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Writing for Change: An Interview with Caleb Dunson

Caleb Dunson is a Chicago Scholar and a sophomore at Yale University. He is a staff columnist for the Yale Daily News, and often writes about politics, social justice, and identity. This past May, Caleb’s writing was featured in The New York Times in an essay titled “‘We Still Aren’t Safe’: 6 Young Americans on George Floyd’s Death.” We recently spoke with Caleb about his publication in The New York Times, his other works in the Chicago Tribune and in The TRiiBE, and how his experiences growing up pushed him towards writing and activism. You can find more of Caleb’s works here.

How did The New York Times feature come about?

Kind of, I guess, randomly you could say. I occasionally look at The New York Times and read their opinion section because I started writing about a year ago and I figured reading opinion essays from some of the most prominent writers is a good way to learn the craft a bit. One day there was this little call for submissions from readers. They asked readers to discuss how they felt about the George Floyd case a year after his death. So, I just submitted, not thinking anything of it, because hundreds of thousands of people read The New York Times, and about two or three days later, they emailed me and said, “We’d like to use your response. As long as you give us the okay, we’ll go ahead and publish it.”

That’s incredible! And you only just started writing last year? 

Yeah, I actually started writing, at least partially, in response to George Floyd’s death. I think it was a culmination of a lot of things: growing up Black, being around nine or 10 years old when Trayvon Martin died, and just having a lot of things to say, but not necessarily knowing how to articulate it, and I think that finally came to a head about a year ago. I ended up getting published in the Chicago Sun-Times and then the Chicago Tribune to start. I just took that as kind of a reason to keep going—people saw my writing as valuable and my words as having meaning. So, I kept writing, and I’m still writing today.

Your commentary piece in the Chicago Tribune is about the moment that you realized the world viewed you—a young Black male—as a threat. It also offers up equity in civics education as a path forward for our country. Why is education so important and how do you see it as having the power to create change?

I’ve been raised in a household where education was the top priority. I continue to believe that education is the way to change lives. It’s the way to change moral opinions. I think education can shape a nation. It can build or break a nation. I guess that goes to the point of how critical race theory is being debated today, because people recognize the power in education and are willing to fight tooth and nail to be educated in a certain way. I think that is the way to shift perspective, especially when it comes to racial issues. You can’t change a perspective if you don’t know that you’re living with tunnel vision. You can’t change your mind if you don’t know what the other opinion is. And so I think change is possible by broadening people’s viewpoints with education, giving them the opportunity to explore the history of the United States and to explore how they have amassed power and privilege.

In The New York Times, you talk about how 52 years have gone by since your grandmother turned 18, and that her experiences growing up were similar to yours. Can you expand on a few of those experiences? 

I actually wrote an article about it in The TRiiBE, which is a local magazine. I reached out to my grandmother because I figured it was quite ironic that both 2020 and 1968 were years where there was a groundswell of activism in the US, and it felt like the future of the country was very precarious. There was a lot of chaos, both good and bad, and that’s a very stressful time to become an adult. So of course, I looked to my grandmother, who had lived through a similar experience before, for advice. She talked a lot about her decision whether or not to engage in activism, and whether or not it would be productive for her. And that really informed my decision to engage in writing as a form of activism.

She told me that it seemed like there was news everywhere about what was going on in the world. For her, it was Bobby Kennedy getting assassinated, the Vietnam War protests, the election, things of that sort. For me, it was also the election. It was the murder of George Floyd. Climate change as well, and the wildfires in California. These huge events informed both of our opinions and our perspectives on life and really shifted the way we viewed ourselves and how we related to our outside world. For me, that meant really focusing on my studies because I figured that investing time in my studies now meant that I’d be able to have a huge impact later on. For her, that meant the same thing. But I think the one difference between us was that I also focused on writing and felt a deep desire and deep urge to get involved in the activism and the now, because it felt like the moment could not be passed up. You can’t just live through that moment and not have done anything. And so that’s what pushed me to get involved. She also felt that urge but decided to stick with her studies.

What does it feel like to know that a lot of the issues that we’ve gone through in this country and in Chicago are still prevalent to this day, more than fifty years later? 

Of course, it is saddening to know that things have not changed, but at the same time, I know the nature of change is hard to pin down. Things could not change for 50 years, and then suddenly change in the next one year. So, even though there is cause to be cynical or perhaps pessimistic about things not changing, I also hold out hope that things will change. I think that 2020 and even 2021 have been evidence that things are changing. There’s a lot of pressure on political and economic systems. I think it’s pressure that we haven’t really seen before, except perhaps in 1968. And so, I’m excited. I’m excited about the future even though the past gives me no reason to be excited. I have hope, and I’m going to continue to have hope because I think that’s the only thing you can do. Hope and get involved in the now.

The fact that you are only 18 is astounding! Where do you picture yourself in social justice advocacy in three years? 10 years? 30 years?

Well, I guess I’ll start by saying I know I’m 18, but I feel much older. It’s hard to say where I see myself in the next three years or even 10 or 30 years. There was one point where I wanted to be an entrepreneur and that was the way that I would push for social justice: through my dollars. Now, I would’ve never thought that I’d be writing, but here I am writing. I’ve also been interested in politics for a long time. So I think for me to try and determine what I’ll be doing even tomorrow is an exercise in futility. Because honestly, I could not tell you. My interests change. But I do think my passion for social justice and for civics will always be there. I’m excited to figure out whatever form that takes. Perhaps I go from entrepreneurship to politics, to protesting on the streets in grassroots organizations to writing for a newspaper. But I honestly couldn’t tell you and I think that’s okay. I think it’s okay to not know and to figure it out, and I’m excited to try and figure it out in the future.

Finally, what advice do you have for our readers? 

Your voice matters. I think it’s really important to recognize that in a democracy. You have the power to affect change, you just have to commit to doing it. Once you recognize that your voice matters, that’s incredibly empowering, and you’ll start to see doors open up to you and see things happen that you would have never expected to happen.