DeRay Mckesson shares activist mentality with students

    “We are not born woke, something wakes us up.”

    On Thursday night, Northwestern’s Global Engagement Summit brought futurist, civil rights activist and educator DeRay Mckesson to the stage as their keynote speaker. The topic of the address: How to sustain passion and get involved in this generation of activism.

    Addressing the audience with casual language and a wealth of anecdotes, Mckesson spoke of the necessity of truth in this time of "sexy" activism.

    “You don’t have to be at every table, but the truth does,” said Mckesson.

    Throughout his address, Mckesson spoke about what it means to be an activist. McKesson began participating in the social media activist sphere after the death of Michael Brown, when he called up a friend and told him he needed to get involved.

    “I was answering my own call,” said Mckesson of the decision.

    With his vest as protection, Mckesson stood in the middle of the road in Ferguson holding a sign that said “My blackness is not a weapon.” Now, just three years later, Mckesson has met with Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to discuss issues of inequity and race, and was even invited to Beyonce’s birthday party, which he casually mentioned as the time he met with Will.I.Am.

    Mckesson believes the root of activism is understanding the ideas behind an action – behind why someone would oppose food stamps or why someone chooses to protest. He believes that this, along with the truth, are two of the most important things to consider when preparing an activist front.

    “You don’t have to be at every table, but the truth does,” Mckesson said. “Truth makes sure we are not erased. Either the story is never told, or it is told by people who are not us.”

    Mckesson shared his strategy: to not only be outside the system, but to be within it too. In 2016, Mckesson ran for mayor of Baltimore. Although he did not win, he said that he still sees enacting change from within as an important effort in keeping the stride of a movement going. 

    Beyond the action, power in protest comes from being able to 'follow your own call'.

    “You are chosen for this work,” Mckesson told the audience. “Always answer a call that is your own.”

     Mckesson closed his speech with a point on positivity and tied in his gay and Black identities. 

    “My identity doesn’t mix in me like oil and water, but I show up as a whole me everytime,” he said. 

    Many left the event with motivations to actively achieve.

    “I was positive before this [event],” Northwestern senior and attendee John Hoffman said, “but I feel like my positivity is now much more grounded, and motivated.”

    The culture of engagement that Global Engagement Summit promotes was shaped by Mckesson’s speech.

    “I feel more hopeful,” first-year GES member Dorothy Calba said. “Not that I have the power right now or know what to do, but that someone can help; that makes me more hopeful.”


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