“Yes, you,” he said back.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were talking to me,” she told him. “Students would usually rather look at the wall than talk to me.”
Staton understood how she felt. Before becoming a student at one of the most prestigious law schools in the country, Staton had been a sanitation worker in Bladensburg, Md., and it was his colleagues there who encouraged him to apply to attend college.
Once he was accepted, he continued hauling trash at daybreak before rushing to attend classes at the University of Maryland — sometimes in his yellow uniform when there was no time to shower. He would sit at the back of the lecture hall to try to avoid inevitable glares and judgment from his peers.
“I remember what it’s like working that type of job,” said Staton, adding that his father and brother also were sanitation workers and that the family struggled financially, sometimes without electricity and with too little food at home.
When Staton arrived on campus at Harvard last fall after completing his first year virtually, he engaged with students and faculty members — but he made a special effort with custodians, cafeteria workers and security staffers. They felt like family, he said.
“We text, we hug when we see each other, I call them aunts and uncles,” Staton said. “I have felt very safe, taken care of and loved, specifically because of the bonds that I have with my support staff.”
“When I see them, I see me,” he continued. “I view them as my equal. They are just my peers.”
Staton’s story of being accepted to Harvard Law School was told in The Washington Post in 2020. A cascade of financial support followed, including from the actor and filmmaker Tyler Perry, who covered Staton’s tuition.
“He had a tough upbringing but worked hard at a tireless job to eventually reach his goal,” Perry said in an email to The Post. “He deserved being able to attend Harvard the last few years without having any future financial concerns.”
Three years later, Staton — who is to graduate in May — is focused on giving something back, specifically to the law school’s support staffers — including custodians, electricians, food service workers. He felt they were not getting the recognition they deserved for helping the school to run smoothly.
In February 2022, one week after the custodian told him that students would prefer to look at a wall than talk to her, Staton used his savings from a summer job as an associate at a D.C. law office to purchase 100 Amazon gift cards to distribute to support staffers around the school. He included a handwritten note with each, expressing his gratitude to the worker.
In addition to handing out the cards, he asked how their lives on campus could be improved. Many told him they did not feel seen by students.
Staton made it his mission to change that. He started the Reciprocity Effect, a nonprofit organization to support what he calls the “unsung heroes” who work behind the scenes. The organization offers need-based grants and also recognizes workers.
He told Brent Bates, the assistant operations manager at his former employer Bates Trucking & Trash Removal in Bladensburg, Md., about his idea, and Bates was eager to join. He became the co-founder of the Reciprocity Effect.
“I know what it feels like to be in a position where people would rather act like you don’t exist,” said Bates, 31, who has known Staton for about 10 years and encouraged him to go to college.
Bates and his father, who owns the sanitation company, donated $50,000 toward the organization. Supporting others, Bates said, is “something we pride ourselves on.”
Staton, whose family still lives in Bowie, Md., said he was humbled and overjoyed by their response.
“I’ve never seen something come full circle like this,” Staton said. “The same sanitation company that changed my life, I came back to them, and they said, ‘We’ll be right there with you.’”
Other students were keen to get involved in the initiative, too. Among them was Lla Anderson, a Floridian in her first year at the law school.
“Every day, I talk to support staff. We joke, we laugh, we confide in each other,” said Anderson, 24. “They’re my friends.”
In fact, more than once, support staffers bought groceries for her when she struggled to afford them herself. When a staff member found out she would be spending a holiday alone, he invited her to celebrate with his family.
“The thing about Rehan and I, is we don’t come from privilege, and we’ve had these thankless jobs, and because of that, we see in a way that a lot of people don’t,” Anderson said. “I think people try the best that they can, but they don’t really know really where to begin.”
She, Staton and Bates organized a “thank you” card drive in November, enlisting more than 250 students to write messages of gratitude to support staffers at the school. The cards were distributed along with Amazon gift cards.
“People were truly inspired to start taking things to another level,” Staton said.
In the months that followed, he and a small team of students at the school have been fundraising and have collected more than $70,000 in donations, he said.
For the official launch of the Reciprocity Effect on Monday, they organized an awards banquet at Harvard Law School, and 30 support staffers received customized trophies honoring their work, as well as $100 Amazon gift cards. Students and staffers voted to determine the winners of the various awards, and more than 160 people attended the event.
Brione Merchant, who has worked in cafeterias on campus for 16 years, was one of the awardees. He and his colleagues were overcome with emotion, he said.
“There’s a lot of prideful people that work at this university that do things that a lot of people wouldn’t have pride in doing,” said Merchant, 43. “To acknowledge those people is very important.”
The Reciprocity Effect, he said, already has made a difference.
“Since Monday, everybody has been walking around just a little bit taller, and that’s just a beautiful thing to see and be a part of,” Merchant said.
The event offered a rare opportunity for support staffers to be in the spotlight and for students to cheer them on.
“They weren’t serving; they were being served,” Anderson said. “To see that, that was incredible. It felt amazing, and it felt like it was just the beginning.”
Tyler Perry said he is elated that his gift to Staton has allowed him to give to others.
“I loved hearing about his project, because it’s often why I do what I do: give back to those that are overlooked,” he said. “I hope he carries that kindness with him through his life.”
Staton — who has secured a job for after graduation at a law firm in New York City — hopes to expand the initiative beyond Harvard to educational institutions across the country. He wants support staffers everywhere to feel recognized, he said.
Had others not stepped up for him, he said, he would not be where he is today.
“No one does it alone,” he said. “Just keep paying it forward.”