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Activist and educator DeRay Mckesson brings new perspective to city schools cabinet


Sonja Santelises, Baltimore schools CEO, recently appointed DeRay Mckesson, a Baltimore native and leader in the Black Lives Matter movement, to be the city schools interim chief of human capital. As an educator and an activist, Mckesson brings a unique set of experiences to his new position. 

He says he sees the classroom as a space that can change kids’ lives. But Mckesson’s time as a protester has given him insight into issues beyond the classroom.

"Not only is he an educator and has worked in school systems before, but he's been in streets with young black kids," said Netta Elzie, who met him during protests over the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., two years ago.

Elzie said Mckesson knows educators can do "all these transformative things in the classroom," but it doesn’t matter if kids can’t survive just getting back and forth to school.

"It's not that important if we can't keep kids alive in every space that they're in," she said. "Alive and thriving."

Elzie and Mckesson, who met in December 2014, have become two of the most prominent faces of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Mckesson said he decided to go to Ferguson when he noticed a disparity between coverage of the protests on TV and on Twitter.

"There was a mismatch," he said. "And it was important to me to go see with my own eyes."

At the time, Mckesson was the senior director of human capital for Minneapolis Public Schools. After a few months of flying back and forth between work and protests, he decided to quit his job and fully dedicate himself to activism.

But before that, Mckesson had spent more than seven years working in education. After graduating from Catonsville High School and Bowdoin College in Maine, he taught for two years in New York City Public Schools through Teach for America. Next, he started working for the education non-profit Higher Achievement Baltimore.

Erin Hodge Williams, then the executive director, said Mckesson’s drive for social action has been apparent since he first worked for her eight years ago as the founding director of the organization’s West Baltimore education center.

"He believed in standing up and speaking your truth," she said.

Hodge-Williams said she always admired Mckesson’s relationships with students.

"He would talk about compassion for each other and that you've got to love what you're learning, you've got to love and treat each other fairly," she said.

With more than 470,000 followers on Twitter, Mckesson has become somewhat of a national celebrity. But the name recognition hasn’t totally translated to popularity in Baltimore. He only got two percent of the vote in the city’s mayoral primary in April.

Dayvon Love, director for public policy of the local think tank Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, said Mckesson still has to earn his place in the activist community here.

"Power comes from your connection to people," he said. "He doesn't have those kind of relationships. You know, the kind of relationships that you can't get on Twitter. You can't get online. Folks that aren't going to come to protest, but people who are significant in community."

Love said he and Mckesson have a different approach to organizing.

"For me it's important to empower black institutions that are controlled by black folks," Love said. "He wants to create space for individuals to be active outside of the confines of organizations. I think that's a mistake."

But Mckesson doesn’t see it that way.

"I know that there's no one way to organize and that there's no one person who decides who's an activist or not,” he said.

Mckesson’s focused on change. And he thinks his new role in the city schools cabinet will compliment his passion for social justice.

"The work is so important that we align and that we're focused on a common goal," he said.

Mckesson sees the classroom as a space with huge potential to change kids’ lives. And the office of human capital is dedicated to making sure that students have teachers who will help them achieve.

"Teachers were some of the most important people to me growing up," he said.

In his new role, Mckesson says he will work to find the teachers who will inspire another generation of community leaders.

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