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Caring is Sharing

HONY, Dean Smith, and Internet Activism

By Sam Danello

There are lots of reasons to dislike New York City.

The summers are harsh (scorching), and the winters are harsh (freezing). There is a provincial team called the Yankees that occasionally inspires ill will. Plus no one seems to know for sure whether a family of alligators is living in the city’s sewer system.

However, there is one indisputable virtue that the Big Apple has, and that virtue is called Humans of New York.

For the uninitiated, Humans of New York, affectionately known as HONY by its more than 12 million Facebook followers, is a personal exercise in photojournalism that takes photographer Brandon Stanton across the city to ask provocative questions to strangers on the street. A few hours later, et voilà: the encounters are transcribed, edited, and uploaded.

While mustering the chutzpah to change from bond trader to street photographer is impressive enough, Stanton is most remarkable for the roughly Cuba-sized network that he has created. And in recent weeks, this virtual country has achieved an unprecedented feat.

On January 19, 2015, Stanton posted a quote in which Vidal Chastanet, a middle-school student, described the huge influence of his principal Nadia Lopez. The upload inspired a campaign to pay for three years of student trips from Mott Hall Bridges Academy, which is in one of the most dangerous areas of the city, to the Harvard campus.

From here, the numbers tell the rest of the story: one campaign, 50,000 contributors, and $1.4 million. It’s so much money that Stanton, who spoke at the IOP on Wednesday, February 11, has helped establish a yearly summer program and scholarship fund.

The HONY fundraiser reemphasizes an already emphasized fact: the Internet has redefined what activism means and what it can achieve. When else, and how else, could 67 words from a 13-year-old change so much?

Of course, HONY is not the only organization to leverage online activism. From the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge to #blacklivesmatter, various causes have swept across social media and varyingly called for money, political action, or basic awareness.

Let’s define this sort of action as crowd-sourced compassion. Such activism is public and communal, and both these attributes aid the effectiveness of the campaigns.

Publicity: by broadcasting your participation with this or that movement, you’re encouraging your friends into equal participation.

Community: a group such as HONY instills donors with the confidence that their money is building towards a concrete impact. In real time you can watch money pile up, and posted updates enure that your donation has aided in the creation of something beautiful.

However popular, these methods are not the only ways to give. More importantly, I’ve begun to wonder whether they’re the best ways to give.

Last Saturday, about a week after the HONY campaign ended, longtime basketball coach Dean Smith passed away. He left behind a reputation for quiet compassion, including the story of how he fought for desegregation in North Carolina.

Smith’s activism relied on neither publicity nor community. Here was the grand strategy: in 1964, without an announcement of any kind, he walked into a restaurant with a black friend and a local pastor. So began the slow death of segregation in Chapel Hill.

Years later, when sportswriter John Feinstein brought up the incident in a conversation with Smith, the coach bristled and demanded to know who had leaked the anecdote. Then he said these words, which have the ring of an epitaph: “You should never be proud of doing what’s right. You should just do what’s right.”

Where the HONY campaign was noble for its openness, Smith’s campaign was noble for its loneliness. Where the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge tried to broadcast information, Smith tried to keep information hidden.

Is there a special dignity to this method of silent activism?

It’s an open question, but my answer is an affirmation: on a gut level, this method feels virtuous.

Not all situations can be resolved with the genre of vigilante activism that Smith performed in Chapel Hill in 1964. But given the web-wide push to a visible extreme of social justice, we too often dismiss the invisible alternative because we are too afraid to be lonely advocates.

Raising awareness is beneficial, clearly, but so is working on your own. Sometimes you can’t fall back on the moral support of a large community or the material support of knowing that your contributions will have an impact. Sometimes, in Smith’s words, “you should just do what’s right” because it’s right.

For me, this philosophy is best encapsulated in the image of blind activists. Such people act without looking at others, which means, by extension, that they can only look at themselves.

No matter what cause enflames you, I encourage you to close your eyes, point your head down, and do the same.

Sam Danello ’18 is a Crimson editorial writer living in Grays Hall.

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