Join our diverse force of leaders shaping the course of our nation.
Honoring the 2015 Peter Jennings Award for Civic Leadership Finalists and Winners
Peter believed in Teach For America—its mission, its values, and its corps. He admired how corps members and alumni alike work in service of a stronger America, a just America, where “The Dream” truly is accessible to all.
“Americans set out to be just, but do not always achieve justice,” Peter wrote in his book, In Search of America. “They pride themselves on living in a free society, yet they do not always respect freedoms; they revere democracy, but they are sometimes undemocratic.”
And when Peter became an American citizen near the end of his life and “they” became “us”, he added, “I aspire to be a good American. And I aspire to stand for the best American values. That’s not easy. It takes work. So ‘I aspire to be a good American’ means to see the best of America, but it’s also to see the bad, and to work in a responsible way to try and make that which is bad better.”
I believe that vision is shared with the men and women of Teach for America, who work doggedly to ensure that the best America is available to every child and that all have the opportunity to contribute and flourish. That’s certainly true of this year’s finalists for the Peter Jennings Award for Civic Leadership, who represent so clearly what Peter called “the magnetic power of being part of the solution.” They thrive on challenge: if they see a gap, they find a way to fill it; if they see a problem, they invent a solution.
This year’s finalists are creative, entrepreneurial, collaborative, and passionate about contributing to a better future. Sydney Morris and Evan Stone are empowering teachers to lead on education policy; Brittany Packnett and DeRay Mckesson are working in partnership with others to ensure that young people, their parents, and their communities have information and a voice; and Jeff Nelson is making sure that underserved high school students not only get to college, but get through college.
We are proud to honor the work of all of them—so choosing a winner from amongst them was agonizing. But after a spirited discussion and a unanimous vote, the Selection Committee chose Brittany Packnett and DeRay Mckesson, who met in Ferguson, Missouri, after the shooting of Michael Brown just under a year ago. At a pivotal moment in our country, Brittany and DeRay felt the urgency, the need for a broader movement, and an opportunity—working alongside many others—to turn tragedy into transformational change.
Peter would feel good about this selection. He believed that education can be the great equalizer, but he also realized that for education to be an equalizer there must be equal access to an equal education. And that’s only possible when there is social and racial equality and, of course, equal justice.
As DeRay has so bluntly pointed out: “You’ve got to be alive to learn.” And, equally bluntly, Brittany said: “Education didn’t save Mike Brown. Racism killed him.” Time, USA Today, Fortune, The New York Times, Essence Magazine, the Washington Post and many others are writing about the work Brittany and DeRay are doing because the work they’re doing matters.
In the immediate aftermath of Michael Brown’s death when schools closed because of the unrest, Brittany, executive director of Teach For America—St. Louis, worked with parents and local teachers to coordinate a substitute school where more than 50 TFA alumni provided academic instruction and a safe place for students. In her personal time, she has been an involved activist, named by President Obama to the Presidential Task Force on 21st Century Policing and by Missouri Governor Jay Nixon to the Ferguson Commission.
Meanwhile, also in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death, DeRay made his way from Minnesota, where he was Senior Director of Human Capital with Minneapolis Public Schools, to the streets of Ferguson, where he deftly began using social media to provide Ferguson citizens a viral voice. He is co-founder of We The Protesters, a venture designed to support grassroots organizers. Recognizable everywhere these days in his trademark blue vest, DeRay is now a full-time activist working alongside others for justice and change, traveling around the country, with a rapidly growing Twitter following.
Together, DeRay and Brittany teamed up and published the This Is the Movement newsletter (along with Johnetta Elzie and Justin Hansford), facilitate #FergusonFireside, a series of virtual calls that amplify the voices of young activists, and released “Open Letters from Ferguson” a series of letters that captures the protesters’ demands for justice and has been viewed more than 260,000 times. Most recently the pair have joined forces with other activists to launch staywoke.org, a site that sits under We the Protesters and helps connect individuals interested in working to end racism to contribute in ways that best suit their unique talents and skills. Nearly 6,000 subscribers have signed up worldwide.
In the year since Ferguson, I’ve thought a lot about how Peter would have covered the story. He reported on the civil rights movement in the 1960s as a 20-something reporter, fresh from Canada and, as he described it, “thrust into the racial bitterness of the time.” In the decades that followed, he covered ethnic, religious, political, and racial strife across the globe (including the victory over apartheid in South Africa). Back in the U.S., Peter looked at America from an outsider’s perspective, and reported on it no differently than if he were reporting from any foreign country. But now, Peter would also be seeing this country as a newly minted American, who was invested in seeing the country he loved live up to its promise and to the values written into its Constitution, a copy of which he carried in his back pocket.
As DeRay and Brittany have seen this as a time for activism, Peter would have seen it as a time for journalism, a time for conversation and communication—a time to explore the country, who we are, and who we want to be. He would be hosting televised national town meetings—I suspect he would have held one within a few days of Ferguson. His reporting would address race and racism directly, and also fear and history. As a reporter, he’d be on the streets with DeRay, Brittany, and other protestors, for sure, but he’d also be talking to people on their front porches and in their kitchens, and he’d be on every side of town. He’d be trying to help us understand how we got here. And, I suspect, he’d be challenging us to be better Americans.
I believe DeRay and Brittany are doing just that. The Peter Jennings Award is for civic leadership, and we are proud to celebrate these inspiring civic leaders.
The full biographies of all of our outstanding finalists and winners can be found here.