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Ferguson protesters receive human rights and literature award

PEN New England award Twitter announcement Deray McKesson and Johnetta Elzie
PEN New England award Twitter announcement DeRay McKesson and Johnetta Elzie

Two Ferguson activists have received an award for their writing in the wake of Michael Brown’s August death.

DeRay McKesson and Johnetta Elzie won the 2015 Howard Zinn Freedom to Write Award.

The award comes from PEN New England in Massachusetts, a branch of the world's oldest international literary and human rights organization — the PEN American Center. McKesson views the work as part of the changing public dialogue about race in America.

“What the protests have effectively done is change the conversation around race in America in my lifetime, in a way that is unprecedented,” he said.

The award is made for their reporting on events through social media and uniting protesters’ voices in their newsletter called This Is the Movement. The newsletter is distributed via email and collects Ferguson protest related news articles, thought pieces, personal stories and images. It also includes a list of upcoming events and a running count of days that Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Michael Brown, has remained free. McKesson said the newsletter has helped tell the true story of Ferguson protests.

“The story of protest in Ferguson, right, is that people came outside and said, 'We’re not going home. We will continue to stand even if people don’t stand with us because the truth is just so damning and what is happening is just so wrong',” he said.

McKesson and Elzie also have their critics, many of whom respond to the newsletter’s organizers through their Twitter accounts.

The newsletter’s early subscription hovered around 400 according to McKesson but expanded to reach just under 15,000 subscribers. McKesson said he hopes the newsletter helps people realize their own importance in standing up for their beliefs.

He said he was “hopeful that people understand the power of telling their own story, the story of their own commitment to the work or their community.”

The two activists will speak at an event organized by PEN New England in Cambridge, Mass., on March 19 about their work and involvement in the Ferguson protests.

(Updated 10:16 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 25. to correct newsletter subscription number)