DeRay Mckesson, a former Minneapolis schools official who left his job to become one of the most high-profile figures of the national Black Lives Matter movement, told local nonprofit leaders Tuesday that “Minnesota Nice” can stand in the way of equity.
As a human resources director for Minneapolis schools, Mckesson said he noticed that people in the Twin Cities liked to talk about equity — ensuring that kids regardless of color can achieve at the same high level — but sidestepped the honest, sometimes hard-to-hear conversations and criticisms that can result in change.
“Minnesota Nice does damage to kids,” he said. While observing in classrooms, he found that some “felt attacked and were defensive when people just gave feedback.”
Mckesson, known for his protest work and activism in the wake of police-involved shootings across the country, made the remarks as keynote speaker at the biannual Charities Review Council Forum in Minneapolis.
Kris Kewitsch, executive director of the Charities Review Council, urged her fellow nonprofit leaders to challenge themselves, listen to others and “dismantle nonprofit systems that work against equity.”
Mckesson walked through challenges faced by the equity and inclusion movements, mixing in personal stories that included teaching sixth-grade math in New York City, living in Minneapolis and getting arrested during protests in Baton Rouge, La.
“There are a lot of people in love with the idea of equity but not the work of equity,” said Mckesson.
Mckesson, originally from Baltimore, said that when he came to Minneapolis he wondered how a region with so much money could have one of the largest achievement gaps between white students and students of color.
“I was shocked. How does that happen?” he said.
The community, including nonprofits, must get past the workshops and do the hard work of understanding the stories of others who are different, he said.
In fighting for change, he said, activists need to oppose and disrupt the systems that propagate inequities — but then also promote a clear vision for the future.
“Protest is not the answer. Protest creates the space for the answer,” Mckesson said. “The other part of resistance is imagining, this is what the world can be.”
Mckesson was living in Minneapolis in 2014 when Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager. Mckesson drove to Ferguson and participated in the protests there. At one point, he was tear-gassed and feared for his life.
Mckesson used social media, including Twitter and a texting service, to give followers the latest protest information. He spent weekends and vacation time in Missouri, and eventually moved to St. Louis to devote himself full-time to the movement. He traveled to hot spots across the country including Baton Rouge, where he was arrested.
Mckesson and fellow activists launched “Mapping Police Violence,” which collected data on people killed by police, and started wetheprotesters.org, a mobilizing effort that uses social media and the internet to connect and organize activists demanding police reforms.
He met with President Barack Obama at a 2016 meeting of civil rights leaders that included Cornell Brooks, president of the NAACP, and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. Later, he returned to Baltimore and unsuccessfully ran for mayor.
Mckesson said many have misunderstood the movement.
“Many have confused the movement to be anti-police,” he said. At its core, he said, the movement is “pro-safety and pro-justice.”