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Activist DeRay Mckesson joins Catonsville Youth for Black Lives Matter for virtual panel discussion on social injustice

Activist DeRay Mckesson, shown last year, took part Thursday in a virtual discussion with Catonsville Youth for Black Lives Matter members. Mckesson, co-founder of Campaign Zero, a nonprofit organization focused on reducing police violence, is a graduate of Catonsville High School.
Activist DeRay Mckesson, shown last year, took part Thursday in a virtual discussion with Catonsville Youth for Black Lives Matter members. Mckesson, co-founder of Campaign Zero, a nonprofit organization focused on reducing police violence, is a graduate of Catonsville High School. (Michael Loccisano/Getty)

Three months after organizing their first march and protest, Catonsville Youth for Black Lives Matter held a virtual panel discussion Thursday evening to continue the conversation on combating social injustice in their community.

Formed by students at Catonsville High School, the group is fighting for equity and inclusivity in their school.

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Co-hosted by the group and the Catonsville Women’s Giving Circle, an organization committed to enhancing philanthropy in the community, the panel featured seven students and outspoken civil rights activist and CHS alumnus DeRay Mckesson.

Mckesson, who was born and raised in Baltimore, rose to prominence during the unrest following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri by using social media as a tool to organize.

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“You have way more power than any system will ever tell you,” he told the students taking part in the discussion. “We are trying to break a system that has never been broken before and it will take you.”

Six years after Ferguson, Mckesson is co-founder of Campaign Zero, a nonprofit organization focused on reducing police violence, host of the award-winning podcast “Pod Save the People,” author of “On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope,” and a leading voice in the Black Lives Matter movement. During the discussion, he shared his experience attending CHS.

He recalled not being able to get into Advanced Placement English and seeing only a few students of color in higher level courses.

“When I was at Catonsville, all the Black kids were in standard [level courses],” he said. “There were two Black people in any AP class at Catonsville High that I was in my entire time."

Following Mckesson, students, Taylor Holmes, Stephen Hook, Deborah Tadesse, Nusrat Tusi, Briana Whitehurst, Bethlehem Wolde and Michael Wright shared their experiences at the school and offered solutions on how to better educate the community.

Tusi, 18, a senior at CHS and member of the group, said she felt some of her teachers viewed her differently as a student of color.

She said she joined the group as a way to share what she has endured in school.

“I, myself, have had experiences as a [person of color] that sheds a light on the way [people of color] in my school and other schools are [treated],” she said.

During her time in the group, she said she has learned that the fight for justice is ongoing.

“[Social justice] is not something you do once and let go,” she said. “When you dedicate your time and energy to social justice, you [hear] the extremely beautiful but painful stories and testimonies of people who have different experiences than you. [Those] stories encourage you to fight even harder and longer.”

Monica Simonsen, a member of the Catonsville Women’s Giving Circle and former teacher to Mckesson, organized and moderated the panel.

After participating in the march, she said the organization wanted to play a role in addressing equity in the community.

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“We realized we had these youth advocates in our community, and we wanted to find a way to amplify their voices,” she said.

As a part of its work, the organization provides grants to charitable organizations and programs in the community and plans to supply a grant to help the group fund implicit bias training for teachers in their school.

At the end of the discussion, the students shared how their involvement in the group has changed their career trajectories.

Wright said he aspires to be an elementary schoolteacher and obtain a position where he can enact change.

“I realized I can do more than be a teacher in a classroom, but I now want to work on improving the educational system of the U.S.," he said. “It needs a lot of reformation not only in regards to race, but the system itself and how we are teaching students. I want to represent the voices of teachers across the country and students and their needs and what they feel school should be like.”

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