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If it wasn’t for First Wave, Deshawn McKinney probably wouldn’t have come to the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

McKinney, a senior studying English and creative writing, is one of the university's most honored students. He is a finalist for a Rhodes Scholarship, won the Truman Scholarship in the spring and, last month, won the prestigious Marshall Scholarship, given to less than 40 students in the nation.

But McKinney said he might not have come from the north side of Milwaukee to Madison if it hadn’t been for First Wave, a groundbreaking program that combines hip-hop, academics and activism.

“I don’t think there would have been anything strong enough to pull me here otherwise,” he said. “The uniqueness of it, and also the ability to have something and somewhere to ground myself, a foundation. Hip-hop culture means everything. It permeates society everywhere.”

McKinney was a slam poet when he started at the UW, but he said First Wave showed him how to use words for more than just scoring points at slams. As president of the Wisconsin Union and a Black Lives Matters activist, McKinney has fought for racial equity and social justice on campus.

“(McKinney) is easily, hands down, the best undergraduate thinker I’ve ever encountered,” said English professor and poet Amy Quan Barry.

McKinney studied in Tokyo last summer, and will be going to England next fall to study public policy as part of the Marshall Scholarship. He talked with the Cap Times about how traveling to other countries has informed his perspective on America, how the Union could serve as a model for bringing people on campus together, and how incidents like the “noose costume” at Camp Randall affect racial progress at the UW-Madison:

What’s it like to travel and study abroad, and how does that make you look back on the United States?

Travel has always meant a lot to me. Growing up I never got the chance to do it. In Milwaukee I was really confined to this little area, this neighborhood, and that’s all I knew. So coming into college, the world opened up a lot for me.

Every time that I’ve been abroad it’s made me appreciate the U.S. more. It makes me feel more grounded here, which then makes me want to fight more for it to live up to its ideals. There’s something about being abroad, the places that I’ve been to and I’ve seen, they don’t quite feel like home. They don’t match up to what I feel like this country can be. So it reaffirms that commitment.

You’ll be leaving the country in a very interesting time for America, where a lot feels very unsettled.

It’s put a lot in perspective for a lot of people, but in a lot of scary ways. It’s rocked the boat for a lot of people’s personal relationships and work relationships. Everybody’s trying to navigate it, and what does it mean when someone I love and care for voted the opposite way from me?

There’s an inclination to automatically label all Trump supporters as racist. And some of them are, right? But there’s the other section, where people are voting for legitimate things like, “All the jobs are gone, the factories are closed.” They’re voting for their economic interests. But at the same time, you’re still complicit in the racism, the sexism and the xenophobia, which isn’t okay.

Is conversation the big thing that needs to happen? 

I think that’s part of it. That just doesn’t happen that much anymore. Everyone is so polarized. If you’re on the other side of the aisle from me, than I don’t want to hear you. That goes both ways. 

Things have to be out on the table, and we have to better understand each other and be willing to debate each other. But not all ideas are up for debate in terms of core beliefs. It’s not up for debate for me whether my life matters. Or things like equity and equality for same-sex couples. Basic human rights are not up for debate.

You’re president of the Wisconsin Union. Do you see the Union as a space that’s welcoming to different people throughout the university to come together and, if not have those conversations, at least be in proximity with one another?

It is ideal for that, but it’s not there yet. We’re trying to move it there, inching it along. It’s this massive entity on campus, like the most visited place. It has this deep well of alumni and trustees and community members who love it. But not everybody feels at home there. For majority students it’s great on campus. A lot of students of color, or students who are part of groups who feel marginalized, like queer students or Muslim students, the union isn’t quite the place for them.

They’re more likely to go someplace like the Red Gym, where there’s resources and community and a space. I know on any given day, if I go there, I know I’m going to run into somebody who looks like me. At the Union, the chances of that are a lot less.

So it’s a building process. Part of that is getting more of these populations into the Union. I think I’m the first black man president of the Union, and the Union has gone on for over a century. I think you can count on one hand the number of presidents of color, and it was all women before me.

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What impact has First Wave had both on your life and the life of the university?

It introduced me to my ability to impact the world. The entry point through that was art. I came up through slam poetry, which is competitive poetry, earning points for the team. But you come into First Wave, day one, they break all that down. You move into something new. You start to see that your words can have more importance than those points, and can have an impact on the world.

I remember when the Race to Equity report came out in 2013, I was in the First Wave touring ensemble, and we took that massive report and boiled it down to a 20-minute performance. Not everybody gets the numbers, but maybe a poem can open up that conversation.

I know that I can reach folks now. And I can no longer be silent. Once you start doing the work, you realize that you can’t be complicit anymore. I would never feel comfortable if I was just sitting down and not doing anything, once you apply the knowledge. And then it’s about how can I move beyond the art, and maybe start looking at the actual politics and policies of things, that I can talk to the administration about. I think First Wave set me on that path, and it gave me a base of folks who are running with me on that path.

How are things going at the university with race relations? I would imagine you see progress on some fronts, but then something happens like the noose incident at Camp Randall and it may feel like it undercuts that.

Things are going. It’s progress, and not all students recognize that progress. In the spaces that I’m in, I see both sides of it. I see the human side of the administration too, and I see what they’re going through. A lot of the initiatives that the campus is working on have come directly from student ideas, voices, needs.

This semester has also been a step back in some sense with things like the noose incident. Not just that it happened, but the university’s floundering afterwards. And that became a national thing. That was a pretty big step back.

Progress is great to have but it’s so easy to lose. Initiatives like the hiring of more mental health professionals of color, thinking about a black cultural center, the Our Wisconsin initiative — you start to feel more at home on campus as a student of color, like, “Maybe I can do this.” So that’s two steps forward. But the noose incident is like five steps back in terms of the impact of how it feels. Not only is that like a direct threat, but then you start thinking about what students on campus are thinking about these things.

Since Trayvon (Martin) and Michael Brown — it’s fascinating in a way that I know that in some of these lecture halls, I’m sitting next to folks who would justify my death if I was a Walter Scott. I have to think about that, and these students don’t. And incidents like that make me think about it more. You have to start questioning more like “Why are they looking at me like that?” The negative impact, the branches reach out to so many more things. It’s so much larger than the moving forward, which is a lot slower and more incremental.

Rob Thomas is the features editor and social media editor for the Capital Times, as well as its film critic. He joined the Cap Times in 1999 and has written about movies, music, food and books.