Breaking Down Barriers

By Caleb Dunson, Chicago Votes Inaugural Brian Sleet Fellow

I spent an hour and a half lying on a dusty, stained futon, a computer at my side for research, bubbling in answers like I was taking a multiple-choice exam. After I finished, I carefully sealed my freshly filled out form in an envelope and stepped into the New Haven drizzle, and dropped the envelope in the mailbox just outside of my dorm. My arduous mission was finally complete: I voted in my first presidential election. 

This election season, millions of young people voted in a similar manner, helping to propel Joe Biden to the White House. Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) estimated that voter turnout among people aged 18-29 was between 52%-55% –– a significant increase from the 2016 election. In battleground states like Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, and Pennsylvania –– where the margins of victory were razor-thin –– Biden won the youth vote by over 100,000. 

In a year where democracy was vulnerable, young people showed up in a near-unprecedented fashion to uphold our most sacred institution. But to sharpen our democracy and guard against future threats, our country must consistently include young people in civic processes. That requires all of us to commit to dismantling the barriers that reduce youth civic engagement: inadequate civics education and elaborate voting laws. 

In the country that brought democracy into the modern era, one would expect our civics education programs to be among the best in the world. But with only 39% of Americans able to name all three branches of government, civics education in the U.S. is in dire need of reform. According to the Center for American Progress, “only nine states and the District of Columbia require one year of U.S government or civics” and many state civics curricula fail to adequately build skills for active civic engagement. Education inequity only exacerbates the issue by creating additional obstacles to civic engagement for poor students, rural students, and students of color

We cannot expect our democracy to work if we do not prepare young Americans to engage with democratic institutions. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, says it best: “the resilience of our system of government is best protected by an informed citizenry.”

One such way to ensure an “informed citizenry” is to create a national curriculum for high school civics education, much like the common core, that emphasizes experiential learning. By teaching students about civics through an action-based curriculum, our schools will help instill in them the positive habits necessary for consistent civic engagement–conscious media consumption, for example–and equip them with the tools they need for a life of active citizenship. But simply imposing a blanket curriculum will grant those with the most wealth and privilege access to the most robust civics education. The federal government and state governments must also work together to rectify the inequitable distribution of funding in schools across the country and ensure that access to a good civics education is not contingent upon race, class, or region. 

Excessively complex voter registration and voting laws have also proven harmful in the effort to increase youth civic engagement. According to a FiveThirtyEight report, young people (aged 18-34) were more likely to face barriers to voting –– like missing voter registration deadlines, not receiving an absentee ballot in time to vote, and not being able to access their polling place –– than any other age group. Prior to the November election, Republican legislators increased their efforts to suppress the youth vote under the guise of election security by closing polling sites and implementing convoluted voting laws, which disproportionately affected college students. Though these efforts did not yield the presidential election result right-wing lawmakers had hoped for, stories still abound of young people becoming discouraged by the election laws of their states –– and that is dangerous. A young person scorned by the election system is a voter lost to the electorate and a voice potentially lost to our democracy. 

Reforming voting laws requires powerful advocacy work. Because states have the power to set election laws, to address this issue civics organizations across the country must collaborate in their fight to make voting more accessible for young people. Lobbying work and issue awareness campaigns both lend themselves to joint efforts, and sharing resources in those efforts can prevent wasted time and energy. Volunteers can also utilize the tools of social media and extend the influence of each organization’s advocacy work beyond their traditional networks.

If we are to commit to democracy as a nation, we have to be diligent about ensuring that everyone’s voice is heard. As a new year brings an uncertain political landscape, we must uphold our commitment to breaking down the barriers that keep young people from engaging our democracy.

After the Election

By Caleb Dunson, Chicago Votes Inaugural Brian Sleet Fellow

After weeks of constant election news coverage, non-stop ballot counting, lawsuits alleging voter fraud, and election memes, the American people elected Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States in a record-breaking fashion. Though our nation’s people worked tirelessly to avoid another four years with an anti-democratic demagogue in power, Joe Biden is not a political leader that garners a lot of enthusiasm, especially among progressives, and rightfully so. 

Joe Biden has a troubling political history, having authored the 1994 crime bill that disproportionately incarcerated Black and brown people, mishandling Antia Hill’s sexual assault allegations against now Chief Justice Clarence Thomas, opposing court-ordered busing aimed at integrating schools, voting for an amendment that would have allowed states to overturn Roe v. Wade, and supporting the war in Iraq. Still, for many, a vote for Joe Biden was a vote for damage mitigation and a vote to preserve the integrity of democracy, with the hope that activism and organizing would push Biden (and other centrist politicians) left.

Well, the election is over, which means it’s time to get to work. But far too often calls to “get involved” are vague and unhelpful, and for young people that is especially harmful. Young people are constantly combatting attempts to disenfranchise and exclude our generation from the political arena. So, in response, we need a wide range of methods for engaging in politics. 

In my Op-Ed for the Chicago Tribune, I wrote about how I got involved in politics as a high schooler. I mentioned how I took civics classes to learn how to effectively advocate for change, how I participated in study abroad programs to gain a global perspective on activist movements, and how I volunteered with different groups to orient myself with current movements for change.

However, I wrote from a position of immense privilege, having attended a school with resources that are not, though they should be, available to all. For those who stand in a similarly privileged position, take advantage of the opportunities you have to learn about politics, then use your access to resources to signal boost and support experienced activists and organizers. But regardless of the privilege you hold, there are universal ways to meaningfully and effectively participate in politics beyond the vote. 

Developing your own set of politics and moral values is a necessary prerequisite to getting your hands dirty. My life experiences have shaped what I value as important, and thus have shaped my morals. My politics have been shaped by what I believe to be the best way to stay true to my morals in the political arena. To develop my politics, I spent some of my free time in high school reading works from Michel Foucault, Audre Lorde, Malcolm X, and others. As I read, I took note of the writers’ theories that resonated with me and incorporated them into my politics. I also took the opportunity to listen and learn from the activists and organizers who had more experience than I did. Hearing about their work and their politics expanded my perspective on pursuing change and helped me learn how I could best contribute to existing movements. And as I enter new spaces, I have sought out opportunities to reevaluate my morals and politics in order to ensure they align with my ultimate desire to make a positive impact on society.

After finding a set of politics that works for you, the next step is to find organizations and groups whose politics align with yours.  For me, this has been a continual process as I have reevaluated my politics and reprioritized the issues that matter to me. Even so, my strategy for finding organizations that are compatible with my politics has remained the same. Taking the time to research an organization’s mission vision, leadership, current projects, and open positions has allowed me to get a strong sense of whether or not my values align with theirs, and helped me envision how I could potentially fit into their organizational structure. When I see a position that I may be interested in, I always apply knowing that the application process, and the role itself, will be an opportunity to further explore, examine, and develop my politics while helping others.  

The final step is to engage with the organizations you have found in a humble and open-minded fashion. It is important to remember that the fight for justice is a long and continual one: there are scores of activists that have preceded you, and there will be scores of activists that succeed you. You should approach your work with an understanding of how you can use your unique skills to contribute to an expansive and interconnected movement and an eagerness to learn from those who have been doing the work long before you got involved. Find ways to generously give your time, energy, and resources to the organizations and groups you value. But above all, remember to consistently challenge your beliefs and reexamine your place in the movement with each new experience you have.

Staying engaged in politics is challenging work, but our communities are counting on us, so let’s “get involved.”

Dear Mayor Lightfoot

By Alex Boutros, Organizing Manager

Greetings, 

My name is Alex Boutros and I am a resident of the 46th ward in Uptown with Alderman Cappleman. 

Did you all know that the Inspector General of Chicago’s Public Safety data on CPD paints a clear picture that CPD is undeniably racist? 

Since 2016 our police have pat-down over 182,000 people. What’s your guess on the percentage of those folx that were Black? Close to 75 percent. Latino? 20 percent. White? 4 percent. 

Do you want to know the percentage of time where the police found something in those very traumatizing pat-downs? It was less than 8 percent. 

Our police are trained to arrest people–and that’s it. Our police are traumatizing our people in school and on the streets. Their presence is oppressive. An excerpt from Stop and Frisk in, Citizen, by Claudia Rankine, helps paint the picture:

I knew whatever was in front of me was happening and then the police vehicle came to a screeching halt in front of me like they were setting up a blockade. Everywhere were flashes, a siren sounding, and a stretched-out roar. Get on the ground. Get on the ground now. Then I just knew. 

And you are not the guy and still, you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.

Our police won’t provide housing. Our police won’t provide food or mutual aid or facilitate COVID-19 testing during a pandemic. Our community members and aldermen have started doing that out of their own pockets when you, Mayor Lightfoot, shut down food pantries early and used the looting as an excuse. 

Alderman Cappleman and I sat down and agreed that our community needs real affordable housing, mental health clinics, and resources for folx experiencing domestic violence. We need the funding that is going towards police in our neighborhood to be diverted to what the community truly desires and needs.

It seems, Mayor Lightfoot, that you’re choosing not to listen. You’re not choosing to listen to Alderman Cappleman and I when we tell you where we need this funding diverted. You’re not listening to Alderman Jeanette Taylor when she has asked too many times for the Sherman Park Library to get necessary funding for improvements. And, you’re evidently not listening to the 87 percent of Chicagoans that decided to defund the CPD budget in the budget survey that you pleaded folx to fill out. In that survey, we also told you exactly where we want the money to go. 

If police kept our communities safe, we’d be the safest city in the nation at $1.7 billion spent annually.

That budget survey is the recipe to end violence and crime in the city. We handed it to you on a silver platter. 

Tell the FOP that it’s out of your hands. This is what your city is calling for. 

A Message to Chicago City Council on the 2021 Budget

By Alex Boutros, Organizing Manager

Greetings, 

My name is Alex Boutros and I constituent of the 46th ward in the lakeview/uptown area.  Firstly, I stand in solidarity with the Caitlin, the 13 year old constituent who spoke at the beginning of this meeting. 

I am here today to say that no matter how much you fund the police department, it will not stop this virus, nor the economic impact that it is causing our community members and our small businesses forced to close their doors forever. We need a major shift in priority as you, Mayor Lightfoot, announced that the city is averaging 1,900 new cases of Covid a day with some areas seeing positivity rates of 25%. Mayor and Aldermen this is a public health & safety issue and should be treated as such. 

Our office of emergency management has 1,672 people–that’s barely an 8th of the CPD employment. Our department of public health has only 488 people. That is 1/26 of the number of employees in CPD. There are 13,411 people that work for the police department that haven’t even–at the least–been trained to provide necessary aid during this pandemic. Not only does CPD’s bloated budget drain so much funding from other city programs, their officers’ inability to wear masks and high COVID-19 cases would indicate they cause multiple forms of harm, without any meaningful protection for our city.

I ask the city council to vote “no” on the Mayor’s budget until the overfunding of the police department and the lack of funding of our other city departments is addressed.  By defunding CPD, the city’s current reliance on cannabis tax revenue to avoid layoffs could be avoided. We could direct those funds to the Department of Public Health, Human Relations, Office of Disabilities, Family and Social Services, and the Chicago Public Library; or we could even go so far as to invest in a reparations program like is being done in Evanston and Will county. 

I have attached to my submitted written testimony a graph from the inspector general of chicago’s data portals that further illustrates the overfunding of the police department by comparing the personnel expenses next to that of our fire department and our other less funded services.  

City council, we don’t need to raise property taxes, we need to readjust our priorities. Vote no on this budget.  

Thank you,

Alex Boutros

On Voting

By Caleb Dunson, Chicago Votes Inaugural Brian Sleet Fellow

It takes no stretch of the imagination to realize that 2020 has been a profoundly difficult year, and disproportionately so for people of color. A pandemic is raging across our country, now reaching new highs in infections and deaths. Black people are being murdered without consequence by agents of the state. California wildfires signal just how close the impending danger of climate change is. Economic turmoil has struck the vulnerable, while billionaires continue to accrue wealth and Congress remains stuck in a stalemate on the provisions of their economic stimulus bill.

In that sense, it feels insensitive when ads and social media posts inundate us with calls to vote. The ads and posts come across as a claim that voting is the absolute solution to the problems we face, and that once we vote, our challenges will magically disappear. But we know there are problems casting a ballot will not immediately fix. 

Voting is by no means the end-all solution to the bevy of issues that plague our nation, and it should not be looked at as such. We should instead consider voting to be a tool amongst many in our expansive advocacy and activist work. There is an indisputable power to voting, and we cannot afford to willingly sacrifice it.

Voting Allows Us to Hold Elected Officials Accountable 

Our elected officials are tasked with representing our wishes in government, but they have no incentive to do so if we do not vote and affirm our position as members of their constituency. By voting, we hold our politicians’ feet to the fire. We force them to listen to us because we determine whether or not they have a job every election season, and that gives us the leverage we need to push for change. With a broad voting coalition, we can begin to demand the proper representation of our interests in the halls of government. 

In that way, our vote reinforces the power dynamic that should exist between citizens and their representatives, one in which the representative works only for the best interest of their community as the community members themselves see it. Not one where representatives are influenced by self-interest, personal ambition, and corporate lobbying. 

Voting Adds Teeth to the Demands of Activists and Organizers 

The power of voting extends to the organizing and activist spheres as well. When politicians, and body politic more broadly, know that activists and organizers vote consistently, the demands made through protests and petitions become key issues that can swing an election and are thus pushed into mainstream political discourse. Casting our ballots consistently ensures that the issues we care about will always have a place in electoral politics, and ensures that our demands of justice and equity will not go unnoticed or unheard. Pressure breeds progress, and the dual pressure of organizing and voting makes positive change more attainable. 

Voting in Local Elections Shapes our Everyday Lives

Because law is a reflection of our societal values and shapes the way we navigate public and private spaces, when we vote, we entrust our way of life to the people that take elected office. That is especially true on the local level. Judges, aldermen, state representatives, and state senators are touchpoints for justice in Chicago. They craft the legislation that governs our city and determine the penalties for violating that legislation. 

Thus, our decision on whether or not to vote is ultimately a decision on whether or not to reclaim our power as democratic citizens who can determine how we wish to live our lives. The Fair Tax proposition on the ballot this year is case in point; the decision on whether or not to implement a progessive income tax is ultimately a decision on how you would like your wealth to be distributed among you, your community, and your state. 

By not voting, we cede power to the interests of those who vote most often, disproportionately white, old, and wealthy people, who likely have values that are in direct conflict with ours. And with issues like legal system reform, policing, income inequality, and climate change up for debate, we cannot afford to allow our voices to go unheard. 

Voting is a Symbol of Our Hope and Our Will

This election season has been discouraging, and there will always be reasons not to vote, but there is something inherently powerful in not allowing the challenges that have plagued this year to reduce our resolve and dampen our desire for change. 

Despite the political candidates that leave much to be desired, despite the pain our communities continue to endure, despite all the horrible and discouraging events that have occurred this year, I will vote. I will vote as an act of resistance because I refuse to let the circumstances of this year deter me from engaging in politics. I will vote as a symbol of hope for the future and a symbol of my unwavering commitment to fighting for change. I will vote to preserve the integrity of our democracy and ensure that all who have a voice will be heard. Will you join me?

In the Wake of Sunday’s Looting, A Call to Elected Officials from a Chicago Teen

By Caleb Dunson, Chicago Votes Inaugural Brian Sleet Fellow

After a night of looting on Sunday, Chicago was trending on Twitter in a matter of hours, the thread rife with videos of people breaking into stores, snatching clothes, and fleeing police. Everyone had an opinion. Some people attributed the riots to the democratic leanings of the city, while others leveraged the moment to call out the economic inequality Chicago has been plagued by for decades. Some people just marveled at the destruction, using it to confirm their belief that Chicago is an incredibly dangerous place. It seems once again, Chicago has become a chess piece, used by outsiders, to fit political ends and construct personal narratives. 

Donald Trump has had an obsession with Chicago since his 2016 campaign, and over his presidential term, Conservatives have swiftly turned Chicago into a euphemism for liberal-city-plagued-with-lawlessness. In recent weeks, Trump even deployed federal troops to the city to quell violence and preserve his strong man persona in the midst of his losing campaign

Democratic Chicago officials largely rejected protesters’ calls to “defund the police” and ignored consent decree deadlines intended to ameliorate the Chicago Police Department’s numerous civil rights violations, instead opting to hash out personal beefs in internal meetings and engage in media mud-slinging.

This naked ambition on both sides of the aisle has done nothing for the city I so deeply cherish. 

I am a Chicagoan, born and raised, and I have always had a profound love for my city. I was always there to celebrate when the light and warmth of the Christkindle Market cut through the cold bitter winters, stuff myself with fatty foods when the Taste of Chicago rolled around signaling the official start of summer, and march in the Bud Billiken Parade, savoring the last days of summer break and dreading my return to school. 

I loved my city even as I watched kids my age killed so often it was no longer surprising, even as I saw Black people gunned down by my city’s police, even as I saw my community––the Austin neighborhood–– and others like it go without capital investment or government funding when we desperately needed it. 

Though in recent years, Chicago has not gone for very long without making national headlines and efforts to address the problems in our communities have seemed to stagnate. It feels as if politicians, political pundits, and news media organizations are perfectly fine using the city to fit their narratives, but don’t want to do the work to help improve our city. No, that burden is left to the Good Samaritans in our neighborhoods. 

My Block, My Hood, My City, After School Matters, The Greater Chicago Food Depository, A Safe Haven, Chicago Votes, and countless other community organizations in Chicago have been doing the work themselves for years. Resigned to the fact that no one is coming to save us, our communities have relied on each others’ strength and shown tremendous resilience. But as much great work as these organizations are doing, we cannot rely on a few to save a city of almost three million people. 

It is time for our elected officials to step up and do the work they were hired to do. To Chicago’s politicians who have relied on organizations to do their jobs for them and to the news media organizations that have used Chicago’s violence to create sensationalized headlines, I have one request. 

Get out in the community and do the work it takes to make our city better. 


Caleb Dunson is an incoming freshman at Yale University and is Chicago Votes’ inaugural Brian Sleet Memorial Fellow.

OPINION | The erasure of Black women and femmes in media coverage of the BLM movement

By Caleb Dunson

See article in the Triibe: https://thetriibe.com/2020/08/opinion-the-erasure-of-black-women-and-femmes-in-media-coverage-of-the-black-lives-matter-movement/

George Floyd’s death has ignited widespread protests, prompted local governments across the country to consider police reform and renewed the national discussion about systemic racism.

But the Louisville, Ky. police officers who killed Emergency Medical Technician Breonna Taylor on March 13 have yet to be arrested.

The lack of accountability for Taylor’s unjust death is symptomatic of a larger issue: the erasure of Black women and femmes in the Black Lives Matter movement. 

I am all too familiar with the fight for Black lives; I was 9 years old when Trayvon Martin’s death on Feb. 26, 2012 started the Black Lives Matter movement. I was a seventh-grader when Laquan McDonald was killed by Chicago Police Department Officer Jason Van Dyke on Oct. 20, 2014. And as crazy as it may sound, I have had the pain and privilege of growing up and watching people fight for the humanity of young Black men like me on TV. The same cannot be said for non-male Black youth.

While the Black Lives Matter movement has always been effective at calling attention to unjust killings, news media outlets have consistently focused on the deaths of Black men, so much so that #sayhername was started in 2015 to raise awareness about violence against Black women. 

Yet names like Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Freddie Gray, Laquan McDonald and George Floyd remain more recognizable than Rekia Boyd, Tanisha Anderson, Kisha Michael, Miram Karey and Breonna Taylor, who is featured on the front cover of the September 2020 issue of “Oprah” magazine. 

The most tragically ironic part of Black men being centered in coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement is that the movement’s founders are Black women, and they work to “center those who have been marginalized in Black liberation movements.”

The disproportionate focus on Black men in news media reporting is troubling for three reasons. First, it creates the illusion that Black men are the only people affected by police brutality. Second, it leads to the exclusion of Black women and femmes in calls for equity. Third, it reveals that reporting on race-based social movements has not evolved much since the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Ultimately, the Black Lives Matter movement without the intentional inclusion of the voices of Black women and femmes is the Black Men’s Privilege movement. Black women will continue to be the most affected by race and gender pay gaps, while diversity initiatives see more Black men in the C-suite.

Violence against Black trans women — including Riah Milton and Dominique Fells— will continue to go ignored as the fight for police reform reaches the halls of Congress. Black LGBTQ youth will continue to face disturbing rates of homelessness and incarceration, while young Black men’s organizations enjoy increased press recognition and philanthropic donations. Efforts to achieve racial equity will consequently devolve into guileful and disingenuous attempts to place Black men in the same social position as white people. 

Scholars including Kimberle Crenshaw, bell hooks and Patricia Hill Collins have been saying this for decades, yet their points fall on deaf ears in the national discussion about race. That has to change. We cannot honestly discuss dismantling systems of racial oppression without including the voices of the breadth of those affected by it. That not only includes women, but also Black LGBTQ+ people, Black disabled people, Black immigrants, and incarcerated Black people.

Black Lives Matter cannot continue to be portrayed as a one-dimensional movement. News outlets must uplift diverse Black voices — including women and femmes — and listen to the local movement leaders in an effort to paint a full and accurate picture of the Black Lives Matter platform.

Only then can we begin to have real discussions about addressing racism.

Caleb Dunson is an incoming freshman at Yale University. He is currently working with Chicago Votes as the inaugural Brian Sleet Memorial Fellow.

Commentary: After George Floyd’s death, remedy for apathy is equity in civics education

By CALEB DUNSON

See the article online: https://www.chicagotribune.com/opinion/commentary/ct-opinion-george-floyd-civics-education-equity-20200803-5tkc7zbacfhqjhfrf76ql6uryq-story.html

I was 12 years old when Mike Brown was killed. I was 12 years old when I realized the world viewed me as a threat. I was 12 years old when I was forced to confront the reality that I could not maneuver through society like my white peers, that my Blackness made me liable to be murdered by anyone, for any reason. 

But then I watched as tens of thousands of people from across the country converged on Ferguson, Missouri, to advocate for justice, and I saw true civics in action. The protesters stood in solidarity and possessed unyielding hope. They organized to take collective action and forced the entire country to pay attention. And when everyone was watching, they spoke with fiery passion and deep conviction, telling vivid stories of social injustice and community resilience. I wanted to be like them, and that was the moment civics became my passion. 

I dedicated much of my high school career to exploring that passion by taking civics classes, participating in study abroad programs centered on global citizenship, and joining volunteer organizations geared toward creating equity.

Unfortunately, I also came to realize that for most high school students across the country, those opportunities, and the chance to learn about civics in general, were inadequate, incomprehensive and inaccessible. 

My peers frequently relayed the comments students at their schools would make, like, “I don’t care about politics because it doesn’t affect me,” and “I never get the chance to learn about how I can help my community,” and, “Civics class would be more interesting if we actually talked about current events.”

It’s those current events, like the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless Black people that have reinvigorated political discourse among everyday Americans. But conversation is only the first step. 

Six years after Mike Brown was killed and six years after I realized the world viewed me as a threat, all members of my generation still need to be taught about civic engagement in order to turn discourse into change. This country, after all, was founded on the ideals of engaged citizenship and active political participation.

It is through active learning opportunities that I have acquired the tools to take meaningful action.

As junior class president at Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, I learned to use data to support policy proposals, including one I offered on restorative justice, which my school implemented. Advanced placement government class showed me the importance of involving local elected officials in reform efforts, so when I decided to start an initiative to increase schoolwide cultural understanding, I knew to get approval from my local school council. Through a study abroad program in Cape Town, I learned about international social movements; now I can critically examine American politics in a global context. 

My civics education has shown me the power I hold as an American and has taught me how to leverage it to address key issues in my community.

Imagine what kind of change would happen if everyone had access to the same opportunities I did.

Maybe then the lively discussions I have with my friends about social issues wouldn’t get quiet as soon as one of us pondered the political processes that lead to government action. Maybe my peers would show up to vote in larger numbers because they would understand the process of registering to vote, researching candidates and casting a ballot. Maybe my community organizer friends would be able to mobilize students on an unprecedented scale and get them to advocate for policies they support. Maybe Generation Z would be able to break the cycle of youth voting apathy and force politicians to listen to young people.

Achieving equity in civics education will require more than expanding a few opportunities to traditionally disenfranchised students. We need an overhaul, a change in how civics education is administered and who it reaches. We must make all civics education experiences inclusive, we must support students historically underrepresented in civics spaces, and we must challenge students to use their identity, background and civics knowledge to address the unique needs of their communities.

Six years after I began to fear for my life, I now see equity in civics education as the path forward. It’s time we build a future where students like me are not the exception, but the rule.

Caleb Dunson is a graduate of Chicago’s Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, an incoming freshman at Yale University and a member of the iCivics Equity in Civics Youth Fellowship. He is also the inaugural Chicago Votes Brian Sleet Memorial Fellow.

“The Whole Damn System is Guilty as Hell”: Reflections Toward Abolition

By: Katrina Phidd


I struggle between a place of hopelessness, rage, and the paradox of exhaustion while also feeling that I am not doing enough. Black people have been arguing our right to be alive, to receive the same resources and opportunities as white people, the same benefit of the doubt, and pleading with those in power to take our pain seriously for years on end. However, an awareness that the system is sustained when its pervasiveness leads to our inaction has forced reflection on my own ability to contribute to the legacy of work to dismantle structures of oppression. 

The goal is abolition. To dismantle “the system” through various tools.  As a community, knowing how to work the system, who holds what power, and who holds them accountable, challenges the sustainability of systemic racism, putting power into our hands. Our knowledge and ability to use tools of the system is a direct threat to its continuance. While voting has never been the end-all-be-all solution, there is a reason people continue to fight for the right to vote and run for office, while others simultaneously boldy fight to disenfranchise and silence our communities. 

Dismantling, not reforming, systems of oppression must happen and must happen now. When Black people continue to be murdered by police, it becomes overwhelmingly difficult to believe this time, this death, will be the last one. I simply do not believe it. The summer of 2016, Philando Castile was murdered by a police officer, not far from my home in Minnesota. We marched, we chanted, and we cried, but the officer who killed him was acquitted of all charges. Now, in Minnesota and all over the world, people are taking to the streets to demand justice for George Floyd. Justice to some is charging and convicting all officers involved in his murder with actual sentences. Justice can also be ending our violent system of policing through abolition.

I do not believe reforming the police will end the reckless murder of Black people. Minneapolis implemented reforms, provided training on implicit bias and de-escalation, diversified their police force, and required the activation of body cameras while traveling to calls. George Floyd was still killed. If we sit back patiently, justice will NOT eventually be served.

The whole damn system is guilty as hell. 

The word ‘system,’ itself, can make change seem incredibly daunting. A system is a set of components working together to produce certain outcomes. If the whole system is the problem, a system that is built to continually harm and oppress Black bodies and lives, envisioning any immediate way to make lasting change can seem unattainable. However, an understanding of the system in this way suggests it is faceless–but that is not the case at all. Even while many people work within this structure governed by laws, historical precedent, and a culture of status quo, an understanding of the system as faceless and unknown perpetuates the system. Voting is a tool we use to achieve abolition. It is a strategy to move us forward in a moral direction, identifying which candidates hold abolitionist values, allowing us to have a weighted voice as police budgets are built and approved by Alderman and the Mayor in city hall.

Electing people like Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez and Alderwoman Maria Hadden who will unapologetically directly quote young people living in their communities, taking stances to remove officers from Chicago Public Schools, terminating a 33 million dollar contract with CPD, move us toward abolition. These are the leaders who have proven to us our voices can make it to City Hall. These leaders are choosing to invest money into preventative versus reactive services, ultimately choosing a path of abolition and transformative values. We have the ability to vote for or against the State’s Attorney and Judges. The State’s Attorney’s and Judges have the power to decide when to stop prosecuting and convicting crimes of survival, how to hold officers accountable and can bring to light past and current cases of police torture. 

We cannot rely on the systems in place to bring justice for our communities, but we can take time out of our day to encourage our people to run for office, vote, and dismantle the system from the inside while also hitting the streets to advocate for vital policy changes and making our voices heard at forums. While we protest in the streets, holding those in power accountable by voting strengthens our voices.

From trying to process collective trauma, imagining what a truly transformed society would look like, to feeling anger over and over again, the world feels really loud right now. Knowing where you are needed is in constant flux as protests and organizing evolve and knowing where you are at in your own head can be a challenge. But, when our confusion and exhaustion allow those in power to perpetuate the system, our vote is disruption. The fight to dismantle systems of oppression is continuous and layered, we must use EVERY tool we have to win. 

#DefundCPD

>