Clad in his trademark blue Patagonia vest, DeRay Mckesson took the stage for the L.A. Times Ideas Exchange to discuss his new book “On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope” at the Theatre at Ace Hotel on Monday.
Mckesson penned his experience in rising to the forefront of millennial activism through the Black Lives Matter movement, and also shared more personal anecdotes of family and his sexuality.
“I wrote about things you’d expect — about the protests, about the police. And then I write about being gay for the first time in the book. I write about my mother who left,” Mckesson said. “I wanted to share the lessons, the things that I’ve learned and hopefully people can learn from them too.”
At 33, Mckesson is a prominent activist, a leading voice in the Black community, host of his podcast “Pod Save the People,” former school teacher and administrator, has ran for mayor of Baltimore, and is now the author of his autobiography.
L.A. Times film reporter Tre’vell Anderson moderated the conversation and asked Mckesson about his motivation to write his book, what he’s learned along his journey with activism, and what the challenging but promising future of America looks like.
Mckesson was joined halfway through the discussion by his Crooked Media colleague Jon Favreau, who spoke on politics in media and activism in social media.
“I’ve learned more as a teacher than I have with anything else,” Mckesson said. “Teaching is the most incredible thing I’ve ever done. I’m proud every time I see my students as adults now, and they still have a love of math and love learning. I’m still close to the people I’ve taught with.”
Mckesson explained the connections he’s made between his role as a sixth grade teacher and his role as an activist. He said the best teachers know that there’s a “gift” in every student, and part of their work is to help kids find and use their “gift” long after they’re gone. The worst teachers walk into class and make their students think that the “gift” only exists in their presence, Mckesson said.
“What the best organizers and activists do is go into communities and say ‘You had the gift before I got here’ and part of what I’m trying to do is help you activate it,” Mckesson said. “I can’t give you power, what I can do is help you find the power you have and that is part of the magic.”
When it comes to advice for young people seeking to make change in their communities, Mckesson said to start at home. All the best activism begins where you are, he said.
“The system is designed to make you believe that you don’t have power. Part of it is believing, even in the midst of the disbelief, that your voice can do something,” Mckesson said. “We have to dream the big dream. One of the hard things about growing up sometimes is that all we feel are the constraints, and that we can’t imagine a world without the constraints. We can achieve this, and part of it is believing that we can.”