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On the Other Side of Freedom

Annual Pride Lecture Emphasized Uplifting Black and Brown Voices

Every April, student leaders from the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s LGBTQIA Programs plan and execute a month-long calendar of events in celebration of Pride Month. For the past four years, the Pride Month lecture—the group’s most featured event of the month—has brought thought leaders to campus to engage in discussion about identity and equity, and social justice issues within the gay community. This year, civil rights activist and educator DeRay Mckesson served as the event’s featured speaker, and his message emphasized the importance of uplifting black and brown voices in the fight for change.

Mckesson emerged on the national scene as a leading voice protesting police killings following the 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. As a co-founder of JoinCampaignZero.org, MappingPoliceViolence.org, ResistanceManual.org and OurStates.org, Mckesson has used social media strategically to connect individuals with knowledge and tools, and to provide citizens and policymakers with commonsense policies to ensure equity. He delivered an empowering message April 26 to a diverse crowd in Pierson Auditorium of what it takes to do the work to obtain social justice.

Throughout his lecture, Mckesson broke down what he called “the four big buckets that are ‘the work’” of social justice.

Programs and Services

Mckesson paralleled the process of critiquing the system to the process of breaking bread—we take it, we bless it, and we break it. In critiquing the system, he said we start by

  • Taking inventory of the way the system is working in people’s lives. Then,
  • We bless it – understand how the system is made up of choices that people make. Lastly,
  • We break it, or figure out what the laws and structures are that allow the outcomes of those choices to happen the way they do, and work to change them.

“We talk about systems and structures so much because we believe that shapes the way people interact in space and society,” said Mckesson.

While he acknowledged that programs and services are important, Mckesson pointed out that most community-based programs only exist because the structure didn’t get it right in the first place. Too many programs are not focused on addressing the right issues.

“What would it look like to provide solutions that aren’t patronizing,” said Mckesson, adding that the community needs programs that will teach people skills. “Skill is going to be what sets people up to make different choices and get out of poverty.”

Imagination

As he took a minute to retell the story about a dangerous experience he had while whitewater rafting, Mckesson said, much like the trauma of being marginalized, all he could think about was what was right in front of him.

“When you’re trapped in trauma, you forget how to imagine and dream,” said Mckesson. “You can’t fight for what you can’t imagine.” His advice? Name the constraints, and then ignore those constraints as you start to imagine.

“I can imagine a world where people can be in community with each other, and can disagree and not attack one another’s identities.”

In a day where we are talking about the transgender community in ways we’ve never talked about, and talking about being gay and queer in ways we’ve never talked about, Mckesson said he is mindful that the conversation hasn’t changed that much.

“The conversation has to open up space so that we actually change systems and structures in ways of being in community with one another.”

Power

He went on to discuss the concept of power and how it fits into the work of social justice. Mckesson explained that there are two ways to think about power:

  • Power over – the idea that, simply, some people win and some lose, and
  • Power with – the idea that everybody wins

“’Power with’ is one of the reasons why we say if we find solutions for the most marginalized, we can actually find solutions for everybody else—because we believe we can live in a world of equity, justice and joy,” said Mckesson, adding that the work of justice is almost always about equity, where everyone gets what they need and deserve.

Mckesson explained that rather than switching places with the oppressor to have power over another group of people, we should find ways to work together so everybody wins. Following that point, he discussed the importance of understanding privilege and using that understanding to help dismantle it.

“Our goal is to get to a place of balance.”

What Type of People Are You Going To Be vs. What Type of People There Are

Mckesson said he supports breaking and critiquing the system, but only if we are going to build something better. He also encourages finding beneficial solutions rather than losing one’s identity in the battle.

“Our work can’t always be about tearing things down. It has to be about creating something better that our lives deserve.” The goal, he said, is to help people imagine a world of freedom, justice and equity.

“The only way to get justice is to do the work,” he said, adding that justice is about always having a dream and a prayer that is bigger than ourselves.

As he wrapped up his lecture he took questions from the audience and ended with one piece of advice: “Dream as big as possible.”


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