Last week, Full Court Press team member Caitlin Scott visited Inforum, an Innovation Lab at the Bay Area institution The Commonwealth Club. This event featured renowned activist DeRay Mckesson interviewed by Obama White House alumnus Dan Pfeiffer. Caitlin shares some key lessons and takeaways below.
Grassroots Organizing on the Right Side of Justice: Lessons Learned from DeRay Mckesson
DeRay Mckesson’s name is often in the news, and his weekly podcast “Pod Save the People” features robust and thoughtful discussions on current events — particularly those impacting marginalized communities. I admire DeRay’s ability to distill complicated and layered topics into a sensitive narrative that is digestible and actionable.
DeRay is one of my generation’s most important voices on American civil rights. He is a leader of the Black Lives Matter movement, a frequent target of conservative pundits, and one of less than a dozen people who Beyoncé follows on Twitter. But perhaps most importantly, DeRay has engaged a generation to advance racial justice at a time when the energy for political activism is electric, and the Trump administration is rapidly working to turn the clock back on civil rights.
While it would be a tall order to recount all of the wisdom DeRay imparted to his audience at the Commonwealth Club in a single blog post, here are the top five takeaways from DeRay for aspiring changemakers and grassroots organizers:
- Start Where You Are — In the wake of Michael Brown’s death, DeRay saw a Facebook event for a protest in Ferguson. Despite not knowing anyone in Missouri, he felt it was important to go. He got in his car, drove to Missouri to attend the protest, and it changed his entire life. The lesson for aspiring changemakers is that you don’t need to wait for a grand invitation to start being an activist — just start where you are. Start with anything. Start today.
- People Cannot Organize Around Things They Don’t Know; Help Each Other Know More — The wounds to our society inflicted by systemic racism are vast and deep. These wounds remain very open. DeRay points out that people cannot be activists for things they don’t know about. Knowledge is power, and by helping the people around us become more aware of injustices in our society, we empower more people to fight for what is right.
- Let’s Rethink the Way We Demonstrate — DeRay suggested reevaluating how activists approach protesting. Conventional wisdom says that protesting is standing in a public place — perhaps with a poster, perhaps chanting, perhaps marching, etc. By rethinking the way we demonstrate, we can potentially make even more impactful statements during a peaceful protest. For instance, rather than engaging in a traditional protest outside a white nationalist rally, think about how impactful it would be for a group of people to surround the facility and turn their backs in unison. No shouting, no signs, but a demonstration with a powerful impact.
- Don’t Root Your Identity in the Battle, Look for Solutions — DeRay pointed out that people are not primed for solutions. Many of us are used to hearing the problem repeated over and over again. That can become problematic if our passion is rooted in the fight, and not in the solution. By giving ourselves and others an end goal to believe in, activists have an opportunity to go one step further than merely pointing out the problem. We can share our vision of what an equitable and just world looks like.
- It Doesn’t Matter Where You Tell the Truth, Just Tell the Truth — DeRay reminded us that everyone’s life is different. For some people, going to a city council meeting on a Wednesday night just isn’t possible. Rather than opting out of activism all together, look for the things you can do. It doesn’t matter where you start speaking truth to power, just start doing it. Whether it’s on Twitter, at a coffee shop with friends, at a protest, in an intimate conversation with a family member, or while running for office. It doesn’t matter where you tell the truth— just start speaking the truth!
These five key points are also applicable to our clients, as many of them are organizational changemakers fighting for a more equitable world. We often tell clients to pick one thing and focus on doing that one thing really well. DeRay’s comments reinforced this advice. Nonprofits and foundations working for social change don’t need to commit to fulfilling all the needs of all the people. Rather, they can start where they are to fight for what is right — whether that’s on social media, at a community event, with an opinion editorial, or even a blog post like this one.