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Humans of New York helps raise $1.2 million for debate programs for underprivileged high schoolers

The popular photography blog raised money for a high school teacher who had drained his savings to keep his affordable debate league afloat.
Jonathan Conyers.
Jonathan Conyers.Humans of New York via Instagram

An online campaign led by the photography account Humans of New York has raised over $1 million for a high school debate team coach who had drained his savings to keep his debate league afloat.

Humans of New York, or HONY, began as street photography project by Brandon Stanton, featuring portraits of New Yorkers with interviews about their lives. Since it launched in 2010, Stanton has pivoted to using the platform to raise money for his subjects, from a retired burlesque dancer to a woman behind on her rent while undergoing cancer treatment.

When Jonathan Conyers, 27, had the chance to tell his life story on HONY, he decided to honor his high school debate coach, K.M. DiColandrea (nicknamed DiCo).

DiColandrea recently spent $6,000 of his savings to fund the Brooklyn Debate League, which provides low cost or free speech and debate programs for teenagers who can’t afford the exorbitant fees typical for prep camps and tournaments. DiColandrea expects about 200 children to participate in this year's summer program, which includes coaching, practices and tournaments.

DiColandrea founded the Brooklyn Debate League in 2017, after he found out about pricey academies that give middle schoolers a head start in high school-level speech and debate competitions.

"I was just so mortified because it's already unequal," DiColandrea said. "We were one of the only inner-city public schools at the national championship. It's mostly private schools. ... Then there's another gap because the folks who are going to those fancy schools are getting a head-start three years earlier, and it just felt wrong."

Speech and debate can be a powerful skill, but the community is “dominated” by “rich kids,” the league’s GoFundMe page says.

The Brooklyn Debate League accepts donations from families but says online that “no child will ever be turned away because of inability to pay.”

"These are hard times. This was hard before the pandemic," DiColandrea said. "It just matters to me that every single family, every single kid, every single community that wants to partake in this has the means to do so."

Soon after Stanton posted the interview series with Conyers and DiColandrea, donations poured in. As of Monday, the GoFundMe campaign Stanton set up has raised nearly $1.3 million for the league.

In the HONY post, Conyers opened up about first meeting DiColandrea when he was 14.

Conyers, who grew up with parents who had drug addictions, said he had just broken into a home but wasn’t charged. He was admitted to the Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem, where the principal pushed him to join an extracurricular activity. A discussion in the debate room about drug addiction piqued his interest, and he thrived on DiColandrea's debate team.

"Ms. DiCo would give me these articles on drug addiction, and she'd be like, 'Your parents do love you. They aren't bad people. Let's read this together,'" Conyers said in a HONY post. "If she ever saw that my clothes were wrinkled, she'd offer to wash them. And when I didn't have any money, she'd cover my tournament fees. Ms. DiCo knew that home was hell for a lot of us, so some nights she would stay until 8:30."

DiColandrea later came out as trans, and students began referring to him by his nickname, "DiCo."

"Every day I thank God that DiCo was the first person who I met who was transgender," Conyers continued in the HONY feature. "This was the only person who really loved me and understood me. DiCo could have told me he was a dinosaur, and I'd be like: 'That's cool. Just stay DiCo.' And the rest of the team felt the same way."

Conyers graduated with a scholarship to the State University of New York at Stony Brook to major in respiratory therapy. He's now a respiratory therapist at NYU Langone Medical Center's newborn intensive care unit.

DiColandrea, now a history teacher at Stuyvestant High School, has continued coaching underprivileged teenagers in speech and debate and is godfather to Conyers' 9-year-old daughter.

DiColandrea said he was moved by Conyers' stories about him, and described their friendship as "really special," but clarified that as a teacher, he isn't unique.

"I am not a hero. I'm not exceptional. There are thousands of teachers all over New York City, all over the country, who are going above and beyond every single day," DiColandrea said. "I hope this story really lifts up those teachers. I want them to be seen. I want them to be celebrated."

DiColandrea pointed out how the wealth gap affects extracurricular opportunities — even at public schools like Stuyvesant, a prestigious specialized high school. He said that 20 Stuyvesant students qualified for the national speech and debate championship next week, but the team's coach is "still figuring out how to pay for it."

"The systemic obstacles to competitive speech and debate, or any kind of rigorous extracurricular activities that requires registration feeds and traveling and hotels, make it such that this just becomes a game for rich kids and rich schools," DiColandrea said. "And I just think that's wrong."

"Whether it's robotics, or whether it's chess, or whether it's art or it's music, kids deserve access to what they are passionate about," DiColandrea said. "If we really want to raise the strongest generation of future leaders, we need to be looking at the kid as a whole kid, and give them the means to pursue those passions."