Since participating in the racial justice protests in Ferguson, Mo. in 2014, DeRay Mckesson has been wearing the same blue Patagonia vest that he wore there.
“It keeps me grounded and reminded that everything we went through is real, that we were in the streets for four hundred days,” said Mckesson, now a prominent Black Lives Matter activist. “I never want to forget how fragile freedom is and this vest reminds me of it.”
Mckesson sported the trademark vest as he spoke in Wilson Hall on Nov. 7 in a talk titled “Political Activism and the Case for Hope.” An author, podcaster and organizer, Mckesson’s reputation as a civil rights activist gathered a crowd that quickly exceeded Wilson’s capacity.
After graduating from Bowdoin College in 2007, Mckesson worked for Teach for America before serving as the Senior Director for Human Capital at the Minneapolis Public Schools.
Following the death of Michael Brown, Mckesson embarked on a trip to Ferguson to protest against police violence. He began to spend all of his weekends and breaks in St. Louis, culminating in his eventual departure from his stable job in Minneapolis and relocation to St. Louis.
[pullquote speaker="DeRay Mckesson" photo="" align="center" background="on" border="all" shadow="on"]I never want to forget how fragile freedom is and this vest reminds me of it.[/pullquote]
“I didn’t know many things, but I knew that Mike Brown should be alive today,” Mckesson said.
There, he organized and participated in protest efforts full-time. In a Buzzfeed News interview, Mckesson recounts being tear-gassed, dragged out of the police department by his ankles, and shot at. His activism and real-time updates on Twitter and other social media platforms brought him and his blue Patagonia vest into the national spotlight.
“The people who told our story and amplified it were doing work that was vital, because CNN wasn’t doing it, the newspapers weren’t doing it — Twitter was what we had,” Mckesson said, reflecting on the importance of social media platforms.
Today, he serves as the Interim Chief of Human Capital at Baltimore City High Schools. He continues to serve as an inspiration for activism efforts, hosting the popular podcast Pod Save the People, and reflecting on his journey in Ferguson in his memoir, “The Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope.”
THINGS ON HIS MIND
Introduced by SGA President Nia Robinson ’19, Mckesson shared his reflections about civil rights activism in the modern age, as well as methods for catalyzing social change. Speaking a day after the midterm elections, Mckesson did not hesitate to point to real world examples.
Prompting the audience with a question of how they would spend $300, Mckesson revealed that thefts of over $300 are classified as felonies in Florida, previously permanently barring the perpetrator from voting and running for office. This exercise was a reference to the amendment in Florida, passed the day before, that restored felons’ voting rights.
[pullquote speaker="DeRay Mckesson" photo="" align="center" background="on" border="all" shadow="on"]More people are in love with the idea of resistance than the work of resistance.[/pullquote]
He also pointed to other injustices, such as the fact that the U.S. arrests more people for marijuana possession than all violent crimes combined.
In addition to identifying problems, Mckesson also identified effective methods of mobilizing others for social change. “More people are in love with the idea of resistance than the work of resistance,” he said.
Mckesson transitioned to “10 points on my mind,” a set of pragmatic approaches that engage audiences and spark dialogue with bystanders and opponents. To begin, he spoke about “entrances and on-ramps” and how it is the responsibility of organizers to find an array of entry points for others to find their reason to support the cause. Mckesson argues that activists must descend from their moral high ground to reach a wider audience.
Mckesson also spoke about how to best engage with opponents in debate. He introduced the concept of “sharing the cognitive burden,” where activists shift the responsibility of thinking about the issue and practicing empathy to those that oppose them.
“Tell me what a four-year-old should do to deserve dinner?” Mckesson asked, as an example of why the cognitive burden must be shared.
Finally, Mckesson spoke about “building the largest choir.” He does not advocate for trying to convince the minds of those opposed to the advancement of civil rights. “People ask me what I’m doing to reach across the aisle, and I’m not reaching,” he said.
Rather, he believes that efforts should be concentrated on energizing the people that care, or have the potential to do so. He explains that people are just waiting to receive the invitation, and that his experience as a teacher has taught him to believe in potential yet to be developed.
REFLECTIONS ON THE TALK
The talk, part of the Engaged Listening Project, followed a new format where the lecture was followed by reflections in small groups on the contents of the talk.
[pullquote speaker="Wengel Kifle '20" photo="" align="center" background="on" border="all" shadow="on"]It is refreshing and re-energizing to be reassured that the fight is able to be continued with people that share some basic agreement, of basic humanity and respect for lives and facts.[/pullquote]
“I was particularly moved by his example of ‘sharing the cognitive burden,’” said Sophie Clark ’21. “I think many young progressives are frustrated by seemingly endless preaching with responses that vary from apathy to outright resistance, but Mckesson has found a way to turn this around - to put opponents in his shoes not by being condescending or “preachy,” but by being genuinely curious to how their perspective fits in a wider world view.”
Wengel Kifle ’20 resonated with Mckesson’s point about “growing the choir.”
“For some people, and Mckesson touched upon this, ‘reaching across the aisle’ is life-threatening or frankly pointless when the audience has not even decided to agree that you are a capable human being, if even equally human,” she said. “It is refreshing and re-energizing to be reassured that the fight is able to be continued with people that share some basic agreement, of basic humanity and respect for lives and facts.”
Others found Mckesson’s advice for current students to be the most inspirational.
“The most important thing I think about is how he talked about following your curiosity,” said SGA President Nia Robinson ’19. “I think in the context of education, social justice, and life in general it’s applicable.”