Photo courtesy Brandon Farbstein
The young man sitting across the table from me inside Alchemy Coffee is an old soul whose bearing belies his mere 17 years on the planet.
When he speaks, his baritone voice is laced with an insight it usually takes years to earn, and he looks me straight in the eye – not nervous, not shy. “Everyone who’s different deserves to feel like they matter, I can tell you that firsthand,” he says by way of introduction. Meet Brandon Farbstein.
When he was 2, Brandon was diagnosed with a genetic skeletal disorder called metatropic dysplasia. The disease is characterized by dwarfism, scoliosis and degenerative arthritis. Doctors advised Brandon’s parents at the time that people born with the condition sometimes don’t live to see their fifth year. “I’m in pain almost every day,” he says, “but I’m still here, and I’m blessed.”
He’s also far more than his disability. From an early age, Brandon recognized that he had a knack for transforming himself onstage. “I started acting when I was 8,” he says. “I love that it allows me to try on different personalities.” He’s appeared in numerous productions staged by local theaters like the School of the Performing Arts in the Richmond Community (SPARC) and Weinstein JCC’s Jewish Family Theatre. Debra Clinton, Jewish Family Theatre’s artistic director and a theater teacher at Hanover High School, first met Brandon when he was 11. She says they’ve worked together in about 10 plays and on many special events.
“Brandon is very talented,” Clinton says. “He has an incredibly strong personality both onstage and off, and he’s able to inhabit larger-than-life characters.” She says she’s often cast him in nontraditional roles, opting not to focus on his physical disability and instead shining the spotlight on his considerable acting ability. “He’s played the lead in ‘Secret Garden,’ ” says Clinton, adding “Another director may not have cast him in that role, but I did, because he made me believe him.”
Perhaps one of his favorite thespian experiences was playing Archie in “13” last summer, because his character had dwarfism. “That character was me,” he says, smiling. “I was able to share my real self with the world. No hiding.”
Brandon (left) performing in Jewish Family Theatre's production of "13" as Archie, summer 2015 (Photo courtesy Deb Clinton)
Brandon is gifted, yet he’s also a victim of an issue many children face at some point in their lives: bullying. One in four U.S. students age 12 to 18 say they’ve been bullied at school, according to a 2015 report by the National Center for Education Statistics.
For most of his school years, Brandon says he’s endured snide remarks and humiliating taunts about his stature from classmates. And worse. “Last year, I received an email on my website saying ‘Dear Brandon, I hope you kill yourself. If you don’t, I’m going to shank you in the kidney.’” He takes a deep breath, steadying himself. “That someone would say that to me, just because of who I am, and because I’m different … unimaginable.” He still doesn’t know who sent the message, but hopes it wasn’t a classmate.
Pulling from the pain of his personal experience, Brandon decided to become a motivational speaker. “By doing this, I can inspire people. Anyone who’s different can relate to my story, and anyone who’s “normal” can learn from it.” Last year, he delivered a TEDxRVA talk, whizzing onto the stage on his bright-yellow Segway and drawing thunderous applause from the crowd with sage one-liners like, “Don’t let other people, even a doctor, dictate the experience you’re going to have.” In September, he was one of 15 speakers with disabilities to share their story at the Courageous Faces Foundation’s inaugural SuperHeroes Gala in Boston.
“Because Brandon’s such a dynamic young man, we felt he’d really help the general public understand ways to respectfully engage with people who look or act different than they do,” says Trish Morris, president and CEO of Courageous Faces, which was founded in 2015. Morris says Brandon will continue to speak on behalf of Courageous Faces next year.
Brandon Farbstein (left) with youth speakers Juss and Glory at the Courageous Faces Foundation's first SuperHeroes Gala, held in Boston on Sept. 17 (Photo courtesy Courageous Faces Foundation)
Brandon is also wading into a new role as a youth leader with the Richmond Peace Education Center, a “peaceful conflict resolution, social justice and nonviolent social change” nonprofit founded in 1980.
“My goal is to help kids in Richmond learn to communicate effectively and show them how to resolve conflicts in a positive way,” he says. He just wrapped his first event as an RPEC youth leader last week, facilitating a peer workshop at a local Boys & Girls Club.
Here is a young man with a plan. “I’m going to be a journalist; that’s what my goal has been for a long time,” he says confidently. He’s already met CNN's Wolf Blitzer and ABC's David Muir, and they both encouraged him to follow his passion. To that end, Brandon hopes to enroll in a Virginia college – “it definitely needs to have a culturally diverse campus,” he notes – and study English or journalism. So you might see him around town in a play, or speaking at a school, or, in a few years, reporting live on television. But whatever he does and wherever he goes, Brandon’s keeping his central mission in mind.
“All people, everyone everywhere, want to be loved and respected, right?” I nod, and he continues, “I wake up every day thinking about that, and how I can inspire people. I know that I’m meant to make a difference for somebody.”