In the first of a series of “fireside chats” with this year’s honorary degree recipients, the College welcomed DeRay Mckesson ’07 H’21, a Black Lives Matter activist and host of the podcast Pod Save the People, in a virtual conversation moderated by Beth Kowitt ’07, a journalist for Fortune Magazine. Mckesson spoke about his career as an activist and the influence of his Bowdoin education.
Mckesson left his career in teaching to become an activist following the death of Michael Brown at the hands of police in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. He said the career shift was a “faith thing.”
“One of the reasons why I was able to walk away from my job was, ‘I’m young. I’ve done all the things I wanted to do career-wise, I’ll get another job again,’” Mckesson said. “We don’t always have a chance to [do] work that we think could change the trajectory of people’s lives in this sort of way. And that’s sort of why I made that choice.”
Mckesson explained that he typically did not view himself as an activist before 2014—though he was active in Bowdoin Student Government (BSG) during his college years, serving as class president—he primarily viewed himself as a “programmer.” However, he credits this mindset for his solution-oriented approach to societal problems.
“I’m a programmer at heart … the solution stuff is programming,” Mckesson said. “I think the second thing is that sitting in the problem just overwhelms people … people walk away feeling like they’re screwed.”
This solution-based, optimistic approach to activism appeared throughout the talk, particularly when Kowitt asked Mckesson about his philosophy of activism. Mckesson, using solitary confinement in prisons as an example, spoke about his goal of reducing immediate harm while also keeping an eye on broader structural injustices—goals he does not view as mutually exclusive.
“The end of solitary confinement is not the end of incarceration, but is it a good thing? Yes,” Mckesson said. “And the reason why we fight for the end of solitary confinement is because we know that we should not put people in a box or cage for 23 hours and let them off for an hour—that is just bad. [Ending solitary confinement] doesn’t mean that they are free, but it means that we’re not hurting them in this way. And that is not at odds with the end of incarceration; they are not competing with each other. I think that too often we have put these strategies in competition, and they’re not.”
In addition to Mckesson, this year the College will honor Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease and the chief medical adviser to the president throughout the COVID-19 pandemic; William Harbour, a civil rights activist and participant in the Freedom Rides who passed away in 2020; and Dr. Jessica Meir, a NASA astronaut, marine biologist and physiologist born in Caribou, Maine.
The next fireside chat will be on May 19 with Dr. Fauci, moderated by Dr. Judith Currier ’79, a professor of medicine at UCLA Medical Center. On May 26, broadcaster and educator Alvin Hall ’74 will moderate a discussion with Dr. Meir.