applied to teach a journaling class. Her discovery of who these men had become was similar to my own. It would behove you to spend 43 minutes listening to the interviews. You’ll come to view men on death row in a new light.

Essays From Death Row

Beyond the Longform podcast, and the basis for the conversation, was the book Crimson Letters: Voices from Death Row, written by Tessie Castillo and death row inmates: George Wilkerson, Terry Robinson, Michael Braxton, and Lyle May.

Crimson Letters by Tessie Castillo

Through thirty compelling essays written in the prisoners’ own words, Crimson Letters: Voices from Death Row offers stories of brutal beatings inside juvenile hall, botched suicide attempts, the terror of the first night on Death Row, the pain of goodbye as a friend is led to execution, and the small acts of humanity that keep hope alive for men living in the shadow of death.

Each carefully crafted personal essay illuminates the complex stew of choice and circumstance that brought four men to Death Row and the cycle of dehumanization and brutality that continues inside prison. At times the men write with humor, at times with despair, at times with deep sensitivity, but always with keen insight and understanding of the common human experience that binds us.

Beginning with the journaling class that she started, Tessie frames the narrative from the perspective of someone who has walked the halls and forged story-based bonds with the men. The series of essays that comprise most of the book take you inside the hearts and minds of these inmates, as well as take you back in time to share the trauma of their childhood experiences.

After spending time with these men and listening to their stories, I don’t claim to know them thoroughly or to fully comprehend why they did what they did. Nor do I defend the crimes of any many on Death Row…But I will defend their humanity because I see it every time I walk through those prison doors.
–Tessie Castillo, excerpt from the Raleigh News & Observer, May 2014

It took me back to my time at Donovan, hearing about lives so different than my own, making it difficult to predict how I would have acted in such circumstances, how my life would have turned out. It’s not a matter of blaming others, or wanting a hall pass for mistakes, but the harsh reality is that downward spirals are challenging, even for the best of us, especially when navigating through a turbulent world of drugs, crime and violence.

The spankings had started a year before our mom left. At first it was just a few pops on the butt every couple weeks or so. But as time went on, the slaps hardened and became more frequent, the bruises took longer to heal. Then he began whipping off his heavy leather belt and the slaps turned into punches that cracked bones.
–George Wilkerson

One of the most difficult aspects of spending sixteen years on Death Row is being stowed away from the outside world. Unlike other facilities, Death Row implements a measure of isolation that wedges a gap in the mental evolution of its denizens.
–Terry Robinson

Our culture was built on three main pillars: Fightin’, stealin’, and gettin’ drunk. Fightin’ was a rite of passage and it determined your position in the hood hierarchy. The better you were at fightin’, the higher your status.
–Michael J. Braxton

In prison, night’s hourglass has extra holes in it. When sleep comes, gone are the plodding daylight hours, confining walls, and thoughts of letters. Sleep is relief for most of us. With this blessed comfort comes dreams of love, companionship, and peace. Desires glow so vivid and deep that reality is a disheartening comparison. Sleep cannot be degraded, beaten or chained. In sleep lies our freedom.
–Lyle May

“I believe that little separates people inside Death Row from those outside it. We are all a complex jumble of hopes, dreams, virtues and mistakes. We strive to be better people. We often fail. Being human is learning to rise again – as these me do, despite the odds – to prove we are more than our worst crime.”
–Tessie Castillo

Time to Reflect

While there is a dark sadness within some of the pages, there is also bright joy that comes from these four big hearts. And though it may not be an intuitive conclusion, as I finished the last page the notion occurred to me that these men have learned more about themselves, and applied that learning to become far more compassionate humans than most of us ever will while we blissfully enjoy our ‘freedom’.

Death Row isn’t a place that lacks humanity, like some people say. It is where humanity is rediscovered and restored. On Death Row the meaningfulness of life tremendously exceeds the inevitability of death. We are all human beings and as such we’re prone to mistakes, but many inmates are simply paradigms of the great fall before triumph. Our humanities are not beyond repair and any judicial system that conceptualizes such nonsense is flawed. To give up on a person’s humanity says a lot about our own. We can never fully share in the humanity of others until we have recognized and repaired our own tendencies towards cruelty and unconscious bias. This means forgiveness, accountability, faith, and in many cases a second chance. No matter our personal or collective opinions, no one will ever deserve to die.
–Terry Robinson

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