Gerald Dessus: Changing the game by creating a generation of 'woke warriors'

Cherri Gregg
February 14, 2019 - 6:00 am
Gerald Dessus

Cherri Gregg/KYW Newsradio

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Gerald Dessus, a social justice educator at Mastery Charter School's Shoemaker Campus, is training the next generation of "woke warriors."

"It's been a journey," said Dessus, who was hired to design the school's social justice curriculum three years ago by the principal, Sharif El-Mekki. "But I didn't want to step into something that would be a test course — here today and gone tomorrow."

Fast forward, and it appears that Dessus has planted seeds in the eighth-graders he teaches who then blossom when they are in high school.  

But the catalyst is walking the students through a new way of thinking about themselves and where they fit in the world. He also gives them the tools to research and think critically about the systems and structures in society.

"What does it look like to dismantle systems of power and systems of oppression?" said Dessus, who taught a class on apartheid in South Africa last week.

He said the students have become more conscious and have come to him to discuss some of the many social issues, like LGBT and racial discriminations.

"It's one thing to talk about it in class or for it to be an assignment," said Dessus, "but it's another thing for students to bring these issues up. They are thinking about these issues."

A graduate of Lincoln University and the University of Kansas, Dessus was raised in the West Oak Lane and Olney sections of Philadelphia. The High School for the Creative and Performing Arts grad admitted that while growing up, he did not know where he fit in the world, but books made him feel at home. So early on, the idea of working in the classroom was very appealing.

"It just felt like home," he added. "It felt right."

Dessus originally thought he'd teach music, but instead decided he’d work to find a way to empower youth. He never imagined he'd teach eighth-graders — who are in a transition and figuring out who they are — about social justice.

"We really found something that works," he said. "Students are really engaged."

 

Outside of the Shoemaker Campus in West Philadelphia, there are blighted homes and visible poverty. The windows in Dessus' classroom are covered with blinds or positive images, creating a safe world within the walls of the school.

"You can't see the abandoned houses across the street," he noted. "It wasn't intentional, but it was probably subconscious because I want the students to see past what is in their direct neighborhood."

In his classroom, the students discuss justice issues from around the nation and the world. They test theories and learn about victims, bystanders, upstanders and oppressors, with Dessus showing them how ordinary people can create movements that challenges the systems in which they live.

But the presence of a black male educator in a school — even when majority of the students are African-American — is rare.

Nationally, only 2 percent of all teachers are black men. Although the number is slightly higher in Philadelphia, Dessus understands that his mere presence is powerful. He recounts an instance where pep talks to a young black male student made an impact.

"He was struggling with health issues and missing a lot of days of school," he recalled. "He struggled throughout the year and did a complete 360 midway through his ninth-grade year, and now he's a model student."

Dessus said the outcome was unexpected.

"Those small moments turn into something impactful," he said. "He'd check in often. I am trying to get him to think about teaching."

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GameChangers is led by KYW Newsradio's community affairs reporter Cherri Gregg and recognizes 10 individuals or organizations that are making a positive impact on communities of color. For a full list of 2019's GameChangers, visit kywnewsradio.com/gamechangers.