The three keynotes—DeRay Mckesson, Alex Sheen and Stacey Abrams—shared their experiences and perspectives with afterschool professionals, joining in virtually from all around the country. Here are some main takeaways from these empowering sessions.
Power and Empower: Lifting Our Voices, Supporting Our Youth
In his keynote, DeRay Mckesson, an internationally recognized civil rights activist/organizer and host of the podcast Pod Save the People, shared resources that support the work of afterschool professionals along with strategies that empower them as advocates for themselves and youth to help our democracy flourish.
Mckesson, who attended afterschool programs in his youth, said actively dispelling myths has to be part of learning for youth.
"It is not a shocker that the places where we invest a lot of time and resources are the places where things actually change," said Mckesson. "These are all places where we know the system has changed. In Baltimore, until we actually make these systemic investments that will change outcomes at scale, the programs will always have a limited impact. In places where we've done deep systemic work, outcomes have changed. In places where there's been a lot of conversation and a lot of interesting ideas, but no systemic work, the outcomes have actually gotten worse."
The stories we tell shape the lessons we learn.
Mckesson describes the way he once heard a senior leader in his district speak about a school in his community that had a stereotypical reputation for being intense.
"The story that we told about those young people wasn't that we failed them, it wasn't that we hadn't prepared them well, it wasn't that the teacher wasn't equipped to do their job. It was that THEY were misbehaving, THEY were deviant and THEY didn't care about education," said Mckesson, noting these stories shaped the way the district made decisions.
We lead with skills.
"I can't tell you the amount of afterschool programs that lead with love and not skills," said Mckesson. "That's not fair to our kids. Love is part of the equation, and always has to be, but the skills work also has to be present."
We never let the system off the hook. (System, not psyche.)
Mckesson goes on to describe laws in varying cities and communities, and why it's important for us to understand them.
"As advocates, part of our work is creating quality programs. But the ultimate goal is that every kid has out-of-school resources, not just the kids that we know," said Mckesson.
"We have to learn how the system is working in order to push it."
We speak plainly about the things we deserve.
"It's not radical to say every kid should have breakfast, lunch and dinner. It's not radical to say that every family should have access to resources," said Mckesson, adding that advocates should be direct about what they know youth need. "We should talk about them as if they're normal."
We understand that (young) people have the experiences before they have the language.
Though youth may not have the language to describe something they've lived through, they gain the experience.
"I think a lot about the people who live in Baltimore in food deserts who don't have the language about food deserts," said Mckesson. "It doesn't make their experience any less real."
Part of afterschool professionals work, said Mckesson, is to make those bridges.
"Part of our work is to validate those experiences and get as close to it as possible, and then help people move close to the language or build new language."
We understand the constraints as present and not permanent.
"Part of what it means to grow up in a marginalized community is that you often know what constraints are as a matter of survival," said Mckesson. "Part of what our work is to say 'What would we want to build if there weren't constraints?' because we know that constraints we face are present—not permanent."
We define the terms.
Equality / Equity
Diversity / Inclusion
Citizen / Criminal
Accountability / Justice
These terms, often paired together, are different.
We preach to the choir.
Often looked at as a negative, Mckesson says it's actually the opposite.
"We know the best choir directors reminded you that you had a voice before you walked into the room. The gift is being able to use that voice long after the choir is gone," said Mckesson, who truly believes afterschool programs change lives.
"Are you doing the work to build experiences young people will never forget?"
Keeping Our Promises: Connecting and Keeping It Real
In his keynote, Alex Sheen, founder of because I said I would, explored what it takes to reach beyond our comfort zones, to hold ourselves accountable, and to make a difference.
"Have you ever wondered to yourself: 'I wonder what it's like to go viral?'" asked Sheen, who went viral himself and went on to describe how this shaped his views on leadership and the future generation. It started with Sheen's father, Al.
"When he said he was going to be there, he would show up," Sheen said of his father, who was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer in 2011. Against the incredible odds, Al's treatment started to work. However, the cancer would return to his lungs and spread elsewhere throughout his body. On September 4, 2012, Al passed.
"I played some music I thought he would like and desperately tried to comfort him as he died," said Sheen, who, while writing his father's eulogy, kept coming back to the thought of keeping a promise. He handed out cards with the phrase "because I said I would" on them, leaving space for promises to be written.
"I made this post online—an offer—I said I would mail 10 promise cards to anybody anywhere at no cost," said Sheen, who since that day has distributed 9.81 million promise cards in 153 countries around the world. "We all understand the importance of a promise."
Sheen eventually quit his well-paying tech job to start his own nonprofit organization, thanks to a life-changing letter sent to him, initially anonymously, in February 2013.
"I'm all in," said Sheen. "It's is the belief and the power of a single individual to shape the world and make it a better place."
The common key is education. That's why through because I said I would, Sheen invests in character development and charitable causes changing the lives of people all over the world. On June 15, 2013, Sheen walked 245 miles across Ohio over 10 days to honor and raise funds for Amanda Berry, Michelle Knight, and Gina DeJesus, who were held captive and tortured in a house in Cleveland for 10 years.
"There are good people left in this world, I'm sure of it," said Sheen. "When you have a strong why, you can be strong."
SPEAK UP: With Persistence Toward a Better Future
In her keynote, Stacey Abrams, political leader, nonprofit CEO, entrepreneur, author, and first African American woman to be a gubernatorial nominee of a major party in the United States, inspired and empowered attendees with her experiences, insights, and vision.
Convincing others—and yourself—that you're capable of taking charge and achieving more requires insight and courage. Harnessing your strength to speak out and define the future we deserve takes motivation and persistence.
Abrams described her upbringing and the work her parents did to bring services to those who needed it in their Mississippi community.
"Thank you so much for what you do, because I know what afterschool programs can deliver," said Abrams, who went on to describe the effects Hurricane Katrina had on Mississippi and added that resiliency was key and still is today. "In a time of social distancing, what you can do is prepare for the moment for the time this pandemic recedes. And I want to talk to you about how you can lead once this ends."
"As you reach out to communities you serve, you may hear about anger and angst, but they may not know how to articulate their anxiety and fear," said Abrams, noting to also listen to what you're NOT hearing. "Part of the resilience you have is that you can hear below the words they're saying."
We've seen too many people willing to talk. What we need, Abrams says, is leaders who are willing to listen.
"Learning can sometimes feel out of bounds," said Abrams. "You can learn from clients, kids, and parents, and part of what you can learn is how you can interject and offer up things you know how to do. You have the ability to help parents adapt to this new reality."
Abrams also suggests doing an annual SWOT analysis.
"As you think about how you lead in the face if a federal government that doesn't value you as much as they should, part of your learning could be taking advantage of what you know how to do," she said.
"In this moment, you have a fundamental opportunity to stretch your power more than you realized you could," said Abrams. "You have the ability to be truth-tellers."
Abrams described her reasoning for running for Georgia governor in 2018.
"It was the work I wanted to do. I wanted to support our public schools and make sure we are supporting the whole child," said Abrams, who went on to create three organizations post-race.
Abrams also stressed the importance of the 2020 U.S. Census, noting you have to participate in order to truly be counted.
Advice for women and people of color aspiring for leadership positions:
"I believe that we've been told the way to advance is to find mentors, but for many women and people of color it's difficult," said Abrams "I believe in creating our own set of mentors and sometimes we don't even know we're mentors."
Sometimes, Abrams says, we have to shift our idea of what support looks like and think situationally about who can help you in the moment.
When asked about her thoughts on the possibility of being vice president, Abrams is forward about being more than happy to take on the role if given the opportunity.
"We can't expect people to deliver us what we're unwilling to say what we want," said Abrams.
"You need to ask not just for you, but for the person who will follow after you. And that is a transformative moment for so many."