DeRay Mckesson, a prominent figure in the Black Lives Matter social movement, spoke last night to a packed audience at the Afro-American Cultural Center about the importance of social media and educational reform in effecting meaningful social change.
Mckesson is a former middle school math teacher who is now an activist within the Black Lives Matter movement, which seeks to reduce police violence against and systematic oppression of African Americans. He delivered a two-day guest lecture on leadership at the Yale Divinity School on Oct. 2 and 3. At the conversation at the Af-Am House, Mckesson responded to questions from the roughly 250 students in the audience about topics ranging from the movement’s relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to current presidential candidates to the contact celebrities have had with the Black Lives Matter movement. Mckesson’s responses most frequently highlighted the power of Twitter and education in advancing the cause of racial equality.
In particular, Mckesson said, Twitter was integral to his own rise to prominence as an activist. He praised Twitter and social media more generally for providing a space for the discussion of issues that have not historically received mainstream attention.
“Social media has become the space where we tell the truth,” Mckesson said. “It not only makes people woke but allows people to stay woke.”
Mckesson went on to note, however, that social media can also be personally hurtful to individuals involved in campaigns for recognition and social change. He recognized that the tool has been used in the past to provoke infighting within the Black Lives Matter movement.
Still, while acknowledging that social media brings out “the good, the bad and the ugly,” Mckesson said that ultimately it “renders the invisible visible.” It allows minorities to tell their own story, rather than have it told by mainstream media, he added.
Mckesson also emphasized the role of education in influencing social change.
“Twitter and the classroom are the last two fully democratic spaces in America,” he said.
He added that teachers who work with young children need to be very conscious of how power is represented in the schoolbooks they use, noting that the history of protest in America is often “whitewashed” in schools, though the roots of protest predate whiteness itself.
Yale students in particular, he said, need to be proactive in expressing their ideas. He encouraged students to make the University work for them and not to be complacent about their learning.
“[Just] because you are at a good school doesn’t mean you will get a good education,” Mckesson said. “You have to work for that.”
In response to a student’s question about the relationship of other minorities to the Black Lives Matter movement, Mckesson said the conversation the movement created has resulted in more discussion of other issues, including those surrounding immigrants and LGBTQ individuals.
Mckesson did not directly address the topic of the name of Calhoun College during his remarks. But students interviewed after the talk said Mckesson’s presence on campus is especially relevant in light of current discussions of racial issues, including the question of whether Yale should rename a college named after a vocal proponent of slavery.
“The only reason the [Calhoun College] issue has resurfaced is the Black Lives Matter movement,” said Lex Barlowe ’17, president of the Black Student Alliance at Yale, which hosted the event along with the Yale College Democrats.
But Barlowe added that she was glad no one directly asked Mckesson about the issue, noting that hearing his broader perspective on racial issues was preferable to discussing issues too internally focused on Yale.
Hedy Gutfreund ’18, communications director for the Yale College Democrats, also recognized the relevance of the movement to the Calhoun conversation, but noted that because the Democrats focus on non-Yale political issues, the organization has no official stance on the Calhoun question.
Near the end of the event, Mckesson emphasized the inclusivity of the Black Lives Matter movement and its push for African-American rights.
“In fighting for black lives, everyone is freed,” he said.