Tough upbringing drives civic educator to activism

Jul 22, 2019

In recent weeks in downtown Buffalo, demonstrators have taken to the streets to protest immigrant detention centers at the southern border of the United States. Among those protestors was 31-year old Orlando Dickson, who has come a long way from abject poverty to becoming an activist and working on social justice reform.

Orlando Dickson teaching a class at the Partnership for the Public Good.
Credit Thomas O'Neil-White

A quote from Maya Angelou has stayed with Dickson since he was a child.

“People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. People will forget a lot of things. But one thing they’ll never forget is how you made them feel.”

Dickson applies that quote when working with progressive groups in the City of Buffalo.

Dixon's story is one of dedication and determination. Born in Chicago as the younger of two boys, Dickson moved to Nevada around the age of 5. At that point his father was no longer in the picture.

His experience in Nevada was rough. At times he and his family lived in government-funded Section 8 housing. Other times, they were homeless.

“One of the things about being homeless is like, if you’re aware of what’s happening, it’s much worse,” he said. “And in the beginning, I wasn’t aware.”

Constantly moving from place to place had a detrimental effect on Dickson’s education. He ended up failing the eighth grade.

Lacking sound educational support to make it through a traditional high school, Dickson enrolled in the Jobs Corps when he was 15 years old and began vocational training to become a plumber. It was during that time he ran into a military recruiter.

Driven by a desire to serve his country, Dickson enlisted in the Army at the age of 18 and served for nine years and one day as a field artillery and Information Technician.

His time in the military was a mixed bag. On one hand, he felt he needed to pay back the country that had helped him get out of dire straits as a child. But he also witnessed a lot of negativity while serving.

“Throughout my military career I did experience a lot racism. I experienced a lot favoritism. A lot of toxic leadership,” he recalled.

The Fair Fines and Fees Coalition meeting at the Merriweather Library. (Dickson pictured in the background).
Credit Thomas O'Neil-White

Dickson began taking online college courses while serving and became the first person in his family to earn a degree.  The same day he graduated from college was the very same day he left the military. Dickson was troubled by the extrajudicial killings of young Black men.

“I was actually spurred by the killing of Trayvon Martin.” Dickson said. “That’s what actually made me want to pursue being a lawyer.”

Despite a low LSAT score, Dickson was determined to get into law school. He recalls a letter he wrote to the University at Buffalo.

“If you don’t accept me this year, you’re going to be reading another letter from me next year,” it read.

It worked out for Dickson, yet doubts about whether he was good enough remained.

“Kind of like Basic Training,” he said. “They break you down, make you understand that you don’t know anything, and then build you back up.”

His perseverance paid off and he graduated with his Juris Doctorate this year.

Dickson has thrown himself into an activist role. Being an ally is a fundamental part of who he is. At rallies and protests across Buffalo you will find him marching in lockstep with people from all different backgrounds.

Credit Thomas O'Neil-White

“Activism to me is showing up,” he said. “There’s a lot of times where people say that they want to do something to change what’s happening, whatever the situation is. But a lot of times those people just make Facebook posts.”

On a weekday afternoon at the downtown offices of the Partnership for the Public Good, Dickson is teaching a room full of people about the 2020 Census, part of his job as a civic educator at the community-based thinktank. Partnership Community Researcher Sarah Wooton says Orlando is an asset to the community.

“Overall, I’ve just really appreciated his openness around his work and his experience,” Wooton said.

Wooton says Dickson’s ties across the city is helpful in getting PPG research out to different communities.

When not working at the Partnership, Dickson volunteers with programs like Say Yes’ Boys and Men of Color Initiative, a program working to advance the school and career path of young Black and Brown men.

Boys and Men of Color Director Tommy McClam says Orlando just showed up to a meeting one day.

“He did this based upon his desire to be a part of some change in this community. Positive change in this community,” McClam said.

Dickson uses is upbringing as a way to relate to young men who may be going through similar struggles.

It would be easy to say Orlando Dickson has come a long way and stop the story right there. The fact is, he’s just getting started. There are many ventures he would like to pursue in the future, among them is owning a building that provides affordable housing.

Dickson doesn’t see success in progressive measures. To him, it is more innate.

“When you view success as something that has to happen. That is what drove me to do pretty much everything in my life,” he said.

Dickson’s story resonates because so many people have had similar struggles, but could not overcome them. His energy is now spent making sure nobody else has to go through what he did.