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Session with DeRay Mckesson, Catonsville students prompts group to make new push for racial inclusion

One month after hosting a virtual panel discussion on racial and social injustice, the Catonsville Women’s Giving Circle is discussing ways to help local organizations promote equity and inclusion in the community.

The panel featured seven members of Catonsville Youth for Black Lives Matter, an advocacy group formed by students at Catonsville High School, and outspoken civil rights activist and CHS alumnus, DeRay Mckesson.

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During the discussion, some of the panelists shared their experience at the school as students of color and offered suggestions as to how the school can work toward inclusivity.

Mckesson reminisced on his time at the school and recalled not seeing many students of color in upper level classes.

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

After participating in a June march and protest organized by Catonsville Youth for Black Lives Matter, members of the giving circle wanted to partner with them to assist in the goal of promoting equity and inclusion in their school.

Monica Simonsen, member of the giving circle and former teacher at CHS, moderated the panel.

Inspired by the students' stories shared at the march, she helped organize the Sept. 24 panel, to further amplify their voices.

“The original plan was to [put on] an education event to shine a light on racial and equity issues in our community,” Simonsen said. “Catonsville has a long, complicated relationship with race, equity and segregation and we sought an opportunity to shine a light on how race and racism impacts youth in school and in their community. [The panel] was an opportunity to help other people in the community see things differently.”

Simonsen, who taught Mckesson at CHS, asked him to join the panel to share his experience in activism.

Mckesson, who is co-founder of Campaign Zero, a nonprofit organization fighting to end police violence, rose to prominence amid the unrest following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and has since become a leading voice in the Black Lives Matter movement.

Simonsen said one of the things that struck her from the discussion was Mckesson describing his experience with inequity at the school, but not having the language at the time to express it.

“DeRay made a comment that in activism, you often have the experience before you have the language to go with it,” she said.

Rebekah Kaufman, who is co-chair of the education committee for the giving circle, learned about Catonsville Youth for Black Lives Matter from members of the giving circle who attended the June march.

Previously taking on issues like clean water, homelessness and human trafficking, she said the giving circle wanted to support the group in their effort to create a diverse community.

“We were very interested in continuing to support and promote the idea of the Black Lives Matter movement along with an interest in creating a welcoming and diverse atmosphere in the giving circle,” she said. “We felt that it might be the perfect meeting of ideas — not only does [Catonsville Youth for Black Lives Matter] support the movement, [but] it supports our community, it supports our young people and creates that welcoming basis for what we hope will be a diverse community in Catonsville.”

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The aim of the panel, she said, was for the community to come together after the march to discuss the next steps.

As a part of its mission, the giving circle awards grants to local organizations to support them in their effort to better the community and plans to award a grant to the Catonsville Youth for Black Lives Matter to help them fund implicit bias training for teachers at their school.

Since forming in 2010, the giving circle has awarded nearly $206,000 in grants to local organizations.

Additionally, it plans to offer a seat on its 15-member leadership team to a member of Grace African Methodist Episcopal Church to promote diverse ideas and perspectives within the giving circle.

Kelly Strzelecki, who is co-chair of the education committee for the giving circle, said the organization is making an intentional effort to promote diversity in its membership.

Inspired by the efforts of the students, it has decided to first address diversity inward before addressing it outward.

“With all the discussions around Black Lives Matter and inherent bias in our society, we as an organization and our leadership team wanted to take a deeper look at the lack of diversity in our membership and on our leadership team to see how we could be more inclusive," she said. "The students at CHS were asking our community in a very public way to do that, so we thought they were a good place to start.”

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