Kenann McKenzie-DeFranza has a straightforward vision for her work.
“I have always been interested in people not being barred from opportunities because of what they look like,” she says simply.
This fundamental purpose has driven her since a young age, and it is this motivation she brings with her to her new role as president of the North Shore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, more commonly known as the NAACP. McKenzie-DeFranza, a founding member of the chapter, stepped into the position at the beginning of 2023, having served previously as a vice president in the organization and chairing its education committee.
In her new role, McKenzie-DeFranza hopes to diversify the group’s membership, welcome new members to its executive committee, and build relationships between the North Shore branch and other regional organizations. She is also determined to solidify the chapter’s growing reputation as an important resource and voice for schools, municipalities, nonprofits, and other groups on the North Shore.
“We want to be a resource,” she says. “We want to be relevant.”
McKenzie-DeFranza has been interested in what she calls humanizing work—a phrase she prefers over buzzwords like “anti-racism” and “equity”—for as long as she can remember.
Her family moved from Guyana to New York when she was seven years old. When her parents went to enroll her in a school near her new home, administrators said it was school policy for students coming from so-called “third-world countries” to stay back a grade, regardless of previous academic achievements. Her mother, however, objected to the narrow-minded policy and insisted that the school place McKenzie-DeFranza in the proper grade for her age. She not only thrived, she says, but today sees in her mother’s persistence and confidence a guiding example of how to push for what you know to be right.
Throughout elementary school, she felt the injustice when her classmates were bullied or had trouble with teachers. Even then, she envisioned herself working one day in a job that would help and protect children, she says.
As McKenzie-DeFranza grew, she increasingly saw the ways her interest in justice intersected with the realities of racism, colorism, and classism in the United States. There were the classmates who were surprised to see her home and discover that a Black family could live in a nice house, and there were peers who assumed she had been admitted to selective programs only because of her color.
“There were a lot of moments when people said racist things and made me prove myself or questioned my ability,” she says.
In high school, she undertook a project to research the ways police often take more severe action against Black people than white people, for even small infractions like jaywalking. She went on to major in Africana studies at Cornell University, and then pursued a master’s degree in the social foundations of education at the University of Virginia and a doctorate in politics and education from Teachers College at Columbia University.
Leading and listening
Over the past 20 years, she has worked in higher education as an academic counselor, researcher, lecturer, policy analyst, and administrator. Today, McKenzie-DeFranza heads up the Generous Listening and Dialogue Center at Tufts University, an initiative aimed at encouraging and increasing authentic efforts to understand other people and viewpoints. She also produces The Aspiring Spirit, a podcast that delves into issues of race, policy, education, and community.
Her new position with the North Shore NAACP is a natural extension of the strengths and passions she’s brought to her professional work, says Natalie Bowers, the previous president of the chapter and one of its founders. McKenzie-DeFranza has an exceptional ability to explain the nuances of racism to people who are just starting to learn how widespread and lingering its effects still are, a talent that makes her an ideal fit for her new position, Bowers says.
The North Shore branch of the NAACP was founded in 2020 and has been growing steadily in numbers and influence. To keep up that momentum, Bowers says, it was essential that she step down and for new leadership to take over. McKenzie-DeFranza was her first choice.
“I wanted to pass the baton on,” Bowers says. “She agreed, and here we are today. I am so happy—already she’s making a huge difference.”
As she begins her tenure, McKenzie-DeFranza is working with the belief that a major part of overcoming racism is learning to see it. Even in Massachusetts, which prides itself on its progressiveness, the country’s history of racism continues to show up in modern life, she notes.
“There is a history of enslavement, there is a history of moving indigenous people off their land,” McKenzie-DeFranza says. “The ramifications of those decisions were never completely addressed. We are still working our way out of these systems—rooting that out is still important.”