Creating connections has been a central theme in Dr. Art McCoy’s life. He was 15 years old when he first discovered that he could speak out—and that others would listen.
His spark came in 1991, during a time of upheaval in Los Angeles following the historic Rodney King trial. After the verdict in 1992, angry protests erupted across the city. Watching the violence from his home in the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri, nearly 2,000 miles away, McCoy saw the seeds of similar protests all around him. He wondered if there wasn’t some way to build a bridge across the racial divide in his community before it too exploded into violence.
McCoy started a youth mediation group with some of his friends, and soon they were intervening in fights among their classmates, stopping disagreements before they could escalate.
“That’s when I really felt that calling and I said: ‘Okay, this is what I think I want to do for the rest of my life.’”
Today, McCoy is the superintendent of Missouri’s Jennings School District, overseeing eight schools and thousands of students. He continues to work to break the cycles of violence in his community, using dialogue to enlighten and resources, such as those provided by WE, to engage and empower.
“First, you need to enlighten people to the various voices in their community,” he explains. “We need to honor voices and value what people bring to the table based on their background.”
For him, this has meant creating opportunities where people can engage in honest dialogue—and 2014 put this principle to the test. That year, the shooting of Michael Brown, a former student from one of McCoy’s schools, set off a firestorm of protests across the country, similar to those that followed the Rodney King trial.
McCoy spent the next two years working to keep lines of communication open and, in the end, was able to bring about a reconciliation between Brown’s mother Lezley McSpadden and the Ferguson Police Department. The two have gone on to build a community garden for the school that Brown, and his brothers attended.
A natural teacher, who easily engages others, McCoy is also more than a teacher. As a superintendent, he’s championed collaborations with local hospitals to provide health care for students and encouraged his teachers to use WE’s new WE Teachers resources in their classrooms.
Made possible by Walgreens, the WE Teachers program aims to support America’s teachers by providing free resources to help them address critical social issues with their students. The program has helped McCoy and his teachers talk frankly with students about bullying, poverty and empathy in their community.
For his work as an outstanding educator, McCoy was honored onstage at WE Day California in April 2019 and presented with a surprise $25,000 WE Teachers award from Walgreens to help the educators in his district buy much-needed school supplies.
“The beauty of the WE curriculum is that it allows for such engaging service-learning leadership, and that engagement is key,” says McCoy. “Once you’re engaged and enlightened, then empowerment occurs because you feel the power of leading your space to a new place—a better place.”
For McCoy, this empowerment is personal. He grew up poor; both of his parents were disabled. But his teachers stepped in to make sure he was okay and got extra help in school whenever he needed it.
He credits his teachers for making him who he is today and works to make sure that the teachers in his school district are able to share that transformational power with their students.
“Our teachers are empowered to change the trajectory of entire families and communities.”
To learn more about Dr. McCoy’s journey, watch WE Day, August 9, 2019 on ABC.
Chinelo Onwualu is a writer, editor, and shameless dog person. A communications consultant who's lived in 7 countries, she loves a good story whether she's the one telling them or not.