Alumni Spotlight Series: Courtney McKinney ‘11

The following interview is part of the Council on African Studies’ Alumni Spotlight series featuring graduates from both the Master’s and Bachelor’s Degrees in African Studies. Courtney McKinney is currently the Director of Communications at the Western Center On Law & Poverty. Previously, she’s worked for PBS NewsHour and A24 Films. She graduated with her African Studies BA in 2011.

Thank you so much for agreeing to participate in the alumni interview. Could you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do?

My name is Courtney McKinney and I am currently living in Sacramento, California. I’m a communications director for an anti-poverty litigation and legal advocacy firm. I’ve been doing communications since I moved to California in 2016. Before that I was involved in policy work, but also worked for a film company, A24 Films, when I was living in New York. And before that I worked for the PBS NewsHour. So I’ve kind of been all over the place and I feel like have a pretty well-rounded background partially because of my well-rounded education.

Could you tell us a little bit about that? Why did you choose the African Studies major?

Honestly, I came to Yale with very little guidance. I came from a graduating class of 700 people and I just kind of threw darts at colleges and was fortunate enough to get into Yale. So I didn’t know what I was doing. I really just took advantage of shopping period. At first I thought about a political science major. And then I felt like that was too focused on politics, and I was interested in context as well. So I changed to a history focus. And what really made me choose African Studies was when I spent a summer in Mombasa, Kenya. I took a public health and history course, and we traveled all over Kenya. I was 19 and internationally had never traveled beyond Mexico or the Caribbean. It was really eye-opening. It’s kind of a cliché, but it was really uncomfortable for me. I was not used to the culture, being so out of my element, and being such a fish out of water. But I think it fundamentally shifted me for the better. I realized how little I knew about everything. That’s when I  decided on the African Studies major because it would continue to expand my viewpoint.

I think education in the United States is very Western Europe-centric, and that’s a disservice to us, to understanding about how the rest of the world operates. There’s a confluence of so many cultures in Africa – Asian, American, and obviously Western European. Learning all of the diversity of Africa that I literally had no idea about –  none – I think it just gave me a fundamental understanding for the rest of my life. There are things that I don’t know, and I must always search to understand.

Could you maybe share a specific example of something that you learned or even something from that study abroad, something that you encountered?

Oh there are so many! This is going to make me sound like a sheltered 19-year-old kid. But, I grew up Christian in a very evangelical Texas suburb. It was either 2009 or 2010, so pretty far removed from September 11th. But the neighborhood where we stayed in Mombasa, Old Town, is very Muslim. The women in Old Town are mostly or completely covered, and at first that made me uncomfortable. I was no longer officially Christian, but I still had that socialization, and the Islamophobia that took hold of America after 9/11, I grew up in it. So being immersed in a Muslim culture when I was not expecting it from Kenya took me by surprise. At first hearing prayers coming out over loud speakers was very jarring to me. I battled through a lot of emotions – fear, anxiety – and then moved into having conversations with people, getting to know them, and realizing we’re all the same. That was one layer of armor that had been put upon me by my socialization, that I was able to shed in that experience. And I feel very lucky to have had that because I think we would all be better people if we would continue to put ourselves in these kinds of positions.

What are some memories of your time at Yale? Maybe there is a specific faculty that you enjoyed or a specific class?

There are a lot, but one that stands out is Professor Robert Thompson, who everyone called ‘Master T’ from Silliman College. He taught a class on Mambo. It was very famous among Yalies because it was a history of Black and Latinx dance fusion taught by an old white guy. He would get up and dance in front of the whole auditorium. It was such a bizarre experience, as a black woman, watching this old white man teach to this large auditorium of students, but he was so passionate. He brought in many class speakers who were people of color, and it’s clear they adored the professor. The class was funny and lighthearted. I really appreciated those moments at Yale because things could feel heavy a lot of times. Seeing the professor and invited speakers, people who were obviously very smart, not take themselves seriously was probably one of my favorite lessons learned at Yale. It’s so easy to take yourself too seriously, especially at a place like Yale.

What did you do when you graduated? What was your path immediately after Yale?

I thought that I wanted to work in journalism. So I went to go work at the PBS News Hour. They have a program – I don’t know if they still have it –  but at the time it was called a desk assistantship, which was like an internship except much more intense. It was an eight or nine month program. We were basically thrown into being assistant producers. I produced a whole September 11th, 10th anniversary special pretty much by myself. I just combed through hours of tapes. I was also able to go to a lot of the hearings in DC and I learned a lot about national political news reporting. That was an amazing experience.

PBS was a really good foundation, but I realized that constantly chasing leads and stories was anxiety inducing for me personally. And while I liked the storytelling and liked meeting people and liked elevating voices, I didn’t like the anxious, always-checking-Twitter aspect of journalism. I shifted completely away from that when I went to go work for A24 Films. But then at A24 I was a little bit too separated from the policy world. I’ve always been naturally inclined to seek justice. I ended up going to work for the Brennan Center for Justice. Then that led me back into communications and policy work.

What are some of the professional achievements and accomplishments that you’d like to share with us from this path in communications, advocacy, and policy?

The thing that I’m most proud of is that my curiosity has really taken me to places where a lot of people haven’t gone. My friends call me a bumblebee; I cross-pollinate.  I’m very, very allergic to being in a silo. That curiosity has taken me to some amazing places, and I’ve been able to publish a good number of my opinions in various publications. I’m now the director of communications at the oldest legal advocacy firm in California working on behalf of people who are experiencing poverty, and I’m the first person to ever do communications for the organization.

I’ve been told by multiple people and by our analytics that my work has elevated our profile and we are definitely the go-to organization for anti-poverty issues in California. We lobby in the state Capitol, and I think I’m most proud of being able to encourage people to speak up. There have been a lot of people who come to testify on issues that affect them, and they feel kind of tentative and scared at the beginning. Being able to tell them, “you can totally be yourself, talk the way you talk, don’t feel like you have to use fancy words, or not say exactly how you feel”, and then seeing people be so empowered by that; this might not be the best accomplishment on paper, but it gives me an incredible feeling of accomplishment.

That sounds very satisfying and rewarding. Do you trace any of that back to your African Studies education? Maybe the interdisciplinary focus or the openness to new ideas?

Definitely! Curiosity is what took me to Mombasa. It was totally out of left field for me. I thought it was interesting and said, “I’m going”. Putting myself in that position, wanting to make connections while I was there with so many different kinds of people and their varied experiences, that set me up for everything that followed. At the end of the day, the thing that I’m trying to excavate is our shared humanity. Everybody has to some varying degree that initial armor. We all carry it. The things I was confronted with as an African Studies major that were so different from what I was comfortable with helped me to have tools at an early age that I’ve just kind of honed to help shed that layer of armor more quickly.

What advice would you give to students who are considering an African studies degree?

It’s a good idea. Definitely go abroad if you can because it just takes the degree to the next level. I would say that to any college student, but  specifically with African Studies there is a huge benefit to immersing yourself in something unfamiliar. Also, the cool thing about Yale to me was that you could really explore so many different kinds of courses. I imagine people who consider majoring in African Studies have a baseline of curiosity and interest in the world around them. Definitely take advantage of that curiosity and explore all of your options at Yale.

Aside from class offerings, take advantage of mental health counseling, as well as your dean and advisors and mentors. I really didn’t know to do that. And that is such a rich resource at Yale. There are also so many opportunities to travel and participate in extracurricular activities that take you places. Take advantage of all of that because after Yale, when you become an adult, you have to pay for it yourself!

What were some of the things that really interested you when you were studying?

As a descendant of slaves, I was really interested in the basis and roots of the slave trade as well as the parts of Africa that were not involved with it. I feel like as people who were enslaved and as a black American, especially until recently, we have been inundated with such a specific and narrow narrative of who we are and what we’ve come from. And it can be depressing. We rarely get to hear the stories of triumph and success from Africa. There’s a story of Yaa Asantewaa in Ghana who fought back –  a woman who led to her community to fight the British. That would make a great film for young girls to see.

America’s having its racial reconciliation, if we can call it that. My mom is a black woman who still gets surprised at new revelations. She’s not surprised, of course, that America’s racist, but surprised at the extent of the racism that is similar in other countries. The foundation I received at Yale makes it easier for me to grasp everything we see happening here and around the world.

That’s a solid endorsement. Is there anything else that you’d like to share with students considering the major or students already in African Studies?

Be an advocate for it. I was just talking to a friend about the fact that when you take a philosophy class, you’re mostly studying the thoughts of white men. If you think about the makeup of the entire world, this is very weird and one-sided, having that particular perspective be our primary focus most of the time.  Studying Africa and an African viewpoints for four years, it’s kind of revolutionary. You’re fundamentally deciding to turn your focus away from a white European perspective, and look at the world through the lens of a whole other continent. I think that’s so valuable, and you take this lens through with you for the rest of your life. Having this other perspective can be annoying, because you might feel like you’re always pushing back against the dominant perspective, but I think the call of our generation is to push back and provide balance. And studying African Studies is a way to do that.