DeRay Mckesson: Making This World Fair for Our Students

DeRay Mckesson gives his advice to teachers trying to empower young leaders and previews what to look for when he and fellow alum Brittany Packnett speak at the upcoming Teach For America Educators Conference.
Wednesday, July 15, 2015

In less than a year, DeRay Mckesson has turned his microphone into a megaphone[t1] , as the Teach For America alum’s rise to prominence has [t2] been a result of his courageous activism on the front lines of protests from Ferguson to Charleston.

“I think about those kids I taught who are growing up in a world that is not fair for them,” said DeRay, who co-founded the burgeoning group We The Protesters. “It’s our responsibility to do our part to make it fair for them—to make it right.”

DeRay (New York ‘07) and fellow alumna Brittany Packnett (D.C. Region ‘07) have a busy week ahead. Not only are they scheduled to speak at the Educators Conference, which takes place July 16-17 in Jacksonville, they are among the five finalists for the Peter Jennings Award for Civic Leadership.

In this excerpt from our exclusive interview last week, DeRay recounts his experience as a corps member, his advice for teachers, and what to look for when he and Brittany speak at the conference.

Q: What inspired you to join Teach For America?

DeRay Mckesson: I had done a lot of work in advocacy when I was in high school. In college, I was in student government, and in policy and programming, but I hadn’t done any direct service. After college, I actually wanted to work in the community, and in Baltimore I had done work with a lot of funding committees and was a youth organizer, but I hadn’t done anything directly. I just wanted to be involved in the work differently, and I thought education would be the best way I could do it.

So I became a teacher. I think about why I have experienced any modicum of success in my own right, and it’s because adults who didn’t have to care about me, did. There are so many adults who have been super important to my growth and development, and I wanted to be that for kids like me, so I taught.

Q: Who are some of those adults?

DM: There are tons. I think about Ms. Rainey, my second grade teacher who really believed in me and loved us—me and my sister. I think about Robin, who was my first boss, and she just pushed me really hard and challenged me, and believed in my thoughts, and helped me believe in myself. It’s because of her I see words differently—especially the power of words. These are people who were important to me, but they didn’t have to be. They weren’t family. They weren’t my cousins. They weren’t next-door neighbors. But they were in my life and personally chose to take care of me in the best way possible.

Q: What do you remember from your corps experience in New York?

DM: I taught sixth-grade math and teaching was one of the hardest, most incredible things I’ve ever done. My kids were exceptional. My second and third years I was there, I was the longest standing math teacher, which is absurd because I was new. Kids have so many gifts, and at my best, I’m helping them unlock their gifts. That was my work.

I also worked with incredible people, incredible teachers. I think of Ms. [Lauren] Bailes and Donnie [O’Callaghan], two of my closest friends who were also corps members. We taught together. They pushed me to see things differently. In seeing their classes’ achievements, I understood rigor differently. I understood what’s possible.

I taught some really advanced algebra to my sixth graders. There were days when Ms. Bailes would come in, and she had 30 kids. I was teaching polynomials, which is an 11th-grade standard, or was then, I was pushing my kids really hard. She would come in for the practice portion of the lesson, and she’d be there helping kids. We’d be creating spaces like that, which are really powerful in terms of supporting kids to be their best.

In my class, we were bending the rules. You could get up whenever you wanted. There were no assigned seats. You could get up and use the bathroom without asking. But there were two rules: One was that you had to be ready when I’m ready. If I’m ready to do the “I do,” then you have to be ready, too. The second was that all tests were unannounced. That helped keep me honest and them honest. Like I said, I’m proud of the space that we created together.

Q: And now you’ve become invested in social activism, namely your work with We The Protesters. Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, Oakland—it seems like you’re everywhere, and you never get tired. Does it get overwhelming at times? What keeps you going when things get tough?

DM: Half the days, I don’t really know. The work has to get done, and I know it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Some days will be better than other days, and I have hope, and hope is a belief that our tomorrows will be better than our todays—and that takes work. I’m proud of what we’ve been able to do. I’m proud of protesters around the country. In moments where my hope might wane, I just look somewhere else and see that there are people carrying the flame all over the country, and I’m proud to stand with their people.

I also have a responsibility to my kids. I think about those kids I taught who are growing up in a world that is not fair for them. It’s our responsibility to do our part to make it fair for them, to make it right. Tamir [Rice] will never make it to high school. Mike [Brown] will never make it to college. Aiyana [Jones] will never make it to middle school. And that’s not fair.

Q: You have your share of detractors and critics on social media. What’s your take on the vitriol that’s often directed your way?

DM: It’s easier to attack me than to attack systemic racism. Some days, I’m a proxy for people’s anger because they don’t know how to put words to a system that’s killing people. Or I’m a proxy for the people who just deny that racism exists, so I get that it’s not personal, and that I’m just a proxy.

Q: Do you ever fear for your safety? What does your family think of all this?

DM: My sister’s awesome. She’s very balanced in the way she supports me. She’s always there. Dre is a friend who always seems to have a friend I can stay with wherever I go. I don’t announce where I’m going until I’m there for my own safety. This happened when I went to Charleston and also in McKinney (Texas). She supports me in ways that are quiet but powerful. My father’s really funny. He’s supportive, but we text. He doesn’t really call because he doesn’t really want to freak out about the protests.

Q: At the Educators Conference, you’re scheduled to discuss how to empower young leaders? As teachers, where do we start?

DM: I think telling the truth is where you always start. When I think of the way we tell stories of resistance that are untrue—the Montgomery Bus Boycotts were started by one random professor who printed 50,000 flyers and got a few students to pass them out with her. And when other people came, and other people joined, but it’s the story of the origin of that protest that people don’t actually talk about. Because when you tell the truth about the story, it makes you realize you actually can do that, too. And that matters.

But the story we tell so often about SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference) swooping in and leading the movement isn’t true. What they came to do was support, and they did.[t6] 

There are also books that kids read that are problematic about who has power and who doesn’t. We need to think of ourselves as truth-tellers in marginalized spaces, especially with kids.

Q: Is there anything else you can reveal about what you and Brittany are going to talk about in Jacksonville?

DM: So we’re about to do a deep dive into police union contracts in a way that’s never been done before, so that’s new. We’re about to launch a set of solutions that we are calling Campaign Zero, which is this idea where we can live in a world where police don’t kill anybody, and that’s real. We can actually build systems and structures that reinforce these expectations. We’re also playing with ideas on how to intentionally influence culture and the representations of blackness in larger spaces.

Q: Can you elaborate a little on those ideas?

DM: No. (Laughs) We won’t have enough time.

Q: I guess we’ll have to wait until the Educators Conference, right?

DM: (Laughs) Yeah.


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