Immigration and DACA: Dreamer Daniel Perez (Convo with Kyle Video and Transcript)

The text below is a transcript of the Convo with Kyle podcast. Bold text is Kyle Bell. Standard text is Daniel Perez.

Thanks for listening to Convo with Kyle. My name is Kyle Bell.

As a writer, an author, and journalist, my work has always been about telling stories. But now, I want to tell a different story. I want to tell your story.

The goal of this project is to share with you the stories of ordinary people who do extraordinary work. They may be your neighbors, your friends, your coworkers who want to make their communities, and this world, a better place for all of us. So let’s start a conversation.

Joining us today is Daniel Perez. Daniel is a social worker with a Master of Social Work degree from the University of Minnesota. He’s come on the show to talk about his experiences as a Dreamer and as a former DACA recipient. Daniel, it’s a pleasure to have you on. Thanks for coming on to share your story.

Yeah, thank you for having me. It’s quite an honor.

You know, I’ve known you for several years now, Daniel, and I’ve seen you go from being a college student who was single to now, here in 2017, you’re a husband and a father of a newborn child. You have two master’s degrees, a job that you love, and a home of your own with you and your family. So it’s really been a remarkable journey for you so far. All the while, you were undocumented throughout much of that time.

Yeah. Yeah, when you put it like that, I mean, it’s a nice way to reflect back on where I’ve been, what I’ve done. But absolutely, I was undocumented for I would say 11 years and I’ve been here in this country for about 15, so yeah, a pretty long time.

When did you first come to the US?

I came here in January 2002.

Can you tell us a little bit more about the circumstances that brought you to the US?

Yeah, definitely. I’d be happy to. So one thing to know is that my parents and my brother came here first. My dad actually came here first, then my mom and brother joined him a couple years later. I think my dad came here in 1998, and my mom and my brother came here in the year 2000, and I came here in 2002.

And what made my family move — I’ll talk about a little bit about my parents and my brother, but then I’ll tie it back to me. And so, I think it had to do with definitely a lack of opportunities of growth, both financially, professionally. When NAFTA happened in 1994, I was six and 50% to 60% of Mexicans went into poverty, including my family.

And so, that definitely made things a lot harder for my parents to provide for us. And so, eventually my dad came. And he didn’t think about coming here to stay forever. He did think about coming here for a long time, but he came in 1998.

And my family had always experienced a lot of persecution from my dad’s family’s side. One thing to know is that my dad and his family are much more light-skinned, blue and green-eyed, very Spanish European looking. My mom, on the other side, is much more like indigenous native looking.

And so, there’s always been this divide of colorism. The lighter you are, the better, more intelligent, those kind of beliefs. And because my mom is dark-skinned — and she was definitely poor, and my dad came from like the richest family in his hometown — there was definitely a divide and definitely tension.

And given that we are my mom’s children — me and my brother — we were definitely outcasts or never fully loved very well. And that’s something that we definitely experienced, my brother and I growing up, different treatment by my dad’s family’s side. And I think that emotional and sometimes physical persecution caught up with them, and my dad finally decided to move for many years. And then he definitely brought my mom and brother here, but me–

Who were you living with when your parents were over here?

Yeah, I lived — I first lived with my mom’s mom, so my maternal grandma. And that was by choice. I actually never wanted to come to the States. If you know my history, it’s one of a lot of academic excellence. I went to a private Catholic elementary school, and I did it because I was earning scholarships since the age of five because of my grades. And so, my parents couldn’t have been able to afford it, but I was earning scholarships and I was pretty well-to-do in terms of school and academic achievement.

And so, I knew that I could thrive in Mexico and I could go to college, because college is mostly free and all those pieces. And so, I never intended to come here, but it wasn’t until that emotional, physical persecution that my parents had endured for many years caught up with me.

And I decided to stay, at the time when the persecution wasn’t happening. And so, I stayed with my maternal grandma. And eventually I had to move with my paternal grandma — my dad’s mom — and then things didn’t go so well and I had to leave.

I had to come here and leave my life behind. Most of my family was there, most of my friends, the girl that I liked, my plans to go to college, and all these things — my culture, the food that I was used to — and then I had to leave and I had to join my parents when I was about 15 years old.

So you didn’t really want to leave. It was more like being forced to leave.

Absolutely. I was supposed to leave. And you can imagine I was a pretty angry adolescent, especially against my dad. It definitely set up painful dynamics in the relationship for many, many years to come.

What did your dad do in Mexico for work?

He did a little bit of everything. Even though he was born to the richest man in town — who had millions, and a farm, and many things growing — like, he was a farmer. And my dad learned many of those skills. He was pretty good at managing the fields, and raising pigs, and cattle, all these things.

So my dad grew up doing that, but when they moved into the city, he and my mom — and then they had me and my brother — he had to find some other type of work, because he was only allowed to finish middle school. So he never actually went to high school. And so, he had to make due. So he had multiple jobs from agriculture to driving taxis to construction, you name it.

What about your mom?

My mom — my mom was able to finish high school, and I believe she was able to finish a two year college degree. At the time, there were typewriters. Computers were not available. So the nice thing is that if you learned typewriting and gained amazing skills in that, you could be an administrative assistant.

And so, she was able to get a pretty nice paying job as an administrative assistant at different jobs in Mexico, which actually one of them collapsed when NAFTA and 1994 happened. And that’s when my mom lost her job and we were sent into poverty, but that’s what my mom did.

What part of Mexico are you from?

I’m from Tepic, Nayarit, Mexico. And that’s pretty close to Puerto Vallarta. That’s about three hours away from Puerto Vallarta, so close to the Pacific Ocean.

What do your parents do here?

So now my mom — you know, she’s had health problems for quite a long time now — arthritis, fibromyalgia, and other things, a little bit of depression, thyroid problems. So I think she started developing those issues probably — let me think — seven, eight years ago. So she could no longer work.

So I guess she’s a stay at home wife. And she volunteers a lot with childcare, and daycares, and school. And she’s still working on her GED and learning English. And my dad, he works — he recently changed jobs. And so, I believe he works at a car dealership in the mechanic’s side polishing cars, keeping them up-to-date and polishing them so that customers can buy the fanciest, prettiest looking car kind of thing.

So when you first came here, I imagine that was quite the culture shock for you.

Yeah. That’s an understatement. It was definitely challenging. It was definitely–

Did you know any English?

No. I mean, I think I was exposed to English classes at the age of 10 when I was in fourth grade. And I continued to take English courses until I came here. And I never thought I had learned, but I basically knew very basic English — good morning, how are you, goodbye — but not anything that would allow me to survive.


Yeah. So in terms of culture shock, I definitely endured it from the food to personal space to communication patterns, and idioms, and you name it — even transportation. I was just flabbergasted that Minnesota actually has a pretty terrible transportation system, especially for people who don’t live in the Twin Cities or the metro area — St. Paul, Minneapolis.

What do you mean by that when you say a terrible transportation system?

Oh, it’s just not very accessible. It’s not very frequent. It’s not–

You mean public transit?

Public transit, yes, yes. That’s what I mean.

But it was where you were from in Mexico?

Yeah, definitely. I mean, public transit came like every eight to ten minutes. It could get you anywhere in the city from far away to the downtown of the city. I mean, it was pretty convenient. Taxis were super cheap as well. Sometimes people actually preferred paying for taxis than having their own car, because once you factored in gas, and insurance, and repairs, all those things, people were better off paying for a taxi.

So did you start high school when you moved? You said you were 14 or 15?


15, so you were in high school then.

Yeah. You know, the education system in Mexico, it’s a little bit different. Because elementary school in Mexico is from first through sixth grade. Middle school goes from seventh through ninth. And high school goes from tenth through twelfth.

So actually when I came here, I had to finish middle school, which was I had finished ninth grade and then I had started tenth grade, my first semester of tenth grade. And because I moved here in January of 2002, I was able to complete that semester. And then I started here in the States as a second semester freshman. They did put me a year behind because of my limited English skills.

OK, so it was like an ESL class?

Yeah, most definitely. Most of my classes for probably my freshman and sophomore year were ELL or ESL classes. I would say I think by junior year I only had one ESL class, so it was Advanced English, I believe. And then my senior year, I think I had all mainstream classes.

So you picked up on the language really quick.

Yeah, I think so. That’s what people tell me. And looking back, I’m like, oh yeah. I have friends who have told me so. I think — you know, there’s research that says that if a kiddo gets exposed to a different language at a certain age and continues to be exposed for so many years, they will have an easier time learning that language or even another language.

But I think that’s what happened, because I started getting exposed at the age of like 10, I believe. And that just continued with the MTV generation, which I did watch a lot of MTV and those kind of things, and I tried to listen to English music and get lyrics. So I think that exposure definitely made it much, much easier for me to — when I came here — to pick it up.

Is there anything else specifically about your story that you would like to mention?

Well, specifically I think one thing that is important to say is that neither my parents nor I wanted to come to the US — and nothing against the US. It’s mostly about the fact that all human beings are longing for love, and connection, and safety, and ability to thrive. And Mexico wasn’t necessarily providing that environment for my parents and my brother. It was providing it for me many times, and then eventually it didn’t.

But I can see — and I want to acknowledge that the policies and the relationship that Mexico and the US have had for such a long time has impacted both countries but more negatively Mexico. And I definitely experienced it, my parents experienced it, and many people have experienced it over so many decades. And so, I think this issue of immigration, it’s definitely fueled by many factors, including in which the US does business, and policies, and all these trades with many countries, especially my own.

I mean, you sound very negative on NAFTA.

Yeah, I think at the time I didn’t understand it. As a kid, all I knew was, oh wow, my family was thrown into poverty. But people blamed it on the corrupt Mexican government — which I’m pretty sure had to do something with it — but at the time there was no context. There was no actual broader lens to look at. Like, oh, these policies, this trade agreement was actually one of the root of the causes of our collapse.

Because, I mean, whether we like it or not, countries are trying to get the most out of things. But the United States has such a paternalistic and exploitative relationship with many countries — but in this case Mexico — that of course it doesn’t matter if Mexican people go into poverty 50% to 60% of them, as long as the US gets the upper hand and higher benefit.

Yeah, so I kind of wanted to start the conversation this way because people talk about immigration in really abstract ways. But for people like yourself and millions of other Americans who call the US home who happened to have been born in another country, it’s not an abstract topic at all. It’s your daily life. It’s their daily life. And there are real human consequences to actions by the US government, which we’re seeing it in the news every single day — sometimes even life or death consequences — when it comes to immigration policy.

Yeah, it’s definitely true. I mean, it’s something that I still struggle with because of the news, because of my friends, my family, people I love and care deeply for, and how immigration or our status weighs on our shoulders all the time. It definitely defines our daily lived experience, whether we feel safe driving, whether we feel safe flying, you name it — going into a government building because we might or might not have a proper ID, banking — you name it. I think it’s just one of those things that’s always on my mind. And I think most people who are born here don’t have to think about that.

So there’s this popular image out there — which is completely inaccurate — that undocumented immigrants are in this position because they don’t have motivation or whatever to get the necessary documents for them to become naturalized. That’s not really true, though.

The US immigration system is complex. It’s expensive. It’s time-consuming. You can testify to this.


Unless you have an advanced degree or you have close family connections, there is no pathway to citizenship, which is why people in often desperate situations come to the US without the proper papers, or they overstay a tourist, or student visa, or whatever, because the options aren’t there to stay and do so legally.

Correct. Yeah, I think — I mean, you just said it, I think. Immigration is — the policies here in the States, the system, the immigration system and the body that process immigrant applications is pretty complex.

And one thing that also has to be acknowledged is that depending on where you’re born, you might have access to very easy immigration to the States. European countries or Australia, they just don’t have to go through the hurdles that Mexicans, Filipinos, and many other South American countries — although the Philippines is not a South American country, but I’m just saying — south of the border of the US, definitely people on this continent have to go through so many hurdles, so many trials, pay so much money in order to attain a piece of paper and legal entry that many Europeans can attain so easily.

But going back to your question more directly, yeah, it is a complex issue. It is definitely something that I had to deal with because there is no easy way for you to — for me and for many people — attain legal citizenship because there was no path, because it is so lengthy.

I can say that as soon as my parents arrived here in the States, my mom’s sister applied, petitioned my mom, my dad, my brother and I as a family for sponsorship so that we could become green card holders someday. Well, given our category — because immigration creates categories — parent-child is first, and of course marriage is as well, and then there’s tiers.

But siblings, sibling relationships — so if you’re a sibling petitioning an illegal or undocumented person, a sibling, it’s definitely not at the top of the list. So for Mexican nationals like my mom who get petitioned by a sibling — a US citizen sibling — the average wait time, it’s between 20 to 30 years. My mom came here in 2000 and it’s 2017. Her application got approved in 2005. She’s been waiting since–


–in order to get a green card. So it’s been 17 years, and we’re counting.

So I wanted to talk a bit about DACA and the Dreamers. You were a DACA recipient. You’re now a legal permanent resident, but for those who might not have heard about the program or just not completely familiar with DACA, could you explain a bit about what the program is, why it was created?

Sure. So DACA refers to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. So it was created for children who had come to the States before the age of 16 and who have been here in the States since June 15, 2007, I believe. And we couldn’t be over the age of 30. And we either had to be in school, or have graduated from college — from high school, or be going to college, and/or be working.

And so, typically I just tell people this is a policy based on meritocracy. The good immigrants who don’t have a criminal record — that was another pre-requisite. You couldn’t have any criminal record — and who were deemed worthy of being given access to a Social Security number and a work permit so that the US could benefit as well from our labor, and taxes, and all those things. We were going to be given a permit for two years to be able to work.

Right. What was your initial reaction to DACA?

It was quite positive. I think I was — so let me think back. And nobody saw it coming. I was pretty connected to immigrant rights groups. I had been talking to this lawyer, who is pretty well-known nationally and especially in Minnesota. And so, nobody saw it coming. Nobody talked about DACA ever happening.

And so, at the time I was finishing my first year of grad school. I was doing two master’s — one in social work, one in family social science. And I was actually thinking, you know what? As soon as I finish my two master’s, I’m going to leave the States. This country does not want me. I don’t think I’m going to be able to work legally in my field.

I did not want to be doing low-skilled labor. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s not what I wanted to do, and especially with two advanced degrees. And so, I actually was thinking about leaving the US. I was thinking about of doing PhD programs in either social work or public health in Cambridge, in Spain, or even Australia, or I was thinking of going and working as a social worker internationally, because I could definitely get hired as a social worker with degrees from the US.

And when the policy was announced, it was definitely astonishing. It took me probably a whole day, if not more, to realize, oh wow, this is happening. And because this is happening now, I might be able to stay and not leave my family, and not leave my friends, and not leave the country that I’ve grown to love and have a dysfunctional relationship with because I love it and many times it still continues to tell me I don’t want you. And so, that’s what happened when DACA was announced.

Yeah, I mean, I remember when DACA was first introduced. It was back in 2012, right?


So it was during — it was basically during the middle of President Obama’s re-election campaign.


And I recall before DACA was announced, there were a lot of protests, student-led protests from undocumented students who were pushing President Obama to provide some kind of pathway to citizenship or a program similar to DACA.




Do you know any people that — or were you yourself involved in that movement?

No. I like to say that I was, but I think one of the things that I definitely struggle with is being a rule-breaker — and I mean that in the most positive sense, in the sense that I just struggle challenging authority. I’m a rule follower. I defer to authority. I defer to my elders.

Part of that is just my Latino culture and family origin. And so, I was never that bold. I supported it. I was spiritually there, but it was definitely scary. I want to preserve myself. I want to not get in trouble.

Yeah, I was definitely afraid of being pulled over, of being detained. What would be the consequences of that? And I was also afraid of being exposed — being photographed at a rally and now people know or could assume my identity, all those things. And so, there was a lot of fear. And so, I wasn’t that bold, but I definitely support the movement as much as I could. Yeah.

That’s understandable.

I think that thing that you said that I want to expand is that piece of — DACA is not equivalent to the DREAM Act, because the DREAM Act was actually a policy that was a little bit more comprehensive and would establish a path for legalization or getting a green card and eventually being able to become a US citizen. DACA was not that. DACA was just a very temporary status. It was a work permit.

I call it a quasi-legal status, because with the DREAM Act we would have been able to perhaps leave the country and do many things that American citizens do and just being able to travel internationally. DACA did not necessarily allow us to do that. It was a much more contrived, restrictive policy tied to a two-year work permit and a temporary Social Security number.

Right, right. Opponents of DACA, a pretty common argument that they use is they argue that it is a type of amnesty. And, first off, DACA doesn’t provide a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, like you mentioned. And with ending DACA, really they’re pushing to punish kids for the actions that their parents did.

And you know what? Over the years, the more I grow, the more I learn and the less I know kind of thing. And now that I’m definitely involved in the immigrant rights movements, I definitely have attended protests, and definitely have a much more view on immigration and all those things, that was the message that was given back in the day about we Dreamers, we DACA recipients are through no fault of our own — our parents brought us, so we’re kind of like victims and survivors.

And in a way, what I didn’t realize and what at the time we didn’t realize is by using that language, we’re throwing our parents under the bus of, like, they committed the crime. Why should we be punished? And I think I’ve been wrestling with that and just thinking about it more.

And I’m just like, our parents are also the victims from so many traumatic policies and exploitative policies, particularly from the US. So, in some sense, our parents are only doing what as human beings we’re engineered to do, to not sustain collective trauma and chronic trauma and actually flee dangerous situations in order to arrive to greener pastures — and greener pastures in this case means the United States — but with a significant cost to our well-being as well, being marginalized, being oppressed, and then being scapegoated, and being labeled so many things — not only from Trump but many other people.

And so, I say that because I think the more I grow, the more complex things become. But I think one thing that has become clear to me, it’s like, yep, our parents brought us here and we were not at fault of that. And I also believe that our parents were not necessarily at fault of what they did because I don’t think anybody wants to leave their home country. I don’t think anybody wants to endure what so many of us immigrants — undocumented immigrants — have to endure in order to have a little bit of a better life.

I think that’s a good point that you make, because I think when we’re talking about DACA and the DREAM Act parents do often get forgotten in that discussion. And as sympathetic as I think a lot of people are to Dreamers, I think listeners should also put themselves in the shoes of someone who is an undocumented immigrant. And just for a few seconds, imagine what it’s like to grow up in another country that has massive unemployment, a lack of basic security. Mexico right now is riddled with cartel violence.


I mean, the ability to support your family is limited at best. And your family has similar circumstances. But as a parent, what would you do in that situation? As an act of love, wouldn’t you do everything that’s in your power to make sure that your child’s life is better, to make sure that they have some stability in their life? Because I think that is the ultimate act of love.

And I think that’s a conversation I’ve been having with many people, whether parents, mental health providers, and just general people. I have conservative friends, and definitely we — I don’t approach topics like immigration and Trump with I want to convince you. It’s more like I want to understand you, and I also want you to understand me and my lived experience.

And I think you’re absolutely right. When I talk about this topic about immigration, I think what has made it more tangible for people who were not very sympathetic, or didn’t want to understand, or just were very legalistic and black and white about it — your parents broke the law or you broke the law, so you need to be sent back and go back to the line kind of thing.

But I think now we have North Korea and the US definitely building more tension between the countries and they both have nuclear weapons. And there’s a possibility that we might have a nuclear disaster going on. And so, when I talk to people now it’s like, you know what?

Just imagine what would happen if there’s a war between these two nations and now we’re being bombarded. As a parent or if you have people — you don’t have to be a parent. You just have to have somebody who you deeply care about and love. Wouldn’t you want them to be safe? Wouldn’t you want them to thrive?

Because here’s the thing. Should that happen — and my God, I pray it doesn’t happen — but should that happen, wouldn’t most of us, if not all of us, want to flee? Because who would want to endure that? Who would want to put our families, our loved ones through a situation like that?

And if that were to happen, we’re not going to care about whether we are documented or undocumented in another nation, because we’re going to be seeking safety, and refuge, and community, and basic needs — you know, survival. And so, I think that in a way has helped many people who are definitely paying attention to what’s the state of our nation? What could happen?

And now because the threat of war is definitely more palpable and real, I think many people are having an aha moment to say, oh, absolutely. Now I can understand the flight and the plight of undocumented folks, because that might be me.

But, I mean, it does take a great amount of sacrifice to do what your parents did, though. I mean, they left their native home, the familiar culture, the language that they knew, and they came to a country that in a lot of ways denigrates them, calling them illegals and the other epithets that I won’t actually repeat.


But they did it as a sacrifice to make sure that their children had a better life.

Mhm. Yeah, and can they be blamed? Once again, as a former therapist, as a social worker, as a person who’s — like, my deep knowledge is in family system theory, and development, and all these things. And we are engineered for love, and connection, and safety, and belonging, and not for mass trauma, or chronic persecution, or to endure oppression and marginalization. We are not meant for that.

And so, can you blame people for actually doing something to fulfill their basic needs and to fulfill the mission for which they were created — to love and be in a community and be safe. I don’t think so. You can’t make an argument — a logical argument for that, at least in my eyes. You can make a legal argument, but not a biological or psychological one.

I would agree with that. And I think that people conveniently forget that every single one of us in this country is the descendant of immigrants somewhere along the line, other than Native Americans.

Exactly. Yeah, and so, this land is not even ours. We fought, and we colonized it, and we said this is the land of the free and this is my land. It’s stolen land. And so, to not recognize that and to claim property over something that we didn’t legally acquire I just — I have an issue with that.

By the way, Daniel, I try to remain somewhat dispassionate on these podcast episodes, and I’m failing at that tonight. But I can’t be dispassionate about this, because what’s being done in this country right now by President Trump and his administration, it’s very wrong and it’s against our values as Americans.

He’s jeopardizing the futures of 800,000 kids who did absolutely nothing wrong. They grew up here, in many cases since they were in diapers. And they don’t know another home. And I think what’s happening is just shameful and I won’t stand for it. So I’m not going to pretend to be neutral on this topic. I stand with the Dreamers, and I’m pretty unapologetic about that.

I share your passion, I think, because it impacts me personally and it’s something that I definitely went through and continue to go through in some ways because of the work that I do, my friends, my family, my acquaintances, the people I love. It’s definitely something that I can’t be neutral on. And especially, like I told you before, there’s no — there’s a legal argument around legality and immigration status and all those things, but from a biological, developmental, psychological argument or viewpoint, there’s none.

Is there anything else you wanted to talk about?

Well, let me think.

I had a question.

Yeah. Yeah, go ahead.

I had a question for you. It’s a little bit — do you feel more secure now having your green card under President Trump or a few years ago as an undocumented person with DACA protection under President Obama?

That’s an excellent question, to be honest. I think from the time that I received DACA under President Obama, I definitely noticed that my life changed and my mental health and well-being definitely improved. There was no longer fear of driving without a driver’s license, and being pulled over, and maybe being deported. That went away, and it was such a relief.

The ability to have legal work in my field, I don’t think I would have been able to do that without DACA. And so, I would say that there are so many layers that I could talk about for hours how my life changed and how things just improved economically, mentally, emotionally, socially in every single way.

And so, now with having a green card even under President Trump, it just feels like there’s not a lot to worry. And I think particularly with DACA when I had DACA, I — it’s a complex story and I won’t say too much, because it will take too much time. But I did have to leave the country.

I had to petition for advanced parole. It’s a special permit under DACA that would allow me to travel outside of the country and come back legally. There were only three reasons for which you could apply and be approved for.

It could be for work, or educational purposes abroad. It could be for humanitarian reasons, like working for Social Workers Without Borders, in my case, or for visiting a dying family member. Or it could be to further develop your skills, like a professional conference.

And for me, I did that. I made that choice to apply for advanced parole in order to leave the country and come back legally. I wanted to go to a conference on fetal alcohol spectrum disorder in Canada.

And because I had to do that, my wife and I actually had to think about what that would mean, because even though I was under President Obama at the time, leaving the country was fine. It was the easy part with the notice of approval. But coming back was the challenging part, because advanced parole clearly said if you leave the country and when you return the border agent does not let you come in — because I’m at their full discretion — you will be out of the country for quite a while, unable to return, and you don’t have any legal recourse, because it was a discretionary order.

Kendra and I had to take the risk and go through the mental dynamics of what if I’m not allowed back home? What if I’m not allowed into the States again? That meant we are moving to Canada and starting all over — saying goodbye to our families. She is Canadian. My wife is Canadian and we would have support there, but it would be starting all over from jobs, house, community, all these things. And because of my immigration stuff, I would have been banned from the United States for 10 years.

So because of that, I think I’m making the case — a parallel case now — with even if for some reason I were to lose my green card or under President Trump I was scrutinized to the 10th degree and I, for some reason, was not allowed to become a US citizen and then my green card was taken away, I think because of those mental gymnastics I had to do back in the day when I had advanced parole, like, the worst case scenario has played out in our heads. And it’s like, you know what? I’m not going to live in fear. I’m going to let things play out. And if Trump ever takes my ability to live here in this country legally, we will just have to move, because at one point in time we were prepared to do so.

But, I mean, you’re in a bit of a different situation though than a lot of people find themselves in, since you have an advanced degree.

Absolutely, absolutely. The intersection between oppression and privilege couldn’t be more real in my case. And that’s something that I definitely confess and speak to. The majority of people don’t have — I mean, here’s the thing. The majority of people in the States, period, don’t have a master’s degree, let alone two. And so, even among native born, I am one of the most educated people in this country.

And so, I have access to many things that the “average American,” quote unquote, doesn’t have to, that luxury of transporting themselves internationally and do work and all these things, having access to many things. So I say that because it is true. Many, many, many people in my shoes who don’t have an advanced degree who are DACA recipients and not green card holders wouldn’t have the opportunity to do so.

In this case with Trump, I don’t necessarily fear for me. I definitely fear a lot more for relatives, for friends, for students and families that I work with. And so, that fear is really palpable. It’s really touchable. I can grab it. I can see it in people’s faces and in people’s bodies. And so, because I care about them, and I work with them, and I serve them, that’s just something that I take home, even though it doesn’t necessarily impact me as a person anymore.

With Obama being president and getting DACA, it definitely — the personal fear definitely decreased as well. But there was a — it was a temporary thing, and it could be ended. It could end or I could not be renewed. So there was a little bit of fear around, like, make sure you continue to do things well, stay under the radar, don’t cause problems, all those things.

So I think the fears were different. And so, under Trump, I definitely feel much less personally impacted, but communally, I definitely see it a lot more with the people I interact with on a daily basis.

Well, Daniel, I really appreciate you coming on the show and sharing your story with us. Hopefully in a few years maybe we can have you back on and maybe we’ll have better news, hearing that some kind of immigration reform passed. That seems like it’s in the distant future, but I guess we can only hope.

Yes, we can only hope. And I thank you so much for having me. It was definitely a pleasure talking with you. And, yeah, I hope to be back in a few years when hopefully immigration-related news are much happier, and better, and different.

I’d like to thank you again for listening to Convo with Kyle. Be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel for more episodes. You can also keep the conversation going on social media by visiting and I’d love to hear from you.

Mental Health Awareness and Suicide Prevention: Advocate Cliff Bakehorn (Convo with Kyle Video and Transcript)

The text below is a transcript of the Convo with Kyle podcast. Bold text is Kyle Bell. Standard text is Cliff Bakehorn.

Thanks for listening to Convo with Kyle. My name is Kyle Bell.

As a writer, an author, and journalist, my work has always been about telling stories. But now, I want to tell a different story. I want to tell your story.

The goal of this project is to share with you the stories of ordinary people who do extraordinary work. They may be your neighbors, your friends, your coworkers who want to make their communities, and this world, a better place for all of us. So let’s start a conversation.

Joining us today is Cliff Bakehorn, an advocate for mental health care and suicide prevention. Thanks for joining us, Cliff.

Thanks for having me, Kyle. I appreciate it.

So, Cliff, we’ve known each other for quite a while. We used to be colleagues on a video game website. But let’s just start us off by saying that mental health can be a tricky subject to tackle. It’s still taboo in American culture, but it’s also a really important topic for us to talk about.

Before I ask you a little about yourself, Cliff, I wanted to read off a few statistics that would put this whole conversation into context. 18 percent of Americans have some sort of mental illness, which is defined as a mental, behavioral, or an emotional disorder. And these numbers are from the National Institute of Mental Health. And they exclude developmental and substance use disorders — I’m sorry, substance abuse disorders.

Now, one thing that you should note is that this 18 percent represents people who have been diagnosed within the past year or who are currently suffering from a mental illness. So chronic mental illness is included but also short-term depression within the past year. Not included are people who might have had short-term depression more than a year ago — so 1 in 5 Americans are suffering from some kind of mental illness every single year.

Really, that just shows you how widespread the issue is. It also shows you that there’s a tremendous need for mental health care services.

Absolutely. As you mentioned yourself in just describing how we define, and diagnose, and track mental illness as it’s officially stated — personally, I think in my experience and looking at things the way I see them, that’s a lot more of — I don’t know. That’s a lot lower of a number than I think that there actually is in the country.

I think that we’re seeing that as mental illness becomes more — people are more aware of it as an epidemic, as a problem, as something that we’re talking about but not necessarily understanding how to tackle it in their daily lives and really realizing how common and how close to home it can be for them.

And I have to wonder if those numbers — I’m not actually sure off the top of my head — but I have to wonder if this numbers are from self-reported mental illness cases, such as depression, and anxiety, and so forth, rather than actually having data that comes from hospitals.

Well, even just data from hospitals — go ahead.

Because people are — I would suspect people would be less likely to self-report having a mental illness, just because of the negative connotations around it.

Absolutely. That was actually kind of what I was going to say as well is I think that part of the number being low idea is that it’s really hard to include all of the cases of people that are really good at hiding it that don’t want to self-report. They don’t want to seek therapy. They don’t want to seek treatment, cases where–

One of the big crises from my hometown is the homeless and how mental health affects that situation, and nor are they being reported. There’s a lot of factors at play here where I think that the — any official number of them is even hard to still completely trust, because I think it’s something — based on this stigma, based on the way people seem to treat this for themselves and for others — it’s really hard to say exactly what the number would be. But I think 18 percent puts it pretty low.

Yeah. So before we go into the coping, and treatment, and stuff like that, I wanted to talk a little bit about our personal experiences — both with our friends and family but with ourselves as well. And I’m willing to share with listeners that I’ve, myself, suffered from depression for really the majority of my life but also I have a fair amount of social anxiety. And it takes a fair amount of — see, there’s my social anxiety catching up.

How do I tell people what it does for what I have to do on a day to day?

Yeah. Okay, I myself have suffered from depression a majority of my life. I’ve been medicated for it for a majority of my life. But I also have social anxiety. And it’s been pretty moderate to severe to the point that when I was in high school I actually was homeschooled rather than going to a public high school. Tell us a little bit more about your experiences, Cliff.

Oh, absolutely. This is one thing that I am personally — one thing I want to talk about in the subject in general as it pertains to my experiences is that talking about it is really, really important. It needs to be in a setting with company that’s appropriate to actually have a positive effect. But talking about the situation is something that I think is one of the bigger problems for most people on both sides to deal with.

So for me, personally, I think my history with mental health started when I was relatively young. I never really was aware of anything. I did have a handicapped uncle who — just severe developmental issues. And basically just watching him as a kid and growing up gave me this at least basic understanding of the fact that unfortunately the brain develops differently for everybody.

And to a little bit of a lesser extent, I had family that I — I didn’t really understand why they were some of the ways — you know how and why they acted the way they did. It wasn’t normal. And I started to detect that stuff at a bit of an early age.

It really wasn’t until I was a little older that I realized that I, myself, unfortunately — whether it was genetic or I subjectively picked up some of those traits myself and began to embrace mental illness as a personal thing. I was diagnosed — I was officially diagnosed about three years after I started seeking treatment with a psychologist in 2008. I’m diagnosed bipolar II NOS, which is not otherwise specified. I like to think of it as an asterisk that says “I don’t really know exactly.”

I was later — about a year later diagnosed with Adult Attention Deficit Disorder, and not really diagnosed with but noted that I have obsessive compulsive tendencies, tendencies that exist in my daily life that aren’t the typical counting things or having to touch something on the way out the door. There’s just other parts that are a little bit more complicated that are based on that. So that’s what my diagnosis has been.

I’ve had friends, a lot of — countless friends over the years that just through my relationships with them I’ve realized, or learned, or talked about with them their struggles. And I’ve come to realize that almost a scary majority of people that I’ve encountered and surrounded myself with seem to struggle with something. And I don’t say that in a way that I think in my experience is meant to be negative. It’s comforting.

Because to go back to the statistic of 18 percent, at least in my life, that’s an extremely low number. And that has put me around mental health topics — a personal interest in reading about, learning about, taking classes about mental health, and mental illness, and development. So my interest really started there and where it’s really become something where I want to be a bit more involved,

Two years ago I lost a very close friend. And in the media, we continue to see people — famous people, normal people quote unquote “everyday people” that continue to make this mistake or struggle with these issues. And that’s something that I want to have a bit of an impact on myself, just through my experiences and hopefully others, that I learn.

I was going to say, too, the passion for mental illness didn’t start with my experiences. Actually, it was a struggle and it was a resistance, especially when I was first diagnosed. I was — let me think here, 16 years old, I believe. And I actually wasn’t diagnosed but I seek therapy and they were like, yeah, this kid has some issues. But it became that part pretty early on.

So my experience with and interest in mental health — personally and I guess just scholarly — basically, it started with a struggle, not with the full interest that I have now and understanding, especially I was diagnosed when I was younger, in 2005. So it wasn’t something where I liked to agree with it and I wanted to listen.

And I think that’s actually one of the things that over time, luckily as I got older, and I grew up, and I wasn’t a teenager, as you grow up and become an adult, you really either need to learn or do learn certain things about life. And a lot of those things crisscross into how you deal with your mental health, and taking it seriously, and not being a victim.

And I guess, so, my interest did not start with wanting to read about it. It started with learning how to cope with it.

Let me add the caveat that neither of us are medical professionals and any listeners should not take any of the content in this podcast as medical advice. But what are some of the coping mechanisms and treatments that you’ve found effective personally for you, Cliff?

Well, with a lot of trial and error — unfortunately with a lot more of the errors in the beginning — I really started off just trying to escape from dealing with issues. Distractions — your video games, obsessively being on the internet reading silly stuff, things like that where my coping mechanism was just to distract myself from what was going on. I don’t always think that that is something that’s been negative, but it’s led me to realize that you need to have other ones that are actually productive and constructive. Those can be tiny little things.

I recently saw a video of a Navy Seal that was speaking about the importance of making the bed when you wake up in the morning. And it’s because little things like that, when you set a small goal, you complete that goal, that’s a win at least right there for the day. It already put you ahead a little bit. So productive coping mechanisms like taking care of yourself very well, trying to exercise, socializing to a healthy extent. You can be around good and bad people for this for dealing with either your own or other people’s mental illness problems.

So coping can’t really be all of that, either. I think that there is the issue of having me time, you time, just personal time to actually gather thoughts, think, and allow yourself to do that. And then a lot of those things take steps, which are kind of coping mechanisms in themselves.

You mentioned having a lot of social anxiety. And I think social anxiety is — at least in my experience with a little bit of it — is kind of having to learn that that’s not going to stop you from having to do things every day. And you have to learn how to not let that define your actions and who you are.

Yeah, and I think one of the things that we do — all of us, really — is we overthink. And we actually — well, let me just give you an example. If you’re giving a speech in public or something, we tend to give ourselves more importance, I guess, than other people actually perceive us as having.

The coping mechanisms that you mentioned I found effective as well. I’ve taken up — exercise is a good way. It’s a good way to relieve stress and anxiety. Yeah, so, I mean that’s one of the things that I have done personally. I started to take up an instrument. But, I mean, I think you also have to really be introspective and be honest with yourself.


And try to overcome whatever challenges and issues you have.

Absolutely. I think one of the — it’s one of the things that I try myself to put into perspective life and my place in that. And it’s both comforting and terrifying, but I like to say I am one of 7 plus billion people on the planet. How important is this really?

And not to say that in a way or trivializing issues that people need to actually take seriously, but sometimes when you’re in a panic, sometimes when I personally am anxious and feeling at my worst, it’s a lot of times because of this — like you said — expansion and grandiose thought of ourselves and the scope of that in our lives where–

I mean, a lot of times people don’t even realize what’s going on with us. And so, they’re just going to see how we respond, not what’s going on on the inside. And that’s up to us. Our feelings are up to us to respond to. And again, like you said, to admit that to yourself and put yourself in that role of control of that is definitely difficult, especially in times of great anxiety, of crisis.

I think one of the difficulties of talking about this topic is the fact that there’s still a lot of myths and there are a lot of negative connotations that are attached to it. But, as I pointed out in the introduction, it’s something that really touches close to home for pretty much everybody. And at some point in your life — in all of our lives — people become depressed, people have anxiety.

So, I mean, it has an impact on our daily lives for not just our friends, our family, our neighbors, but ourselves. Because whether we suffer from mental illness or not, undoubtedly we come into contact with people who are struggling from it. How do we overcome those social anxieties surrounding mental illness?

Well, I think it’s a really big challenge, a really big task, one that even just the idea of mental health awareness — I kind of struggle to just embrace that generalization of being aware of mental health. Because anybody can be aware after learning, or seeing, or hearing a YouTube video about it. But it’s really a different thing to be alert, and be realistic, and kind of — whether it’s being introspective about yourself or being aware of somebody else and what’s going on with them. I think that’s extremely important.

I think this probably should be emphasized a little more. The first step to actually getting better and living a more productive life is admitting that you have an issue.

Absolutely. I don’t think you can fix the issue until you’ve both admitted that it’s there and also that you actually want to in yourself change the issue at all — and not only just with coping but with treating on a day to day and on a long term basis. One of the most difficult challenges is to maintain that drive.

And really for everybody it can be different how to attain that drive. For me, personally, I have a daughter. And that has given me a purpose and a drive that I’m very fortunate to have and I’m very happy to have.

Aside from an event like that, which doesn’t always impact everybody the same way, there’s no shortcut. There’s no cheat code. You have to find that purpose yourself sometimes, and that can be really difficult to do as well.

And, again, to go back to what I was saying before about just the little things on a day to day basis, one of the other things that I really believe is that you have to do these things. But even if you have to just make yourself or tell yourself something, if that’s the motivation you need, just do a little better each day. It’s worth it.

I think equally important to being honest with yourself and seeking help when you need it is also having these discussions openly in society so that we can actually help people and have frank, open, and honest discussions about these topics. What can we do as a society so that we can remove the stigmas and make it easier for people to seek help?

So for the same reason that I think mental health is increasing and I guess in the problematic nature of it with social media, I do think also there are things that are being done to make the — to go back on mental health awareness, it has been effective, I do believe, in making people realize I guess the weight of the issue, the gravity of the situation.

And one of the things I think that’s been great about this is the acceptance of the idea that somebody is depressed, that somebody’s struggling, and I don’t think that it’s immediately something where when we grew up you’re a sissy — to use the masculinity situation and why a lot of men struggle with their emotions. That was the whole concept.

And nowadays, I don’t think you see that as much with the younger generation. I don’t have a lot of experience around them other than being around brothers and sisters and seeing how they interact and hearing how they treat different situations like this. And it’s a little better than I think how we did. And that gives me a lot of hope for the future and how people will respond to mental illness, and understand that it can be an everyday issue that we can cope with and live with, and not let it rule our lives.

Again, I think normalizing it in a constructive way is very important, understanding that depression has quite a spectrum that it works on. And being chronically depressed isn’t the same as having a bout of depression or a depressive episode. People can have a panic attack, a mental breakdown.

I think these are, to be honest with you, I think they’re natural parts of human life, especially at different age points in life, and to understand that sometimes people struggle with things a little bit more and some people don’t. I think that that’s something that we need to continue to understand is — again, 18 percent, I just don’t — I think it’s a little bigger than that. Even if you look at it as one out of four people you see every day that might be going through something, might have something underneath the surface that you don’t see, that would be something that we understand and respond to in every situation where we’re just a little bit more understanding and empathetic of people around us because of what they may be dealing with.

So mental health awareness is really significantly more common today than it was in the past, especially in this age of social media. I mean, for instance, I see friends post about suicide prevention on Facebook. What role do you think social media plays in mental health awareness?

Well, in mental health awareness I think that it plays a pretty consistently positive role, at least in the literal sense. In mental health in general, I actually think it plays both a good and a bad role, where I do think that a lot of our mental health epidemic and our issues that we’re seeing come up so much more commonly in people. I absolutely think they can be attributed to the way that we interact with each other on social media.

I think that the are even some mental illnesses, some disorders that have not maybe been created in the rise of social media but absolutely have taken a different form to where I think we see things like — we’re aware of the mental health awareness videos and things that our friends post, but also sometimes if you notice, a lot of them can be extremely narcissistic, which the entire concept of social media really exacerbates and rewards.

And on an emotional level, I think that does some pretty messed up things to people. So where I think a lot of people can be informed and educated through social media about these topics, I think they can also — it’s a double-edged sword to where, depending on your personal use and your mental health in general, I think that it can also be tricky and dangerous to where sometimes you’re not always in reality when you’re on social media. And it’s a representation of you, but it’s not you and the people you’re dealing with as well. And I think that presents interesting situations that maybe weren’t as common 20 years ago.

With the rise of social media — our generation grew up before Facebook and Twitter actually blossomed and became such a huge communication tool. I mean, we had stuff like AOL Instant Messenger and stuff like that, but cyber-bullying is really an issue that is talked about a lot today that wasn’t talked about when we were growing up.

Absolutely. I think that actually on the specific topic of cyber-bullying itself, I think that social media is a breeding ground for it. I’m not a teenager right now, but I would not trade my teenage life for a kid now who has Facebook, and Instagram, and Twitter. And everything they do, they’re posting.

And someone in their peer group is maybe not thinking positively about — and all the possibilities of what leads to depression and what breeds that, all of these problems. I think it’s really a lot more simplified just by how prevalent social media is in our lives.

You mentioned that we didn’t have all of the same, basically, tools at our disposal. And even if we did have similar ones — AIM and Myspace, for example — obviously not that long ago, but it was still a little bit different. And I think that the way that it has changed to where now everybody has a Facebook. That idea of your mom can see what you’re posting on Facebook. That’s a little bit different than what we did on Myspace. And I think to a degree, that brings out some good and some bad in people.

And, I mean, the anonymity of the internet I think brings out a lot of bad in people.

Absolutely. Actually, one of the things I read about a while back, apparently — is it South Korea has something where your IP is tied, or your IP address or your — you have a unified profile online. And the incidence of either cyber-bullying or people just doing crappy things online really has dropped. I can’t provide any actual statistics on this, but I think it’s very relevant, at least to the idea that — some people still say and do crappy things on their Facebook. But they’re really not as quick to do that if they think that their grandma is going to see it or if they’re going to be held accountable for it somehow.


And I think that’s what makes things — to use not social media but the internet in general — something like 4Chan, I’ve always been extremely opposed to people using this website. Similarly to I don’t think people should do heroin, I don’t think they should go on 4Chan. Because that I think that it not only brings out and allows the worst but encourages it in a way that really can cause some damage.

That’s a pretty extreme example. But as social media has gotten to be over the last couple years — especially politically and social issues — this echo chamber where we’re surrounding by what we present to ourselves. That can get really dangerous, say, if you’re a really depressed person that’s in the wrong Facebook group or the wrong message board, forum, anything to where you can really derail a person, I think, with the wrong kinds of things.

I think that that’s — it’s one of the things that’s very freeing and very scary about the internet is nowadays it seems very easy to get trapped in our own worlds that we’ve created for ourselves. And that doesn’t seem to be very conducive for mental health treatment or coping with it.

I don’t want to get too much into politics, but it can also lead to radicalization.

Absolutely, absolutely.

People become surrounded by people with like-minded views. And their Facebook feed or their Twitter is basically just something that confirms everything that they already believe. And it amplifies a lot of the biases that they have.

No, actually, kind of going back to where I think that that can be dangerous for someone with mental health, again, part of treatment is wanting to make yourself better and seeking that kind of reinforcement and support either with your actions or people in your life, if you have a completely anonymous or semi-anonymous group of people on Facebook that make you feel good and don’t know you in person, that really doesn’t help you. And those things are so shallow in comparison to your actual everyday life to where, again, I think it’s a lot of personal responsibility and how much you put into it.

But if you’re seeking certain things like — that kind of confirmation, that kind of support through Facebook or social media, sometimes it can definitely lead you the wrong way to where — when we were talking about different ways to cope or treatment methods, one in my personal life that actually helped quite a bit in a lot of ways — not always — was group therapy. But going to a group, talking to people, having to actually face the issues in person and develop a relationship with people who are going through similar things managed to be an extremely helpful coping mechanism, where at first I wasn’t thrilled about it. And before the end of both stints of group therapy, I was very pleased with the experience.

I would also say there is a positive side to the technology that we have today. I’ll just use myself as an example rather than someone else. So for someone with social anxiety, the internet gives you an opportunity to meet and connect with people that you really otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to do.

You and I, we go back a ways now. But we originally met — you know, where did we originally meet? It was through a website that you used to work for, I believe?

I believe so. I’ve never actually been entirely clear, to be honest with you. I just know that once we started talking and I started working with you, I was thrilled about it. And we became friends from there.

Yeah. And I’ve had so many positive experiences with you. You came up to South Bend and visited with me and my boyfriend. I met my boyfriend on Myspace. It’s about the only thing positive that’s come from Myspace.

But we have opportunities these days with the technology that we have that our parents didn’t have, that our grandparents didn’t have. It can be a negative. It can really magnify bullying, because you can basically go on a news website or any website, really, and just berate people and be a troll.

For that, I think of Gerald’s character in South Park in one of the more recent seasons where you find out he’s an internet troll. And as much as I dislike the idea of what he was doing, the portrayal of it was extremely amusing. And it almost ironically shows for people to do that, I think that’s really indicating something missing — maybe not depression. I don’t know what it is, but I think that’s a void they’re filling by being hateful and getting the dopamine rush of their own bile.

Yeah, yeah.

You were talking about the positives of some of the tools available to us and the way we can interact. And that’s something — one thing I’d like to respond to that is really just it lies in the user. The responsibility is up to you as a person on the internet to do things.

And one of the really large points that I have to make about mental health and how we respond to each other is sometimes we don’t largely know how to do that best. With Facebook, for example, I think it’s a pretty common thing for people to forget that they’re talking to the human being that is in the profile picture that they’re looking at and talking to or ranting at.


And I think that that is something that it comes down to the individual. It comes down to remembering that this is not face to face interaction. This is not real life. It’s just our avatar version of it.

And one belief I have is that nothing too important should ever be on Facebook, discussed on Facebook, argued on Facebook. Because there is real life for that. That’s how things get solved, not how things prolong and become bigger problems.

And I think that on a large scale that’s one of the bigger issues. It’s why we’re seeing more depression. People I don’t think are really communicating with each other in a constructive, real way to where, again, I think it just comes down to all of us really taking stock of how we behave and how we talk to people.

I, myself, am guilty of doing wrong with this. And I really had to correct this over the years to remember that it is a person — a friend, a family member — on the other side. It’s not just this representation of whatever they said that I didn’t like.

And I’ve never cyber-bullied. To my knowledge, I’ve never done anything where I feel like I was trying to hurt another person. But I’ve definitely gotten into arguments and things that wouldn’t happen normally. And, again, whether that’s on a small, incidental scale or a large scale, I think that changes how we respond to and cope with interpersonal problems that happen to us.

I also wanted to talk to you about suicide prevention, because I know that’s something that you’re really passionate about.


Suicide is actually the third leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 24. And each year, 44,000 Americans commit suicide.

To add to the statistics as well, I can’t give you a number but one interesting thing that was pointed out to me recently when I was reading about gun-related deaths is that one of the biggest if not the biggest contributing factor to gun deaths is suicide. Which I’m not trying to make an argument about guns or gun rights, but it’s something that brings up one of the points about suicide prevention that I think is really important is timing, and opportunity, and prevention through really obvious methods to where if we have this many people committing suicide just through guns, we really need to think about the mentally ill having access to guns and preventing that from happening, or even in your daily life trying to — I’m not saying try to tell people how to live their lives but maybe coach them away from guns if they’re having suicidal problems.

And it’s not just hurting themselves but other people as well, as we’ve seen just countless times.


I’m looking at a New York Times article right now, and I’ll link to it in the video below. According to the National Center for Health Statistics — and this is from 2016 — the overall suicide rate rose by 24 percent from 1999 to 2014. In 1999, 29,000 Americans committed suicide. In 2014, that number rose to 42,000.

And there’s — I mean, the mind spins with reasons for why that might be. But aside from some let’s say national issues — disasters, things like Katrina and things like 9/11, the financial crisis in 2008 — I think that some of those factors may be increasing this. But I’d like to think with some optimism that times now aren’t really that bad. So I think there’s got to be another cause, as kind of we mentioned before where maybe social media might be something that’s affecting people at a deep level.

And on that point, researchers found an increase of three times the amount from 1999 of girls who were aged 10 to 24 who had committed suicide — and this was as of 2014. So that is a very large spike. The article also noted that white middle-aged women had an increase of 80 percent. So the trends are not good.

Well, and they’re also not exclusive to really anybody. I think, again, that brings around the importance of understanding the reality and the gravity of prevention of this either on a personal or a larger scale is — I don’t like to think of it this way, but I have to imagine on a daily basis I encounter at least one person that is near the end of their rung or their rung, you know what I mean?

I do have a lot of hope that the mental awareness efforts by people online and just in general will help to make people in the future a little bit more aware of this and a bit better in responding to it. But, unfortunately, as you just mentioned with the numbers there, that really supports the idea that this is a growing situation. And I think that we have to really look at all the factors.

I also do think — and to keep the topic to a minimum, because it’s in and of itself a really large one — but drug addiction and even just drug treatment for diseases and problems in America I think is really a huge deal that’s causing a lot more problems outside of just issues related to that, where it has a cascading effect on lives surrounding the individual.

It has an effect on the entire community.

Absolutely. And really no better evidence of that then my own community. Bloomington, Indiana was very recently had a huge spike in heroin overdoses in a two week period that killed — I don’t want to mess the numbers up here, but it was at least over 30 people in two weeks, or at least overdoses that required extreme hospitalization and treatment.

There’s been such a problem that police officers have had to restrict their use of Narcan — the overdose medication used to treat people going through a heroin overdose — to only officers that have inadvertently either stumbled across meth and had some kind of interaction or frequently they were putting Fentanyl in — not meth, sorry, heroin. Recently they were putting Fentanyl in the heroin. And this is such a powerful chemical that just a dust size speck of it when in contact with the officers could kill them, so just a problem like that to where on a large scale, people are having to respond. Why and where is this coming from?

And I think the issues feed into themselves. So, again, I think addiction and drug problems in this country are a huge topic of their own, so I don’t want to talk about it too much. But I definitely think that’s another problem we’re facing parallel to the mental health crisis that feeds into it. And they work off of each other.

I think it probably should go without saying that whether it is suicide or drug addiction, these things have manifested and they’ve grown during a time when the country went through a really significant economic recession.


So people in their everyday lives are struggling to make ends meet. The economic issues can have a ripple effect and create relationship issues. Losing your job itself can cause depression. So these issues really are interconnected, and they feed off of each other.

Absolutely. And I think that the grim reality is that when these things add up, unfortunately what we see — as we’ve discussed on a very large scale — nowadays seems to be people making the worst decision I think a person can make in ending their lives.

And just to kind of rewind a little bit on the topic in general, I think that suicide is unique in our social interactions with people in that nobody really wants to, knows how to talk about it. Whether or not they’ve personally dealt with the situation, personally themselves have been suicidal, it can be something that is so immediately polarizing while at the same time I think it’s more crucial than ever that we at least let the walls down enough and accept that it needs to be talked about.

To go back to the point of the different age groups and the suicide rates of different people, it’s something that can affect anybody. And you mentioned how the loss of a job, for example, could be something that contributes to the depression and suicide. One of the most interesting things that I learned about in school in one of my development classes was that different age groups some of the different crises that they go through — in general, men and women and people in general just naturally — and some of those in and of themselves can be fatal if not handled well.

I think that’s one of the things with all of these other factors contributing to what might be really hurting people or causing them to be depressed, again, it’s widespread. It’s something that we need to be more comfortable talking about, because it’s not going to happen to any target group. It’s not about angsty teenagers that are upset and want to end their life.

It can be an adult that’s had an established life and kids, and they are at some point where they don’t have a sense of purpose. And that’s just devastating to even think about. And that’s something that I think that on the individual level we need to work on a little bit better in some way — little or small, just in our interactions with each other and helping to provide an appropriate support and sense of purpose to the people in our lives.

What are some tangible warning signs that people can look for?

So I think that the really tricky part about dealing with a suicidal individual is that at all times, really, the ball has to be in their court until it can’t be. And one of the things I think that people often, even as a casual mistake, in trying to cheer someone up — let’s just put it lightly — sometimes they’ll try to make people do things that they think would make them feel better when really even if the person just needs to sit there and talk, you need to be able to do that. The person that is going through the crisis needs to be comfortable with the option of getting better, which in a truly suicidal moment is not really going to happen by someone coming along and taking them out of their comfort zone.

Unfortunately, I think it’s both necessary and really dangerous to explore and understand how the person got there, which let’s say that you’re having a one on one conversation with them. You never want the conversation to go too quickly towards enabling any of their thoughts. And one of the things that I think is really tricky is that most people aren’t going to come up to you and tell you they’re suicidal. And if they do, you absolutely should never take it lightly. It’s not a joke.

You really can’t just barge into it. And I think that the best option is really — to go back to the idea of just prevention — I think that a lot of times it builds up. Sometimes it doesn’t. Those situations are harder to predict.

But you have to spot patterns. I think it’s really important to pay attention to patterns if you’re around someone on a daily or weekly basis. Try to notice things, especially if they’re down. The obvious one is the dramatic changes in behaviors, and diet, and sleep patterns. And interests even can sometimes be something I think that should at least be noted, because those things generally tend to happen when a person’s spiraling a little bit — and especially if they are, oftentimes either they’re interested in nothing or change dramatically.

Another obvious one is if there’s any kind of cues, whether it’s through dialog or just something you notice. I think it’s important to interact. And a lot of people are very nervous about reaching out. Again, it’s very important to be delicate and to not over-step yourself, but it’s a lot easier to have an uncomfortable conversation than a tragic funeral.

And that’s unfortunately something that I’ve experienced myself. And kind of to spot things, you’ll always spot things in hindsight. And it is absolutely perfect vision, but it is important to notice things and to keep track, and when time comes to it actually bring it up. And don’t point fingers. Don’t try to say that you know too much. This person needs to feel comfortable responding. But even I think the idea of having that conversation generally should show somebody that they care and help to bring them out of the loneliness and the isolation of it all.

But, again, it’s kind of a real task. I think it takes a lot of paying attention. And it takes a lot of care, a lot of effort to notice these things. But if there’s no signs beforehand, it’s really hard to know you need to do that. So it’s not always easy to spot.

So one of the toughest struggles that I’ve had with the issue of suicide in my personal life was the loss of a very close friend a couple years ago. He committed suicide in his home. And what’s really tragic about the situation, other than the obvious, is just looking back.

What really made me so aware and trying to pay attention to warning signs is even before this happened, there were these bizarre red flags that knowing my friend the way I did really told me that something was extremely wrong, not in a way that it had been before. We had had ongoing situations and really a personal bonding over our mental health struggles together. It was something that really bonded us.

And so, I see all these signs happening, and some of them I want to be specifically talking about. For example, we were talking about social media earlier. One of the things that I’ve read is a real telltale sign of suicidal behavior is a surrendering of your things or your interests.

One of the things my friend did in the weeks leading up to his death was on an almost crazy basis just started posting music that he liked, and videos that he liked, and everything, almost as if he wanted the world to know everything about him. And I saw this very quickly and was alarmed. And I kind of made a comment to him, and he was a smart guy, and me and him were on the same level with some of this stuff. And I think that he shut down and he really blocked me out, because I think he could tell that I knew what was going on. And unfortunately, through still continued efforts, I was not able to use those signs to prevent this from happening.

And in the days leading up to it, the last time I saw him we were talking. And the idea, the thought was that he was telling people that he was really sick and he was in bad health and might not make it. So a couple friends had come into town from out of town. Another warning sign that I’ve read about is gathering people. And this I also took note of.

So in my last discussion with him — that I didn’t realize would be — I was just talking to him about my daughter, who again through our personal stuff, he knew how much of an impact she had made in my recovery and in my treatment of myself. And I tried to really instill in him something I truly believed, which was that he was a father figure to the T. Unfortunately, he had some quirks, but he would have been such a great dad.

And I remember trying to tell him just — not, hey, go have a kid. It’ll fix your life. That definitely was not the point, but just trying to make him understand the potential and value that he had in life that he couldn’t have even been effected by yet or could make him better. And I didn’t buy into that he was sick. I thought there was something else that was wrong. And unfortunately it was in every phone from then until the end there was me worrying until it finally happened.

I learned something very quickly, that as a survivor of a friend that did this that you can’t stop everything. You can’t know everything. You cannot do everything. There is only so much that you can really do short of hogtying a person or just having complete surveillance over them. And that’s one of the hardest things to deal with.

At the end of the day, it really [INAUDIBLE] my belief that dealing with this there is no one to blame. There should be no anger. There is only the person that made the decision. And it’s been a tough loss for me. It’s taught me a lot about life. It’s really made the value of individuals in my life on an everyday basis so much more apparent. But it’s really unfortunate that it took that loss of a person that really, truly impacted a lot of people.

He did display a lot of signs and a lot of people tried to stop him. And unfortunately, again, you can’t control people and you can’t force anything. And part of suicide I think is opportunity. And unfortunately, he managed to slip in an opportunity to do so.

To bring that back into spotting things and being aware — not just aware of suicide and of mental health but really alert is seeing these things, and doing whatever is in your power, and hoping, and having faith in the person to make a good decision. And unfortunately, at the end of the day, that power rests in them.

And I think that as people and as supporters of loved ones of people — friends — in their lives, it’s up to us to make sure — again, on an appropriate level — that we instill that value of each other in each other whenever we can, because it’s got a lot of value. And I think that — I really do believe that if my friend had understood that more, he may have made a different decision.

Thanks for sharing that, Cliff.

Absolutely. It’s really tough, you know? On a bit more of a personal level, I also have had an attempt. It’s something I’m not uncomfortable sharing. And I was in the hospital. And the craziest coincidence in the world happened. The same night that I was put into the hospital, guess who was there?

And it was the most bizarre thing, because we both were always aware of our struggles and everything. But I remember looking at him. We were in the cafeteria of the hospital. And I looked at him and I go, “we are way too good at something to be here. We’re better than this. We have to get better.”

And I remember him being so just absolutely in agreeance and motivating himself. He said — I don’t remember exactly what he said, but he was all about this is not going to happen to us again. And it was just the most bizarre thing in the world, and it really bonded us. And it’s really unfortunate to have that connection and unfortunately be the one left over where we didn’t both get there, but it has absolutely been another very strong motivator for me to have pushed through that at the time itself, and then get through the loss of him, and learn that that’s just not the option that I think is right to take.

Even if it’s difficult every day, something — something in life will make it worth it. And even if you have to make compromises to feel what that something is, it’s a lot — it’s a lot better than the alternative.

A few years ago, I had a dark experience as well. I don’t really want to get into the intimate details about it, but I will say just from experience that it’s easy to get into a mindset where everything feels hopeless and to play this record that loops in your head telling yourself that you’re useless, or you’re a failure, or whatever. Because we put all of these expectations on ourselves. And society puts expectations on us. Our culture puts expectations on us.

And one of the things is when you get into a situation where it seems that all hope is lost, where you think that there’s no way that things can get better, and that it would be better to just end it all, it’s really important to take the time to step back and actually think about what you’re thinking about doing and to recognize — to recognize that once you act on your thought to end your life, there’s no taking it back. And — sorry, this is a pretty emotional topic.

No, you’re fine, by all means.

It hits close to home for me. Yeah, that’s all I’m going to say on that.

That’s completely fine. And kind of earlier we had mentioned in terms of dealing and coping with just mental illness generally and absolutely with suicide prevention on an individual, personal level, I think people — it’s very important for people to find their things. For me on a daily basis in coping with all of my different issues, I have a few things that make me happy.

They may not be exactly what I wanted them to be in some grandiose, teenage idea of how my life was going to be before I got out of high school and had any concept of what life actually was, but you just have to find those things. And, again, it’s not easy to do when you’re in the void — as I like to call it — or that pit where everything is awful.

That’s the really hard thing is sometimes at the deepest point — and I’ve been here myself multiple times — sometimes even those little things that you find enjoyment in don’t have that effect and you can’t even feel that. And at that point, I think that’s really important to where personally I would want to speak up, talking to friends that I am very comfortable with or family that I’m very comfortable with, and absolutely doctors when I have them or I’m seeing them. That’s something that really does help to sort out and put reason to or at least understanding to what’s going on and how that’s not the end of the world.

And one of my — one of the things about the way that my therapy was handled with my psychiatrist and my social worker was they really focused on self-assessment and prevention, identifying triggers that were happening, and how you were responding on an internal level and externally, and shaping your behavior around that. And that was really helpful in predicting and detecting I was feeling a certain way, but it really came down to making better decisions and being accountable for making wrong ones.

I think that’s one of the really difficult things about mental illness is you’re not defined by your disorder. You’re defined by your actions. And I tell people that on a supportive level but also kind of a challenging level, because a lot of times people get in this victim mode to where I’m bipolar, or I’m depressed, or I have this, I have that, and that just rules everything about my life. You’ve got to make that change, and that’s really difficult to do. And it’s really difficult to suggest on the outside, but it’s important to hear.

And I think that, again, finding the little things that make you — just a on day to day basis — just a little bit happier, I think that that has a snowball effect to good things. And that’s one of the best ways to cope is just finding your little things that you can enjoy, as long as they’re healthy.

I was going to jokingly say when we talked about coping mechanisms that drugs are not the answer. They might make you feel a certain way for a while, but they’ll destroy your life in other ways, and that can only be evidenced in how intertwined addiction and mental health are. I think that there has to be something else.

And one of the — I like to draw. I get really into music. I almost go into my own head space when I listen to music sometimes. And I realize that it’s this almost medicinal thing. And those are just some of my little things that help me cope, and you have to have those.


It’s tough stuff to talk about, and I realized this as I was gathering notes. Even to formulate general ideas about the subject can be so difficult, because the personal experience attached is so heavy.


It’s so hard. And that’s why it’s so important is because kind of as I had mentioned before — and I really want this to be on record as saying — I would do a lot to prevent others from dealing with the hurt of a loss that is the grand ending, so to speak, of somebody’s struggle with and inability to cope with their mental illness. And to prevent other people from feeling that kind of loss, that’s very important to me. And I think that most people could agree that it would be. And I think that just needs to be reflected in our actions a little bit better sometimes.

And you mentioned that — I guess I’m going to paraphrase you here — drugs aren’t the answer.

Yeah, it’s not. I think it’s the worst possible form of escapism. I don’t even think that drugs necessarily have to be the — fill in the blank here, just an addiction. It’s just you supplementing your brain with dopamine to cope with a lack of [INAUDIBLE] and from some other factor.

And not to reference South Park again, but nobody’s ever said it better than — this very struggle than the Satan character in the show talking about how brain chemistry works, about how the pleasure chemically, basically — dopamine — the reason why addicts struggle with the things they do and how in their lives. And it was very well put, but basically we’ve got to fill this void. We just can’t do it with things that chemically supplement dopamine in our brains, because that’s not how it works and then in your life, you’re worse off than when you started.

I don’t think anybody has ever been better off doing drugs. I think that marijuana is a medicinal thing, dealing with depression and suicide — not suicide but with mental illness — I definitely think can have its positives. I would also go on record to say that if I never personally had experienced any of the medicinal effects of marijuana myself and I could still have the coping, so to speak, of life that I did when I was a kid, I would take it any day, to where I could sit down and have a box of Goldfish crackers and watch James Bond movies. And that just took away — it took it all away.

It’s a little more difficult when you’re an adult. But as much as I think that drugs might be a temporary fix, it’s absolutely — even marijuana I don’t think is always the answer. I think it’s a coping thing, and it’s definitely not going to fix anything until you yourself do that.

One thing that we haven’t talked about, actually, is — and this is part of treatment, and it’s not true in all cases, but in some cases it’s necessary. And it is something a lot of people don’t like the idea of, and it’s medication. Some conditions require medication. Period.


And, in my case — I don’t mean to be self-centered by keep referring to myself. I’m doing it because it’s what I know personally. I think that my experiences on this topic are valuable.


Depression is a chemical imbalance in the brain, and — well, at least long-term depression is. And that’s only something that’s going to be corrected with proper medication. That should be combined with other therapies. That’s something that needs to be determined between you and your doctor. It’s not right for everyone.

And just because you have a bout of depression — you’re sad because of the death of a loved one, or you lossed a job, or you broke up with your girlfriend — and it doesn’t necessarily require medication. But, again, it is sometimes necessary. And as we were talking about with the stigmas that are involved, you just have to realize that sometimes we’re beyond the capability of helping ourselves and you have to actually seek out help. They’re out there to help people.

So on the topic of medicine, this is actually a topic I would love to explore, because I am usually a pretty firm supporter of medication as a component to therapy and to treatment. And that’s one of the things I learned in therapy and in treatment is there’s never one treatment option that’s going to fix everything. And in my belief, you can really fix everything anyway, but you can really address a lot of different things if you properly and effectively go by your regimen of medicine, your doctor visits, your psychiatrist or psychologist visits if you’re doing those, if you’re doing group therapy. Combining these things is extremely effective, I believe, in at least covering the major bases to be able to deal with it.

And, again, I think that it’s a misconception for people — especially early on, if they’re not familiar with mental illness — that you’re not going to get cured. It’s always going to be a factor of coping until they come up with some crazy brain therapy to fix the problems in the brain at some crazy level, that’s not going to happen. And we have to combine the resources that we have.

And it’s absolutely something that most therapists will say early on that this is not the only thing that you need. You might need medicine. You might need an exercise routine. You might need physical therapy. It could be all kinds of things.

But with medicine, I think there is both the problem of over-prescribing going on right now for a lot of different reasons, counter-balancing the relevance of medicine as an actual treatment option and really hurting — I’m sorry, adding to the stigma that it has. I think that it’s a pretty obvious misconception that there’s going to be some kind of miracle pill. Most medicines that you try are going to have some kind of effect that needs to be accounted for or balanced in some other way. Most anti-anxiety medications or antidepressants will have some kind of effect on your mood, or your energy levels, or your appetite. And these will cause other things to happen in your life.

And this isn’t something that I fault medicine for. It’s just kind of another thing that you’re trying to cope with the problem one way. Sometimes you might have to do other things to adjust, and that can be difficult. And also, sometimes it just doesn’t work. Not every medicine is for every person. I personally have been put on all kinds of different medications since I was originally seen in 2005, literally over a dozen.

And some of them had extremely negative effects, one of them that in one of my worst periods of time I was prescribed — I’m sure some of you may have heard of Risperdal. It’s a very powerful anti-psychotic used for basically dealing with somebody going through a major breakdown. And I was given that just in case.

I realized after taking one that it would put me to sleep for over 15, 16 hours at a time. And I couldn’t function that way, and when I woke up I felt dead to the world. I very quickly asked to be taken off of that, later come to found out that it caused the well-documented problems with male breast enlargement and other things.

So medicine gets a pretty reasonably bad rap sometimes for not working the way it should. I think that’s something that you have to explore with yourself and your doctor. Fortunately, we live in a country where the commercials for medicine literally tell you to talk to your doctor about it. Well, do it. If you think it can help you, maybe it will. And if you’re not trying to go and abuse drugs, maybe it will do the same. And I think that that’s–

Sometimes it takes — at least for me, to find the right medication, it took years.


Like you said, medications are going to have different effects on different people, because we’re all — we all have different chemistry. But it takes patience and it takes working with your doctor to find the right treatment that will work for you. Whether that–


Whether that includes medication or not.

Well, and I think that for a lot of people it doesn’t have to. Some of the things that — especially on a shorter term and a non-chronic level–


–in those situations, medication might not always be necessary. I’ve also met plenty of people that — in my head, I like to call them normal people that aren’t mentally ill, at least in the long term. Think what you want. That’s my definition of a normal person.

But anyway, I’ve met a few people that have on a short term taken antidepressants, stronger medicine than that. They’ve been on medication that’s usually for ADD — amphetamines, things like that — because they were unmotivated, had no energy. And it’s not something that becomes a recurring part of their lives for the long term.

So I don’t think that — part of the stigma, the problem is that people hear mental illness, or I’m depressed, or I’m having problems and I need to take medication. And they immediately go off the deep end of I — I’m crazy. I think that a lot of the stigmas here with mental illness, the really stereotypical ones that people are crazy or they have to go pop their happy pills, things like that, it doesn’t do us any good to keep doing those things and to keep having that attitude about it.

Because, again, I don’t think it’s something where it’s just for somebody with a lifelong problem. It could be somebody that’s going through a depressive phase after losing a job, or having a breakup, losing a pet. It could be a number of things.

And the medication itself is a chemical that scientists have engineered to do a specific effect in the brain, which to me is a pretty cut and dry way to try to solve the problem. It’s not always going to work, especially due to the delicate nature of the science involved. But it’s one where I think it’s a lot better answer than some of the things that we have otherwise, and absolutely a better answer than self-medicating with what you think makes you happy, because chances are it’s probably contributing to the problem.

So before we rap up, Cliff, do you have any final thoughts?

Well, my first thing I’d like to say is just to anybody listening, if you or anybody you know is struggling with mental illness, or with thoughts about suicide, or harming anybody, that’s something to be taken very seriously and acted upon, depending on the nature. And if you, for example, just in passing somebody says something to you, take it seriously, listen. If you need to do something about it, do it. I think it’s very important to show that you’re listening. And you might not make the person happy at the time, but it’s worth tackling for people in your life.

One of the things I really want to say as well in general about mental health awareness is I do think that we see a lot of positive things happening. Although I kind of have a negative impression of how the internet is affecting that, I think it’s absolutely wonderful what some people out there are doing for each other.

Something recently happened — not on the internet but at the VMAs the rapper Logic was talking about mental health awareness and suicide prevention and mentioned the hotline. And in the following week, the hotline reported having a volume of over 50 percent its usual calls as a result of this, of this exposure. And I think that on a day to day personal level, maybe we don’t have that kind of platform as non-celebrities, but we can make an impact. And that’s through really communicating with each other, really showing support, showing that we care, having a little bit more of a personal involvement in the people in our lives.

And I think that one of the negatives of our social media world is that it’s even made realistic — or I’m sorry, real life interactions a bit more superficial but less personal and personable themselves. And it’s not always easy, and maybe I’m just an awkward person, but sometimes I just try to occasionally tell people I care about them, and that they’re there, and that they make an impact or they have — always in an appropriate circumstance. But I just think it’s important for people to be there for each other, to listen, to pay attention, if they spot signs of things to be willing to speak up out of the care that they have and just looking out for each other.

And I also think it’s really important to say that if you have a mental illness, you’re not alone. It’s tough to hear, but your problems, they happen to other people. And that can sometimes be frustrating to know, but it also shows you that there are ways to deal. Other people have.

And it’s never — it’s never too late to fix things or at least get your life on track. And sometimes it just starts with the simplest little things. So I really encourage people that are struggling to just keep going. Count every day that you didn’t do worse as a win. Even if you just did a little bit better, it’s a win and mark it as such, and move on, and go day by day.

You set the pace of this recovery for yourself, but it’s really less of a race and more of a scenic detour to getting back to a normal life. And I think that we’re all capable of that.

Well, Cliff, I couldn’t have put it better myself. So I really sincerely want to say that I appreciate you coming on and I want to thank you for coming on. It’s a really — it’s a tough topic to talk about, especially when we’re talking about mental health on a personal level. But it’s something that we, as a society, need to do more often.

Absolutely, 100 percent agreed. And thank you as well for having me. It’s absolutely been an honor. Again, this is a topic — topics that are very near and dear to me, both through personal circumstance, and my life, and just the world around us right now. I love people. They do some bad things, but they do some really great ones too.

And it’s extremely devastating to think anybody is struggling in such a way that they either fall apart or they end their lives. And it’s a pleasure to be able to talk about it. It’s difficult. It definitely brings up a lot of things that are close to home, but sometimes that’s more important. And I really believe that, that we as a collective — as a country, as people, neighbors — become a little more comfortable with this, because I think it will save a lot of lives and at the very least do a lot of good.

Thanks again, Cliff.

Thank you, Kyle.

I’d like to thank you again for listening to Convo with Kyle. Be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel for more episodes. You can also keep the conversation going on social media by visiting and I’d love to hear from you.

Civil Rights and Segregation: Curator George Garner (Convo with Kyle Video and Transcript)

The text below is a transcript of the Convo with Kyle podcast. Bold text is Kyle Bell. Standard text is George Garner.

Thanks for listening to Convo with Kyle. My name is Kyle Bell.

As a writer, an author, and journalist, my work has always been about telling stories. But now, I want to tell a different story. I want to tell your story.

The goal of this project is to share with you the stories of ordinary people who do extraordinary work. They may be your neighbors, your friends, your coworkers who want to make their communities, and this world, a better place for all of us. So let’s start a conversation.

Joining us is Curator George Garner. George works at the Civil Rights Heritage Center at Indiana University South Bend. He has previously worked at the Studebaker National Museum, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, and the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. Thank you, George, for coming on the show.

It’s good to be here. Thanks for inviting me.

So, George, why don’t you start by telling us a little about the Civil Rights Heritage Center and your work there?

Sure. So the Civil Rights Heritage Center, through IU South Bend, is housed in a building that started its life as the Engman Public Natatorium. It was South Bend’s first indoor swimming pool. And yeah, when it was built in 1922, even though it was a city-owned site, even though it had that word “public” carved into the concrete out front, between 1922 and 1936, if you were a person of color, you were denied entry. And from 1936 to 1950, entry was only allowed on a segregated basis.

So in 2010, IU South Bend took over the site. At that point, it had been operating — it operated as an integrated swimming pool from 1950 until 1978. But it closed in 1978 and had been sitting vacant for about 30 years before then.

IU South Bend took that site and turned it into the home of the Civil Rights Heritage Center. So we use that story of segregation, we use that story of exclusion to really look at contemporary issues of race, civil rights, social justice, of course for African American communities but for all marginalized communities — for LGBTQ, for Latinx, for women, for anybody who’s been marginalized or otherwise oppressed.

There’s a place for the things that we’re talking about. There’s vibrancy. There’s a need for it. So it’s this really amazing space and this really unique space that can speak directly to that history and use that history to inform the present.

So when you say that the Natatorium was a public facility, was it owned by the city of South Bend?

Yeah, this was a South Bend Parks and Recreation pool, just like any other public, quote unquote, park today. So the fact that this was city-sponsored exclusion and segregation, it’s an important part of our story.

Yeah, I mean, when people think about segregation, it’s usually a place like Alabama that probably pops in their head.

I think that’s true, yeah. I think that story has been told as a Southern story. When most of us learn about it in elementary school or high school, we see those images of Martin Luther King, we see the lunch counters. And it tends to get taught as this thing that happened a long time ago, it happened pretty much south of the Mason-Dixon Line, and it was solved at that was it. Now there’s no more problems.

And that’s far from the case. And that’s something we really want to drive home. Segregation very much happened in the North, and I go to work every day in a place where that happened. And so, we really want to drive that point home of — not just this space. This was one space, but it was one space among so many — not just in South Bend but across the United States — in the quote unquote “North,” which is often supposed to be or talked about as somehow better than the South. And I just don’t think that’s true.

A few years ago, when I was the editor of the South Bend Voice, you wrote a series of articles that highlighted the work of civil rights trailblazers in South Bend. I’ll provide a link to those articles in the description below for anyone who is watching on YouTube.

But South Bend has a surprisingly rich activist history, actually, and you documented that history in these articles. One of those trailblazers was Odie Mae Johnson Streets. She graduated from Central High in 1931, which was one of the only integrated schools in South Bend.

I want to quote Odie Mae here from the article that you wrote, quote:

“Black girls were not allowed to take swimming classes, so one day I told my friend, ‘I’m going to sign up. They will have to tell me I can’t take swimming lessons.'”


Could you talk a little bit about Odie Mae’s background and–

Yeah, so again, she’s this fascinating character, right? Odie Mae was incredibly light skinned, so as they say, she could have easily passed if she chose to. But she didn’t, in the 1930s, when places like the Engman Public Natatorium were excluding people of color.

We’re talking about a decade after the 1910s, the 1920s, about 19% of the white men in St. Joseph County, Indiana were members of the Ku Klux Klan. In the midst of all this, here’s this light skinned woman who very much chose to embrace the fact that she was of African descent, that she was a woman who was born as an African American and born to African Americans.

She was born in Dawson Springs, Kentucky. So, again, it’s also this story of the Great Migration for millions of African Americans, escaping lynching, escaping Jim Crow racism, trying to escape the Klan but still being met with some of that same racism that they found down there.

And I think a lot of her activism was influenced by her being a member of the Baha’i faith. Baha’i believe not in a capital G, a Judeo-Christian god, but that there’s a god that is this figure that many different religions have bits and pieces of, but it’s a united god. It’s a god that unites all humanity and that may come in different forms to different people. But it’s a very uniting and united way of looking at people of different religious and ethnic backgrounds.

So I think that helped inform some of her activism. So she encountered racism in her own life, again, being told that she couldn’t join the swim team on Central High because she identified as an African American woman and really having that bravery to stand up and say what she said, that, no, I’m going to make them tell me no and then defend that position, defend the fact that they don’t think I’m as human or as good as any other person can be.

So she ended up marrying a gentleman by the name of Dr. Bernard Streets. And Dr. Streets became not the first but one of the first African American dentists. He was an early graduate of the Indiana University Dental School back in 1929, if my memory serves me correctly, but then came back to South Bend and opened a dental practice on the West Side, which at this time was and was increasingly becoming more African American but also Eastern European. So in addition to his African American clients, he had a lot of Polish American clients. So he ended up teaching himself Polish in order to serve all of them.

And so, the two became just this one of a couple power couples, and just constantly getting involved, and lending their own voices, and being brave and standing up to those who would discriminate, like people did at the Natatorium. They became some of the people who were advocates for integrating the Natatorium, among other places, like theaters, like restaurants.

I found it noteworthy because Odie Mae, as a woman of color, she actually ended up, it seems, taking her experiences and helping people who came from similarly difficult situations.


She taught English to women who stayed at the YWCA in South Bend, and also served on the board of — what was it, the El Centro Migrant Center?


So I kind of find that striking. She didn’t just focus solely on civil rights for African Americans.

Yeah. Yeah, and I think that’s part of her being a part of the Baha’i faith. It’s, in an early way, looking at what we now call intersectionality, recognizing that any group that has been marginalized that the issues are more binding than they are separating. So she ended up getting her degree in Spanish from Indiana University South Bend. She was an early graduate of the same program that employs me and that funds the Heritage Center.

And my alma mater.

Exactly, exactly. So she used that to work with the next wave of immigration that was coming into South Bend, the Latinx population that was coming in, particularly in the ’40s and ’50s — but yeah, again, looking at the issues that were affecting black people were also affecting brown people, and working hard to try to do that.

But the thing is, there are differences. And the language barrier was one of them for Latinx. And so, that informed some of her work and her using that degree, her using that training to be able to do that. It’s a special story.

I think it might be useful to mention to viewers that — or at least give a little background on South Bend as a city. Obviously, South Bend is in Indiana. It’s an industrial Midwest town in this time period we’re talking about. As George said, South Bend was a destination city during the Great Migration.

I mean, compared to I guess the typical Midwestern city / town, South Bend’s a pretty diverse place. It has a large African American population and it now has a growing Latino population. Would you add anything to that, George?

No, I think you’re absolutely right. I’ve described South Bend as the quintessential, prototypical Great Migration city. We have had an African American community in this city longer than there’s been a city. That’s one of the things that we touch on at the Civil Rights Heritage Center, too, making sure that African American history — making sure we share that African American history — has been with this city for an incredibly long time, that there have been people of color living in and contributing to South Bend throughout the course of its entire existence.

But it’s also true that there wasn’t significantly high numbers until the turn of the 20th century and until the Great Migration. Between about the 1910s and the 1930s, our African American population quintuples. It explodes.

And I think there is an analogy today between that and Latinx immigration into the United States, into the American South. There have been a significant increase in those populations. And just like now, those new populations aren’t being welcomed with open arms. There’s the thought of that person as the other and something else. And we saw the exact same thing with the African American populations in South Bend.

But this was a thriving, industrial town. If anybody has ever heard of Studebaker, of the wagon manufacturer and the car manufacturer, this was where they were all made for decades. But that provided ample employment opportunity for thousands of African Americans who were trying to escape sharecropping, who were trying to escape the Jim Crow down there. And this was a path forward. This was a job.

You also wrote about Helen Pope, who was a nurse. Can you share a little bit with us about her story?

Yeah, so Helen’s another one of those trailblazers. Among the many things in her life and career, she became a nurse at a time when patient care was segregated as well, when white patients wouldn’t accept the care of a person of color. So she helped integrate what was then known as the Northern Indiana Children’s Hospital.

And then, throughout the ’70s and the ’80s, one of the things in South Bend — like so many industrial cities — after the industry left and as we’re seeing so much change in mechanization, automization, those things that we hear brought to the forefront now — particularly with the recent election and particularly among white workers — this has been happening in communities of color for decades. And it happened here in South Bend around the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s.

Studebaker, for example, closed December 20, 1963. 7,000 people lost their job in a day. A huge portion of them were African American.

And at one point, it employed tens of thousands of people in the city.

Exactly. You’re exactly right. And Studebaker was the largest industrial employer of African Americans, too. So that story of industrialization really hits African American communities throughout the 20th century. Those two are inexorably linked.

But as that industry changes and as cities try to struggle to decide who and what they are in the latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st, and South Bend really struggled with that. And there’s a lot of things that they did to try to adapt and to try to change. And a lot of them didn’t work.

So one of the things that Helen Pope was involved in is this thing called the Model Cities program. It’s really looking at creating these model blocks where there would be hyper-local government that would be able to make decisions. And, I mean, we can look back on them — we can look back on some of those big urban planning ideas now and realize that maybe they weren’t the best ideas. But, at the time, I think they were struggling just to try to find something to do to stem the tide of tens of thousands of people who had been moving away from the city in the wake of all of this de-industrialization.

So I wanted to quote — and by the way, I’m going to mention again that I’m going to put the link to George’s articles below in the description so you can check those out. I’m going to go ahead and quote from you one of your articles. You said, quote:

“I became enthralled with history because, to me, history is so much more than closed companies or torn down buildings. It is about people, like you and me, who lived their lives facing trials and troubles, happiness and hardships.”

I think it’s important to document and have conversations about these topics that often get overlooked or they’re simply not understood, and to learn about those from people who lived through challenging periods in our country’s history. But, anyway, that’s a long version of me saying that I agree with your statement. You certainly put it more eloquently than I did. Could you reflect on that a little bit?

Well, thank you. I mean, I wrote that a while ago. And I was thinking that I don’t remember — I mean, I’m sure that — but that sounded great.


Past George did something good there. No, also, I’ve spent my professional life combating the idea of history being dead, that it’s that dry recitation of something that is no longer relevant. I just don’t think that’s true.

And, again, one thing that we do at Civil Rights Heritage Center is make sure that we very much are actively involved in present-day activism and activist issues, becoming directly involved with those organizations, those groups, providing a space, providing a voice. And it’s because we’re rooted in history that that work can happen. We can play a role of making sure that people are aware that these issues aren’t new, that there are systemic issues and systemic challenges at hand.

And that we have to dismantle them, and that we have to dismantle patriarchy. We have to dismantle white supremacy. We have to dismantle institutional racism. These are things that haven’t been invented in the past five to ten years, and they also haven’t been solved in the past five to ten years.

The election of Barack Obama, for example, did not — while it was this incredible watershed moment, it did not mark the end of any of those things that I just described. And as, again, we’ve seen in this most recent election cycle, it’s that I think it’s proven that. But all of those conversations have to be rooted in history and have to be rooted in what has happened for decades, generations before us — that has influenced us — before we can start to change that, before we can start to really pull those institutions apart and build something truly more humanistic and more collaborative.

I keep looking at our present-day and comparing it to the past. The decade that I really think about that I think mirrors the present is — maybe imperfectly — is the ’60s. There’s definitely a cultural shift that’s taking place right now that seems similar to the ’60s, a shift in values taking place, and also a demand for more rights, expanded rights.

And we’re seeing that in movements like the successful push for nationwide marriage equality and we’re seeing it in Black Lives Matter. It seems like social activism is more alive today and young people are more active today than at any point really since the ’60s. I don’t really have a question for you there. It’s more just an observation.


But perhaps you can comment on that?

No, I think you’re exactly right. And yeah, when I think of what decades, I tend to see maybe more alignment with the 1870s, maybe even the 1910s and 1920s. And I say that because every time there have been these major leaps forward, there’s always a regression backward.

So while the Civil War ended slavery, Reconstruction ensured that a new racial caste system went into place and that equality didn’t happen. When we saw — again, when African Americans were moving north, we saw this backlash here and segregation take — coming into places like South Bend in the 1910s and 1920s, and again, organizations like the KKK becoming national movements, a movie like “Birth of a Nation” in the 1910s.

So I kind of see that happening now, that the nation has responded to the first African American president with another backlash. And so, I think it’s important to galvanize and set up those firewalls and make sure that those people who need protecting in this era have those firewalls in place, and that we continue to move forward, that we don’t let this backlash slide us back too far — and we continue to be active, and get out there, and be brave about it.

Civil Rights Heritage Center, in connection with a number of community organizations, organized an event called The People’s Inauguration. It was very much meant to be a mark of resistance against the things that we knew were going to happen. And in addition to holding events at the Civil Rights Heritage Center, we held events at the local mosque here in town. And it was this wonderful event, all of these different community organizations from the mosque to Civil Rights Heritage Center to the LGBTQ Center to talking about reproductive justice and pro-choice issues. Hundreds of people came to this because they wanted to get involved somehow, wanting to take that action, take that stand.

In a way, it’s regrettable that didn’t happen before and that didn’t happen earlier. It’s important to remember that there are people who have been doing this work for years, who have been affected by this more so than many. And, in fact, there’s a lot more “woke” people now. Again, that’s a good thing, but it is important to recognize — recognizing that it might be new for some people, but it’s not new for a lot of people. I think we have to recognize that while also acknowledging and hoping that we can maintain this, that this pressure, that this galvanization that has happened continues and continues to have some positive results.

So for anyone that’s curious, George, what exactly is a curator?

Sure. I’ve had somebody describe it to me as being an editor. There’s about 150 different jobs and one word. And I think that’s true.

But, basically, the way I like to describe it — particularly with my work at Civil Rights Heritage Center — is that building has 90 years of history in it and this city has 150+ years of history in it. It’s my responsibility to know as much of that as I possibly can, to collect, preserve, and keep those tangible documents — the artifacts, the photographs, the papers, all of those things that help us share that history, and then share that with as many people as humanly possible.

So that’s anywhere from school groups coming in to tours off the street to undergraduate history classes and just anybody and everybody in between. But, essentially, the preservation and dissemination of the pieces of history is a good way of describing what many curators do.

So what did you study for undergrad?

Yeah, so, my undergrad was in history, and luckily did an internship at the Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and some staff there, who were graduates of the Cooperstown Graduate Program. It’s this amazing masters-level museum studies program in Upstate New York. You eat, sleep, drink, and breathe museum studies for two years straight, but you leave there with this incredible view of the role of museums, and the power of museums, and what these places can do and what they can mean to many different people.

Collecting and putting stuff on display is just a small part of what they do. And if they’re doing it wrong, then that’s all they’re doing. If they’re doing it right, though, they’re really looking at the stories. They’re really looking at creating these experiences for people to come in and be moved in some way, either by learning something, either by feeling something, by spending time there, by getting involved in some way, shape, or form.

And could you tell us how you ended up in South Bend?

Sure. So it was a different museum job than the one I have now, but I moved here after ricocheting around the East Coast for a while, between undergraduate, and grad school, and internships, and post-grad school jobs. I think I calculated, at one point I had moved about nine to ten times in about ten years. It was a lot.

That is a lot.

Yeah, so I moved out here, and having not been in the Midwest really at all, having not been aware that South Bend was a place that existed.


I was vaguely aware of Indiana, that that was a place that existed. But yeah, so I regret I was one of those East Coasters who thought of the Midwest as this kind of flyover country. And I readily admit that I was wrong, and that perception is a terrible perception, that there are an incredible amount of wonderful spaces in the Midwest, and that the perceptions of what it is politically and culturally are just that. They’re perceptions.

And it was coming here that helped me realize that. Again, this is a former industrial powerhouse that had been struggling with its identity. But in the 21st century, after decades of struggling, I have met more people here who care about this place than any other place I’ve lived previous. And I’ve met more people who are willing to experiment, who are willing to make change.

Those cities that I lived in on the East Coast, they were further ahead in the process. And so, they were fairly inflexible. They were places that I lived in and consumed, really, but I didn’t get involved with, because there wasn’t that space for it.

We’ve been working to make change for so long. And there’s this desperation, in a way, to just do something. That creates this really exciting space to be able to have ideas, and to run with them, and get to know people in the community who are very open and very willing to say yes to things. And I absolutely love that.

So I’ve been here for the past ten, so I’ve completely reversed that ricocheting that I was doing before, but doing what I wanted to do, which was actually be in a place for a while. Out of all the places to be, South Bend’s been a great place to be.

And you started off at the Studebaker National Museum, right?

I actually started off at The History Museum.

Oh, okay.

Yeah, and then I did a project or did some work at the Studebaker Museum, too, which is coincidentally right next door, and then Civil Rights Heritage Center is about two–


–to escape that little block around West Washington, which is totally great.

Yeah. So if people wanted to check out the Civil Rights Heritage Center, where can they find it online and where can they find it in person?

Sure, so online it’s There’s a number of digital assets, including a podcast that we’ve done ourselves where we share stories from our oral history collection. So it’s people who have lived the experiences here in South Bend either as people of color, or as LGBT, or as allies in the civil rights movement. We share those stories on that. And then in person, we’re at 1040 West Washington, so just a little bit west of downtown South Bend.

And are you open seven days a week?

We are open five days a week — Monday, Wednesday, Friday from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm and then Tuesday from — sorry, Tuesday and Thursday from 3:00 pm to 7:00 pm. And those are just the regular public hours where we do tours and things like that. But there’s events that happen anywhere from at least one to often three to five times a week.

So right now, for example, we have a lecture series going on. So for those in South Bend, it’s this free lecture series by our director, who’s a University of Chicago historian, Dr. Darryl Heller, talking about race and social movements. So he’s done things on women and the foundation that they laid for the modern civil rights movement. We’re going to do another one on the Black Panther movement and yet another one on Black Lives Matter.

We’re also doing a film series. We recently just showed a film about a native Hawaiian transgender woman, where her native Hawaiian culture has been more celebrated than it has been in many Western cultures. And that’s true for a lot of different cultures, that there’s this celebration instead of discrimination. So it followed her experience as a transgender woman in relationship but also trying to coach students on traditional Hula dancing. So there’s just all sorts of different events and things that we do on a regular basis.

Awesome. Do you want to plug anything for social media or anything?

We’re on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. So, yeah, everybody’s encouraged to follow us there for sure. We post regularly on each of those.

Well, I think that’s about it. Thank you so much for joining us, George.

It’s a pleasure. Thanks for the conversation.

I’d like to thank you again for listening to Convo with Kyle. Be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel for more episodes. You can also keep the conversation going on social media by visiting and I’d love to hear from you.

Slavery in America and Learning from History: Historian Dylan LeBlanc (Convo with Kyle Video and Transcript)

The text below is a transcript of the Convo with Kyle podcast. Bold text is Kyle Bell. Standard text is Dylan LeBlanc.

Thanks for listening to Convo with Kyle. My name is Kyle Bell.

As a writer, an author, and journalist, my work has always been about telling stories. But now, I want to tell a different story. I want to tell your story.

The goal of this project is to share with you the stories of ordinary people who do extraordinary work. They may be your neighbors, your friends, your coworkers who want to make their communities, and this world, a better place for all of us. So let’s start a conversation.

Today, we’re joined by Dylan LeBlanc, a PhD candidate in history at the University of Notre Dame. So, Dylan, is seeking a PhD what you expected it to be?

So, yeah, it’s a funny question, because in some ways, nothing is ever what you expect it to be, especially when you build it up in your mind as much as I did. I mean, I think– I remember, when I was in fourth grade, my parents went to a parent teacher conference. And they came back, and I was just starting to rebel, because, frankly, I didn’t want to do them.

There was one project, it was a butterfly. We had to, like, color the individual components, and then cut it out, and assemble it. My classmates were doing it. I just didn’t want to do it. So I threw it in my desk and didn’t do it. And that started a downward spiral in my grades that year.

And so, my parents went to talk to the teacher. And apparently she told them, “Dylan will do really well in college. We’ve just got to get him there.” Because if I wasn’t interested in it, I wasn’t going to do it. I wasn’t just going to obey orders and just do it.

So when I got to college, it was. It was everything I wanted it to be. I could study what I wanted to study. The course load itself was whatever you wanted it to be.

I finally got to a point where I could study purely what interested me. And it sort of became an obsession. And
as I got into my particular discipline, history, I sort of– you catch onto a project, and you keep pushing that project, and you chase it down until it serves its fullest extent.

What got you interested in history?

I think– I think it was my great grandmother, to be honest with you. My mother always had a real passion for history. She was just sort of a run-of-the-mill history buff in a lot of ways. And so, I think when I grew up, I was always given a sense of– she was always reading books, like by David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, sort of really well-known, popular historians.

But I think also, my great grandmother, her parents are from Poland. And so, that’s the immigrant generation– the immigrant side of my family. And I was always fascinated by her connection with the past. So she would answer those questions but could never fully answer them, because she was in her late 80’s at this time and didn’t have a perfect memory.

So what she told me would be really fascinating about her life. So where did your parents come from? What did they do for a living? You know, she could tell me what they did for a living. Where did they come from in Poland? She knew that they left from Gdansk, the port town, but didn’t necessarily know where they had been before or what they did before then.

And so, every question I asked her about her past and about our family’s past led to more questions. And everything that she answered also left plenty of things unanswered. And I think through interviewing her– I literally would sit there with a tape recorder when I was in grade school and ask her all these questions about our family’s past. And we did that for a series of years.

And I still have them, and I haven’t systematically gone through them yet, but I want to one day. And I think it was in that context that I really got in touch with the past. It created for me and raised for me questions that I couldn’t yet answer that wanted to find– I wanted to find the tools to be able to answer them. So I think that’s probably where it started.

Did you say your great grandmother?

My great grandmother, yes. Yeah, so she was– she passed– when did she pass? She passed in like 2009 in her 90’s. So my family, they turned around kids real quick. Yeah, so they– she was born in 1919.

Her family had been here– been in South Bend since right around the turn of the century. Her father had stowed away on a ship from Gdansk and they were going to throw him overboard, at least that’s what family legend says. But they sent him to work in the boiler room instead, and that’s where he learned about engines. And he came here, and he was a mechanic, and sort of a tinkerer, an inventor.

And, apparently, family legend says that he had created something for the steam engine, some sort of new thing that was going to vastly improve the steam engine, right around, like, 1928 or something. But the Great Depression hit. He couldn’t afford to go to Washington to get the patent filed. And so, he lost the opportunity. And the family interpretation is that we would have all been trust fund babies if he could have just gone to Washington and the Depression hadn’t have hit.

So you would have ended up at Harvard instead of Notre Dame?

You know, some East Coast nobility, moved from the Great Lakes over. Yeah, so that’s where my mother’s side of the family is really rooted in South Bend that way.

What do your parents do?

My mother is in real estate. My father is– he resells Cisco, like, network gear, both in the South Bend area. And they’ve stuck around. Most people in my family have kids when they’re in their early 20’s, and so, generations move really quickly. Yeah.

So you’re the exception then.

Yeah, I am. Yeah, right. That’s what happens when you pursue education farther and farther and farther. You put off other things in life.

As I’m sure you’re well aware, the cost of higher education is on a lot of people’s minds. How are you paying for your schooling? And what do you think of the cost of college today?

Yeah, I mean, so I’m one of the lucky ones, like, extraordinarily lucky one. So I don’t have any education debt. And that puts me in a very slim minority for a lot of, I think, Millennials in this country.

My parents, through their sheer will and sacrifice, paid my tuition in undergrad. I compensated for that a little bit by getting about half in scholarships, and then they made up the other half. They just paid for it in cash. And, I mean, that was right at the heart of the recession, too.


So the amount of scrimping, and saving, and sacrificing they did– and I don’t think it’s really ever hit me fully sort of how much they sacrificed to make my undergraduate education free for me. I mean, I can’t overestimate the value of that as a start.

And then, right out of undergrad, I applied to PhD programs and was lucky enough to end up Notre Dame, where everyone is funded for five years with a basic living expenses stipend. And that’s standard throughout graduate school, whether it’s the social sciences, the sciences, or the humanities. Most PhD candidates are funded for small salaries, in the form of stipends, just for living expenses.

And then, there’s another layer of fortune there that South Bend is such a cheap place to live. And so, graduate students at Notre Dame — with their stipends — can actually lead decent lives. So through a series of just sheer blessings and luck, with a little bit of work on my end, I haven’t had to pay for any bit of higher education.

I see my friends struggle with it every day. I see my closest friends that I went to college with are struggling to establish themselves in life, because while I’m paying a mortgage for a house that I bought, they are renting while also paying a mortgage for their education, essentially. They’re paying the same amount of money that I’m paying every month, because they had to take 30, 40, 60, 80, 90 thousand dollars out over the course of four or five years to get a bachelor’s degree.

Before they have to dig themselves out of a hole of a mortgage, they have to dig themselves out of a hole of a student loan.

Yeah, exactly. And so, the cruel irony is that we moved past the ’70s and ’80s where you could just sort of go to high school, right, and go get a well-paying union job at a factory or do what my dad did, which is, he got an associate’s degree and moved to Washington DC and just started working in sales– in computer sales. His associate’s was in electrical engineering, so he knew basic things about electrical engineering, but he started selling computers to the government in Washington DC in the ’80s. And that was all he needed.

Today, there’s the perception and the reality that to get anywhere beyond factory jobs– which we obviously need– but to get anywhere in this yuppy world that we have idealized, you know, work a 9 to 5, wear a suit every day, and have benefits, and be able to support a family, if that’s the ideal, the BA– or the BS– has been the ideal for that. It’s been the gatekeeper.


But the irony is that gatekeeper is setting people farther back than they would be set back if they had just stopped after high school and taken up a trade. You know, I know some people who are pursuing trades right now and who are apprentices to, you know, electricians or to plumbers. And they seem like the ones who have figured out the right path, in a lot of ways, at least financially.


Because they’re learning a skill, and–

They’re getting paid while they’re doing it.

They’re getting paid to do it.


And why we can’t establish that for the other skills that we need in our society– the financial skills, the business skills, the intellectual skills that range beyond the market, like historians, political scientists, people who research to improve society in all manner of different ways. We need to approach it, maybe, in a way that the trades approach it slightly.

That’s no real solution. But I see– yeah, my friends struggle all the time. I can’t even count how many people I know who are just swamped with student loan debt. And this is not a unique story. The unique story might be the fact that I’m sitting here telling you that I don’t have debt. That’s shocking. That’s like a rare bird.

Especially since you went to a private university.

Right, and that– the only people for whom that happens is someone who is ultra privileged. Which, I don’t know if I would consider myself ultra privileged, or someone who has a family that just decides that that’s the ideal that they’re going to provide for their children and works as hard as possible to make sure that that happens.

And even those who believe that, that they want to do that for their children, necessarily can’t do it. And so, it’s– yeah, I mean, I consider– that’s a roundabout way to say that I consider myself so deeply fortune in that regard. And we have to fix the problem.

The only thing that I would say about how we might go about doing it is it has to come from every end. Universities have to change the way they do things. Students have to change the way they think about education. Businesses have to change the way they think about what is an acceptable standard of experience for hiring someone.

And, as voters, we need to think about how we want our government to intervene in this, and what we want them to do, and what the state’s role is. Because it can’t happen– our political discourse today says it has to come from one end or the other, right? You just can’t be a classics major anymore if you want to have a job, unless you have money. And that’s not the right way to think.

But the other right way to think isn’t necessarily to say that, well, we’ll just have the taxpayer foot the bill, right? Or universities are going to layoff faculty and we’re going to shut down departments that aren’t necessarily marketable. We can’t put the burden on one sector of society. It has to come from every sector in a sort of coherent group. And I don’t know who’s going to be able to make that possible.

Why do you think liberal arts degrees — broadly speaking, not just history but political science and everything else — why are they still valuable compared to, say, STEM degrees?

I think in one way we’re going to see increased value in the liberal arts over the next couple decades is that I think in the past 10 years we’ve just started to produce so many more finance degrees, and business degrees, and engineering degrees, which we all need. We need STEM degrees and we need business people. We need people with that set of knowledge and that set of skills. But they’re also becoming a dime a dozen.

I mean, we’ve seen this, I think, with the legal market with people coming out of law school and not necessarily finding the high-paying jobs that they immediately thought they would get just because they have a JD. I mean, part of that’s the economy. Part of that is the fact that there’s a surplus of these degrees on the market. So if our culture continues to devalue the liberal arts like it has been, there are going to be fewer and fewer of these people who get these degrees.

What can we do? If we’re going to become a more scarce commodity, what are the things that we liberal arts people provide? And I think on one level, it’s a set of soft skills, as we’re told to call it. You can’t walk into a Fortune 500 company right now, and look at their budget, and look at their financials, and tell them whatever problem they’re in.

But what the liberal arts teaches you is how to think broadly — whether in terms of time or in terms of understanding the diversity of experiences that exist in our world. It teaches you how to think quickly, on your foot, to evaluate large, disparate amounts of evidence and quickly assemble them together in ways that are understandable to a broad group of people.

I think it teaches you empathy. I think reading literature, reading history teaches you about the diversity of experiences in our world and makes you a better voter. It allows you to take stock of your own values, to expose yourself of the values that exist in other parts of the world and in other people’s minds.

And it doesn’t let you just spectate. I think when you get a liberal arts degree, you’re forced to analyze those things. And you’re forced to reckon with them, and place yourself in relation to them. And I think empathy and understanding in a global world is essential. And I think we’re seeing the erosion of it, in a lot of ways, in different parts of the world.

So let’s talk a little bit more about history, specifically. I hear a lot of people say these days — you know, they question the value of studying history. What’s your response to that?

It could be a cliche, right? The cliche is, if you don’t study your history, you’re condemned to repeat it. And I don’t want that to be my full answer to that question, but in some ways you have to start with that, because every dictator starts to accumulate power in the same way.

In our capitalist society in the United States, every recession has started in a similar way with people speculating on wealth that didn’t exist. Right, it starts in 1819. The 1880s and ’90s it happens again. It happens in the 1920s. It happens in the ’80s. It happens in 2008-2009, right?

Patterns emerge in history. So for policymakers, I don’t think there’s a policymaker that is working right now that would tell you that they do their work in a temporal context, that they do their work without thinking about the past or the future and trying to place current policy initiatives in a broader spectrum of time.

As voters, if you don’t have an understanding of not only your country’s basic history but your candidate’s own past. I think this is one thing that Trump got a free pass on, in a lot of ways. One of the tactics against him was to bring up all of these negative things about his past and all these character flaws that have been presented with a lot of evidence over a long career.

But people say, well, maybe he’s not that person anymore or, well, I don’t know what’s in his heart. And then he takes office, and you see the team that he assembles, and you see the scandals that continue to pile up, and there are a lot of people currently saying, “I told you so.”

And there’s a sense in which if you understand someone’s background, you can– you can’t predict, but it gives you a decent sense about where things are going. That’s more political than I would probably like to go with that response, but–

Why don’t you tell us some more about your research. You specialize in the slave trade, right?

I do, yeah. So my work is primarily on the 18th century British empire. I look at specifically Charleston, South Carolina, or the Lowcountry, in broad strokes. And I’m interested in the connections that developed during the 18th century between Charleston, South Carolina and the Gambia River Valley in West Africa.

And those connections were built entirely upon the Transatlantic slave trade. So in that context, I look at government officials, minor government officials. So a lot of times we talk about the colonial period and we talk about the state, we’re talking about governors, and we’re talking about elected assemblies. In many ways, these elected assemblies are the ones who hold onto their English liberties, and eventually members of these assemblies will go on to form the Continental Congresses, right? And so, there’s this sort of– historians have been fascinated by the cling to liberty in these assemblies.

And yet, the slaves have no liberty.

Right, right. There’s obviously that huge contrast and the irony. And historians have understood that for a long time, that in early America, the place where freedom meant the most and where people clung to freedom hardest were the places where the majority of the population were slaves, and that slavery says something about how we perceive freedom. And that if you’re living in a place where most people aren’t free, you’re going to be much more deeply attached to your own liberty.

So that’s the broad context that I look at. But I look at government officials below the level of governors and assemblies. I look at minor people who seem to make no sense and have no purpose in our understanding of really anything in this time, like customs collectors, secretaries, all these minor government officials.

And I use them to really ask questions about what’s the relationship between slavery and empire in the 18th century, and what’s the relationship between personal wealth, corruption, ambition, and slavery at this period as well? And so, what I look at is these government officials, how they try to acquire power, how they try to use power — both in the Gambia River Valley, where the British had a small formal presence in a fort in the middle of the river, essentially — and then a much larger formal presence in a place like Charleston. How these individuals use state commissions not only to support slave society — because in some ways their– in many ways their individual duties and responsibilities — working in bureaucratic offices or working on the docks to inspect incoming goods, that labor is entirely about supporting the plantation complex. But it’s also, for them, making them a lot of money.

And a lot of them are corrupt. They’re using their position on the docks as custom collectors to engage in illegal trading and to smuggle. They’re using their positions in basically what are public record offices to embezzle money and property. And they’re using their position on courts as– whether as clerks of the court or as judges themselves– to get their friends acquitted and level charges against their enemies. And so, there’s a lot of intrigue and corruption that’s going on in this context, too.

So really my project is trying to study how these imperial slave trade connections persist over the course of the 18th century, but how the individual ambitions of people who have a minor degree of state power make this all happen. But it’s very, very much in its formative stages right now. I’m just writing my first chapter, so we’ll see. I’ll have a better answer for you in two years.

What drew you to the slave trade?

I think it’s the city of Charleston. I’ve vacationed there a lot as a kid, and I continue to go there every year with my family. It’s a place that I think my family is really attached to. We love the city. We love that place. It’s a place that has good memories.

But at the same time, it’s a place with a dark history. And it’s the place where I first– if I encountered history with my great grandmother in person, I also encountered it in a different way in person in Charleston. So the fascination that I developed with asking my grandmother questions and trying to strive for more answers with our family history, when I got to Charleston, you see these buildings.

You walk downtown and it’s basically like the 18th century all over again. These buildings have been preserved so beautifully and the plantations have been preserved so beautifully that you can step back in time without much effort. Once you get back there in time, you encounter a history that we don’t like to think about a lot but that we’re confronted with on a daily basis. We’re confronted with the legacies of this institution all the time.

And so, for me, Charleston was a place that really captured, I think, everything that we’re supposed to be thinking about as historians. We’re supposed to be thinking about a past that’s meaningful to understanding how we got to the present. But also, we’re supposed to be understanding a past that continues to rear its head in the present, and that we can’t deal with our present moment without reconciling ourselves with the past and reckoning with its consequences.

So it’s more than just being an antiquarian and saying, oh, look at how beautifully this city’s been preserved. It’s about going to a place that is, yes, beautiful in its own right and is a cultural treasure in its own right, but that presents problems for us and problems that historians have a place in terms of solving, in terms of having these conversations.

You look at the Emanuel shooting in 2015, that put Charleston, again, at the center of this discussion about racism in the United States, and the North Charleston shooting when the police officer shot him in the back. It placed that city again. It’s always been at the center point. It was the place where the South first seceded from the Union. It was the place where slaves first became a majority population in the 18th century. It was the first place that became a, quote unquote, black majority in colonial America, at least on the continent.

So it’s always been at the center of, I think, race relations in the United States. It’s always been at the center of not just race but also the other economic consequences of slavery. And now it’s at the center of, like, culinary excellence and tourism in the United States. So in blending all these positive and negative things in one place really for me raised so many questions that I just continue to look for answers. And that’s probably how I got on this project. I mean, that’s the story I’m going to tell today. It changes, depending on how I’m thinking about it.

Speaking of Charleston, South Carolina’s been at the center of many controversies over the years. Until just a few years ago, the Confederate flag flew at the state capitol. But more recently, we’ve been seeing a move to remove Confederate monuments in places like New Orleans. As a historian, what are your thoughts on the removal of Confederate symbols in the South?

Right, so the idea, is the Confederate flag heritage or hate? Yeah, and so as a historian who studies the South but as a pure Yankee, a guy who has lived the vast majority of his life in the Great Lakes region, I’m in a weird position to think about this. I’m not a Southerner. And so, I have critical distance in that world.

And, yeah, the Confederate flag is heritage, but it’s heritage that was built on the forced enslavement of millions of people. And so, if you’re going to have– if you’re going to say it’s heritage, you can’t cherry pick that heritage, right?

Yes, the Confederate States of America, it was a sovereign state that established itself through violence. And it tried to defend its sovereignty, and it lost. And that memory, the memory of that struggle, the memory of that way of life is a powerful, powerful tool for people in the South, white people in the South.

In many ways, the only reason that poor whites signed onto the whole slavery thing was because of the structures of white supremacy, that by their race, they were lifted up. And that supremacy doesn’t exist without the system of oppression that slavery was.

So for people, the flag and other elements of Confederate heritage provide a way to lift themselves up in a world where they see their privilege shrinking, in a world where they see their jobs going away. And they see it’s harder and harder for them to make ends meet every day.

I think for some people, the Confederate flag is reassuring. It’s reassuring for them in a world that’s becoming dominated by what they call political correctness gone mad. And it can be all of those things. That’s fine. You can say that’s what it is for you, but you can’t then turn around and say that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery or that flag doesn’t, in fact, represent slavery and nothing but slavery.

What do you think of people who say that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery?

That they’re wrong. They’re wrong. The Civil War was about states’ rights. It absolutely was, but it was about states’ rights to choose whether or not they were going to have slavery or not, and whether or not slavery was going to push west and continue to push west.

That’s the core issue. The core issue was every single major political or legal issue in the Antebellum– yeah, it was absolutely about slavery. It was, and you can’t get around it. If you say it’s about states’ rights, it’s about states’ rights to have slavery.

And not only is that the historical consensus, but it’s backed up by the evidence. You read these documents– you read the papers of Jefferson Davis, right? The Confederacy was built on the principle that black Americans were subjugated to white Americans. That is the founding principle by one of its founding fathers explicitly saying this thing.

They were property.

Yeah, they were property. That’s 101 level stuff for this region and in that time period.


But we struggle with this as historians in terms of figuring out how to teach this. Because, in a lot of ways, when you’re trying to teach the first half of the US survey in college to college kids, you want to dismantle a lot of prejudices that they came into college with. One of those prejudices a lot of times is the Civil War was about states’ rights, not about slavery. So by dismantling it, you put slavery at the center.

At the same time, if you talk only about slavery in the first half of the 19th century leading up to the Civil War, you also do discount some of the more complex political realities that created that war. Why were the Lincoln-Douglas debates so heated? Because Lincoln and Douglas were trying to think out loud in a very nuanced way about how the state was to relate to slavery and how sovereignty was going to be distributed from the federal government to the states. And what’s the relationship between those powers? And there were a variety of different answers to that.

Ultimately, all of these things circled back to the problem of the fact that slavery had created a different region in the South, and that that region was separating in many ways from the North, that they were not only intertwined inexplicably but were pursuing two different courses of life by the 1830s. You want to present students with nuance, but sometimes that nuance does undermine the central message, which is the Civil War was about slavery.

And a lot of times, students will come away from a nuanced narrative of the Civil War and say, well, it was about slavery but it also was about all these different things. All these different things, in the end, came back to that institution.

So, I mean, I kind of think that Lincoln as a figure in history has been immortalized in a lot of ways. What do you make of the fact that he is made as the “Great Emancipator” when really, if you look at the history of it, he did not go into office with a set agenda to free the slaves of the South.

Right. Yeah, and that’s–

His goal was to preserve the Union.

Absolutely. Absolutely. And if that meant the South came back in with slavery, at a certain point, that was acceptable to him. I mean, I just finished assisting with my adviser’s big survey course, the first half of the US survey from the 17th century to the end of the Civil War, and so, a huge lecture course. And every Friday– you know, you have the large lecture courses, but every Friday you go have a discussion session with a graduate student.

So, yeah, that was one of the last things I talked about with my students that– we watched the film “Lincoln” after they read– had gone to lectures about Lincoln and had read different– they read portions of the Lincoln-Douglas debates and they really had a good textbook that they were using, but then saw the way Daniel Day-Lewis portrays Lincoln and the way Spielberg wants to set up his character, and I think it opened a lot of their eyes– that and reading the other texts that–

Lincoln is the only politician, I think both parties agree, was infallible in a lot of ways. Both parties want to claim him. And no matter what side of the political spectrum you’re on, you’re okay with Lincoln. Lincoln had a hell of a job to do, and he did it well.

But, I mean, Lincoln was also a man of his time. And he was a politician. He was thinking purely as a politician. How can I preserve this Union with as little strife and as little bloodshed as possible? And at a certain point in time, that meant the South coming back in with slaves.

And recognizing that is really important, to say that freedom and emancipation in this country is a tool, an ideological tool as much as it is an ideal of life, and that we want to ascribe easy connections between political figures of the past and the ideals of our current society. But history shows that that doesn’t work.

What does that mean for how we think about current political discourse? That’s an open question. And then, in some ways, that’s one of the struggles. Historians, our job is to complicate. Popular narratives are always too simple.


We’re supposed to complicate. But in some ways, complicating will sit uneasily with our individual politics. Because if I want to emphasize that slavery is a core institution in this country, in terms of the way that it shaped not only its history but its present-day thinking, I’m going to hammer that point home as much as possible. And that is true, and I believe that to be true. And I can back it up with evidence and with scholarship.

But if I want to be a good historian, in moments like the first half of the 19th century, I might want to be a little bit more nuanced and say that, yeah, there were other things on Americans’ minds politically besides slavery, and that there were other things that went into freeing the slaves besides just recognizing slavery as an abhorrent condition.

And as historians, we can sit there and understand that, yeah, we can have this nuanced understanding and divorce it from politics, but there will be people on other ends of the political spectrum who are very intelligent but will cherry pick complex notions and say, see? It was more complicated, therefore, people going on and on about slavery, you know, you should shut up. It’s over. It doesn’t have any ramifications anymore, because it was more complicated than that. It wasn’t this whole thing that this conflict was about, anyway. So we have to walk a fine line.

Well, I think in many ways, historical figures are whitewashed, both as villains and as heroes. You look at Mount Rushmore and other symbols of the United States, and we like to have these heroic figures and point to them as the good guys.


But part of your job as a historian is to point out that they were just– they were men.


They weren’t gods.


They had flaws.

I think one of the things that history puts you in touch with is something– I don’t want to get too philosophical, but human nature– I mean, I think historically, so I think human nature is not a static thing. For me, human nature is revealed over time through human actions. This is how we understand what something is. We watch it do what it does. And that can complicate your preconceived notions or it can reinforce them. And so, in that way, history is a hugely political tool.

But the positive way to spin that is that understanding the position, say, Lincoln was in when he took office, really thinking about that and thinking about the intense feelings and visceral emotions on both sides, and just sheer amounts of wealth and power that were at stake, and humans lives that were at stake in this conflict, and how he had to navigate that– if you don’t come out of that reading more empathetic, then you’re numb from, like, the chest up. Because that’s one of the things history should teach you is to be more cautious in your judgment, to be more empathetic, to think a little bit more deliberately and slowly about how you assign blame to people in certain instances or controversies. So yeah, I think that’s certainly one thing we can bring to the table.

So, you know, really the first draft of history is written by the news media.


And the media right now is under a lot of pressure. It’s under attack. The president of the United States says that the news media is the, quote, “enemy of the people.” As a historian, does that make your job more difficult, dealing not only with the fact that the media is under assault at the moment but also that there’s this surge in fake news?

Does it make it more difficult in what way?

Future historians.

Oh, okay.

So in evaluating our present-day–


–50, 100 years from now–

Sure. Well, I think– in one way, I think the rise in fake news makes historians’ jobs as teachers a lot easier. Because journalism, the news, rhetoric in public has always been politicized. And one of the first things we want to teach students as historians is identify the bias and the agenda in whatever you’re reading. Don’t take what you’re reading at face value, because the author has an agenda. The author has a certain socioeconomic context that explains why he or she is doing certain things.

So, I mean, that’s day one stuff, right? But it’s stuff that we want to keep reiterating over time. And what I’ve experienced in the past year teaching students at Notre Dame in the context of the election and the first 100 days of Trump’s administration is that it’s easier to emphasize bias in history when they’re seeing it all the time.

They may have, before this election, not only– I mean, there’s a sense, I think, among people that, well, CNN is sort of centrist, MSNBC is left, and Fox leans really far right. But, at the same time, I think there’s an illusion of objectivity in the way that we read the news sometimes that Trump has blown the doors off of.

He has been completely candid about how narratives become politicized. And while the narratives that he’s fighting many of us feel are more grounded in facts and more defensible, at the same time, he’s exposed the fact that both of these narratives are constructed. One is probably better constructed and constructed in a more reliable way.

But so in that way, we’ve started to have a debate about how you construct narratives. And narratives that were assumed to be fact, like crowd size, suddenly becoming inexplicably complicated and challenged. Even if you can see through the illusion and say, “you’re full of it,” it still shows you– it makes it easier, as teachers, for us to go into the classroom and say, “look at what he’s doing.”

You will see this throughout history. Think about if the author you’re reading has a similar agenda to Trump or to anybody in the news media that you’re seeing spinning an agenda. Where’s the spin? So the more sensitive we are to spin, the easier historians’ jobs as teachers become. In the future, yeah, I think historians are going to have–

What are historians going to make of Donald Trump’s Twitter account?

Hmm. Yeah, I mean, I love Twitter where it says whenever you’re tweeting at the president or the vice president, in his bio, it says tweets may be archived. And the Library of Congress, I think a couple of years ago–


–bought the Twitter archive. And so, there’s a self-consciousness about being part of an archive now as you’re tweeting. And some of these people really should reflect on that. But future historians are going to have to deal with social media, presuming that we maintain the information, presuming that the servers are still– that the databases and the archives of the internet actually do what they’re supposed to be doing. There’s a lot of work now to preserve the internet–


–in different formats to make sure that it’s accessible for historians.

Yeah, I mean, and there’s a lot of questions whether these things will actually exist in the same way that clay tablets exist.

Right. Right. So it could be a smorgasbord for historians, more evidence than any historian has ever had ever with more powerful technology to search it, and make sense of it, and analyze it in mass quantities, to do text mining, to do different sorts of analytics that would allow you to track patterns and understand what real, regular people were thinking every day, because you can go back and see what I was– who I was talking trash to on Facebook on June 1, 2006. That’s something that most historians have never had. So if we can maintain that, it’s going to be a great blessing for future historians.

But it’s also going to be a curse. Because how do you make sense of a society that is so self-absorbed, so cynical, so deeply consumed with producing and consuming at the same time? The amount of media content that we produce on a daily basis is just absurd. And so, historians will have the huge problem of having to make sense of all that and come up with a master narrative.

It’s information overload.

It’s information overload. We have that in universities, too. There’s more scholarship being produced than needs to be produced right now, because we can’t keep up with it. People can’t keep up with a lot of historical scholarship and make broad narratives out of it. That’s one of the crises of the field.

So how do you write a political history of Trump when you can put him in very intimate context with these Twitter trolls? I don’t know. I think it’s– I’m excited to see what happens. I think. The first great meme history is still waiting to be written. So that’s–

Are you going to be the author of that?


I actually really would love to be. It’s one of my ideas.


There you go.

I will plug it first on your podcast.


I’m actually completely serious when I talk about this book.

Are you?


Yes. Yes, because I think memes are such a beautiful way to track popular culture and popular politics in the post-9/11 world. I think you can find everything you need there to make sense of–

Is it like today’s equivalent of a political cartoon?

Yeah, but it’s so much more democratized and it’s so much more malleable.


Yeah, it’s a political cartoon, but it’s also like– I’m trying to think. I don’t know if there’s– political cartoon is a good one.

What do you make of the coarseness of dialogue in today’s culture? And also, how corrosive do you think that is to a democracy?

To a democracy? Yeah, I think, hmm. I mean, in some ways, I’m not surprised by the coarseness of public discourse, because I think we’re just more aware of it now than we were in the past.

I mean, I read political documents from the 18th century that are just as crazy and just as shrill as Alex Jones, if not more shrill. Try to come after a slave owner’s right to own slaves, and you want to see shrill. That’s shrill. That’s like you’re trying to go after a man’s livelihood and a man’s ability to control other people, and own other people, and exploit them in any way he wants. He’s going to hold onto that as hard as he can.


Yeah, so I mean, I’m not surprised by the coarseness of our discourse. I think we are just more aware of it now. I think you can find radical, shrill dialogue in any period you’re looking for it.

But I think the problem does come with the democracy portion of that question, whereas not only are we a more democratic society than we ever have been– we’re not very democratic, but we are still more democratic than we have been. We have a higher level of participation. The internet’s bringing people together in ways that people have never been brought together before. Things are so much more visible. Our public sphere has been expanded exponentially. And so, yeah.

One of the ironic things is that as social media spreads and people participate more in democracy, it seems that the coarseness actually comes out and is more obvious.

Yeah. Yeah, I think so. Yeah, because I think– maybe that’s something about human nature. Now, again, not to get philosophical, all right, but maybe–

We don’t want any of that.


That’s my other degree, right? Just brush that degree off and–


I didn’t pursue that in graduate school for a reason.


But, yeah, I do think that in terms of human nature, what is human nature? Human nature is what humans do. And I think we’re just seeing it more, and more, and more, and more in our faces every day.

This has always been politics. Politics has always been intense. It’s always been coarse. It’s always been cynical. But there is a danger in everyone’s cynicism, everyone’s coarseness, everyone’s fanaticism being broadcast to everyone else in the world, and when you have a few strongmen who rise up to be able to exploit that.

I think it’s clear what we get. We get Trump. We get Le Pen. We get Nigel. I mean, so much of the English-speaking world is, essentially, losing its collective mind right now because of the media technology that are available to disseminate views I think that were always already there and have always already been there.

It’s just easier for those views to spread now.

Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. I’m saying nothing original here, but I think it bears repeating that we’re in touch with more views and more diversity than we ever have been before. And great, but there are going to be people who push back against that. And some of that diversity is going to be diversity is horrifying and terrible, and we should never have it, right? So how do we deal with that? In a democracy–

And some of that diversity is repugnant.

Some of that diversity’s– right, right. The only thing we should be intolerant towards is intolerance. That’s sort of– well, it’s free speech. It’s my religious liberty.

In some ways you’re right, but at a certain point, a political group like the left needs to say no! No. We’re putting our foot down at a certain level, right? And so, we love diversity, as long as you internalize certain values.

And I think a lot of people on the left don’t like to open up about that. We can be just as uncompromising. But I think the uncompromising thing– the things that liberals won’t compromise on, generally, are those things that tend to hurt society and tend to take us back to a place in time where more people were oppressed. And so, it’s okay to not tolerate that.

Our discourse has become coarse, but it’s also become simplistic, that our political spectrum– our public sphere is a debate between those who want tolerance and those who are intolerant, those who want diversity and those who want just white men running the world. And it actually isn’t that simple, because liberals have a politics of intolerance as well. In fact, that’s exactly what we run on in a lot of ways, that we’re not going to stand up for this behavior coming from a person like Trump or coming from state legislatures, in terms of what they do with religious liberty, and de-funding education, and de-funding women’s health organizations.

Dylan, can you talk a bit about your research in the field and the importance of getting your hands on primary sources?

Sure. That’s the bread and butter of historians. I mean, we are creatures who deal in old documents. And our evidence is textual, for the most part. And that evidence is held in archives that are becoming increasingly digitized, and therefore, more accessible to a wider population and also more accessible, just from the Starbucks at the corner without having to get on a plane and going somewhere. But travel for research is still really essential to the work.

So what I do, since I work on the 18th century British Empire, most of my work is centered in the archives in Britain, mainly the National Archives in London, the British Library in London as well. But then, also, since I work on South Carolina, there are some archives in Charleston and in Columbia, South Carolina that I go to as well.

You went to Jamaica, right?

I went to Jamaica. Yeah, that was an experimental part of my research. I was thinking that my project was going to be on Jamaica. And that was an eye-opener. There’s a lot of material in Jamaica that historians have used and continue to use.

But it’s certainly a different archival infrastructure than what exists in Charleston or the United Kingdom. So it’s a developing country. It’s a country that doesn’t have a huge amount of resources to devote to archives. So that means that they’re not very well preserved and they’re not very accessible.

So they’re very protective. So you can’t take pictures of the texts in the archives, despite the fact that they are sort of decaying and sort of hard to access, because researchers coming to Jamaica for archival research are stimulating the economy, and they’re participating in tourism, and that is visitors to the Kingston area that Jamaica can’t afford to lose.

So you see while the imperial archives, in places like Britain and the United States — those that are participating in empire currently or those that are part of empires from the past — basically, archives in developed countries are really at the forefront of digitizing these old texts and making them available to people online. Those that exist in developing countries are protected more, at least in my experience, as cultural resources that should be only accessible in that country, which in some ways makes a lot of sense. It makes it a little harder on the researcher but is something that we still need to respect and recognize.

So I went to Jamaica to do that for about a week. I poked around in the archives there, got a feel for things. I may go back, but the project has taken a different turn back up to South Carolina, in part because it’s just easier to access. And if you’re going to get a PhD done in five years, you’ve got to be able to get to your archives quickly to spend a lot of time there and get a lot of work done without necessarily having to go to five or six different countries. In my case, I only need to go to like three archives to do the project, and that’s concentrated enough to get it done in five years.

So, you know, we’re a couple of white guys having a conversation about slavery and Civil War history.


Both of us grew up in South Bend. We’re both pretty far removed from the topic that we’re covering.

Yeah. Where is our place in this conversation?

Yeah. Yeah.

Because I’ve been asked this before.

Have you?

If you’re going in the direction–

That is the direction I’m going.

One of the candid answers is that my project is actually about white men and the horrible things they do to people. So, in some ways, my project is about slavery and how white men in government profited off of it. But in other ways, my project is about white men in government and their corrupt activities. So, in that way, slavery is the essential context, yet it is still a context.

I haven’t necessarily figured out the specific relationship between my project and slavery. But from a pedagogical standpoint, as a teacher, it does put you in a weird position. I mean, I think as a white man, my presence in a classroom that’s talking about slavery is to facilitate a conversation about evidence, to facilitate a recognition of the contours of an institution and its continuing impacts on our society while also not inserting myself and my own politics into that.

As a professor, as an educator, it shouldn’t be about you. It should be about the subject matter. So the farther removed I am from my students’ minds, the better, at least in those sensitive topics. A course about slavery should never be about me as a white man.

I have to grapple with racial identity and racial politics in the class, and in the classroom, and in the subject matter itself. And so, it’s something that I haven’t necessarily totally worked out yet. I haven’t had any negative experiences doing it at Notre Dame. But, I mean, that’s a very white institution.


And so, these conversations will be different at different universities and in different regions. For example, I was having conversations with people, with graduate students at the University of Georgia when I was visiting there, deciding where I was going to go to do my PhD. And I asked them a few questions about, well, how do you teach slavery as a white man in the South in this context?

And I heard a litany of stories of awkward classroom confrontations between students of different backgrounds who had different preconceived notions about what the institution was in the South, what the war was about, what slave life was like. And these things become politicized very quickly there.

I haven’t had to deal with much of that in my career yet. But my approach is to let the evidence speak for itself and to remove my own identify from the conversation as much as possible, while also not backing down on the facts that historical consensus has shown us, and facilitating a conversation about race and about the legacies of this institution.

One of the things that people should walk away with — especially if they’re a white college student — from learning about slavery is they should be critically think about whiteness as much as they should be thinking about any other type of racial politics in the United States. They should be thinking about what white privilege means, and what white supremacy means, and what its origin is.

And so, one of the places that I’m well-positioned as a white man to speak candidly about is white supremacy. I can be candid to white students about the system of oppression that has created their privilege, and in that way–

Do you feel like you have an obligation?

I think we do. I mean, I think we have an obligation to– we have an obligation to present a narrative about the past that is consistent with the evidence but one that also gives students an opportunity to grow as citizens and as people by challenging their preconceived notions and by giving them complex pieces of evidence to analyze in a supportive but also a critical environment.

So we shouldn’t be talking about history in a vacuum. We should be engaging with problems that crop up in our present day as they related to the past. So we are having a renewed moment of racial discourse in this country, and we shouldn’t shy away from that.

My own racial identity as a white man is– my own privileged identity as a white, straight, cis male is– it’s in the room, but that’s all it is. It’s in the room. I have an obligation to check that at the door and to facilitate a conversation about the past.

But, at the end of the day, it’s all imperfect. And so, you get questions, yeah. How can you teach slavery as a white man? Well, I’m doing it. So that’s how, but I do it cautiously, and with respect, and with openness to different– to privileges that I have and to oppression that I haven’t perceived or experienced in my own life.

So you’re planning a trip to London over the summer. Can you tell us a little bit about what you hope to accomplish while you’re there?

Sure. So most of my time will be spent– well, it’s going to be a diverse trip. I’m going to spend June doing archival research for my next couple chapters in the dissertation, or the book as I need to be thinking about it. I need to be thinking about this as a book, not a dissertation.

So most of that time, I’ll be at the National Archives in London, which is just a huge repository of all the British government materials that have been generated for centuries. And I’ll be combing through that, primarily the South Carolina and Gambia River Valley documents, and gathering evidence for these next few chapters.

Most of this involves just opening folders and boxes, and taking pictures with my phone and just taking as many pictures as I can in a day, loading it up onto an external hard drive, and creating a mobile archive that I’ll go through later. There’ll be some programs that I’m involved with with Notre Dame as well.

Notre Dame has a relationship with Oxford and the University of Edinburgh. We send graduate students over to Britain every year to engage in a colloquium. We all submit a chapter, and it’s pre-circulated. Everybody reads everybody’s chapter and then has conversations about improving it and stuff like that. So it’s a conference, symposium sort of thing. So I’ll be doing that in both London, Edinburgh, and Oxford for a couple days, and then ending with a little bit of vacation. So it should be fun, about six weeks– six or seven weeks.

That sounds good.


What’s your ultimate goal that you hope to accomplish once you finish your PhD at Notre Dame?

A job would be nice. A job is the number one thing, right? So I started this whole process really idealistic. I’ve always just wanted to study what I wanted to study, and college gave me the opportunity to do that, and graduate school gave me the opportunity to do more of that.

And somewhere in these past few years, I realized I need to put food on the table. And the job market for academics right now is horrible. I’m told it’s always been horrible, but it’s more horrible now. So I have one fellow student who just got a tenure track job, which is very encouraging. Hopefully that’s the beginning of a pattern, not just a blip on the radar.

But, at the same time, I’m thinking openly about the future. And I used to think that I would go to grad school, and then I would get a tenure track job as a professor at a university, and then I would live the rest of my days in tenured bliss and that would be it. I’m more flexible these days. I also think that I want to be involved in public life a bit more than perhaps you would be allowed to be or have time to be as a faculty member.

Have you ever thought about running for office?

I have. I have. The time is not right yet. I have to find the place and the people. I have to build the connections and find the right opportunity. I think I’m not alone among Millennials in thinking about running for office in this current environment. I think that a lot of our fellow generation has been really frustrated and inspired at the same time by our political climate.

So I think I’m part of a surge in civic engagement but still looking for the right place to break into that. It’s hard to balance the isolation of academia and the relentless engagement of politics. So I’ve decided to finish one and then move on to the next one, if the opportunity presents itself.

I’m talking so much I’m sweating. You can start the podcast off with that.


Well, Dylan, thank you so much for joining us.

Well, thanks for having me. It was a great time.

I’d like to thank you again for listening to Convo with Kyle. Be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel for more episodes. You can also keep the conversation going on social media by visiting and I’d love to hear from you.

The Importance of Music Education: Musician Bryan Tyler (Convo with Kyle Video and Transcript)

The text below is a transcript of the Convo with Kyle podcast. Bold text is Kyle Bell. Standard text is Bryan Tyler.

Thanks for listening to Convo with Kyle. My name is Kyle Bell.

As a writer, an author, and journalist, my work has always been about telling stories. But now, I want to tell a different story. I want to tell your story.

The goal of this project is to share with you the stories of ordinary people who do extraordinary work. They’re teachers. They’re activists. They’re volunteers. They’re community leaders. And they’re artists.

They may be your neighbors, your friends, your coworkers who want to make their communities, and this world, a better place for all of us. So let’s start a conversation.

We’re joined today by Bryan Tyler, a classical musician and instructor. Thanks for joining us, Bryan.

Thank you, Kyle, for having me.

Bryan, why don’t you start by telling us more about your background.

Like you said, I’m a classical musician. I play the violin and the viola. My emphasis when I went to school was on the viola. But as I’ve become a teacher — an instructor — after school, I’ve started to teach violin a lot.

But when I grew up, classical music was never really something that seemed to be in the cards for me, because the community that I grew up in didn’t really have a strong appreciation for it. I didn’t have any musicians in my family, per se. I had one family member — a cousin — that was taking piano lessons and also the saxophone. But it just didn’t seem like it was going to be something that would be the most obvious for me.

But I know that I loved music. I sang in the choir when I was in elementary school. And I was interested in being with other friends and being creative.

And I realized that I wanted to play a string instrument. I saw the other kids having fun. And so, I decided, well, let me go ahead and try it.

And so, I went up to the orchestra teacher. And she looked at my hand and she said, “Well, you will play the viola.” And I had no idea what that was, but I said I’ll go ahead and try it.

And from the moment that I — basically from the moment that I started playing, I knew that that’s really something that I wanted to do for the rest of my life. And I was about 10 years old then. Financially, I wasn’t able to take private lessons when I started out. It was something that seemed to be a luxury and something that I didn’t really have much, again, awareness and knowledge about — my family didn’t really know a lot about.

My father worked for Greyhound for a few decades. And so, he drove buses. And my mom, she worked several different types of jobs to make ends meet. My parents didn’t go to college and graduate from college, but they did the best that they could to provide for myself and my siblings. I had six siblings growing up, so–

Were you the first of you and your siblings to graduate from college?

I was, yes. And I’m number six out of seven, so it was a pretty big achievement for me. My father and my mother both wanted their children to be better off than they were able to be. And they wanted the best for them. That was really the most important thing.

And a part of this American dream that we’ve grown accustomed to talking about is getting the education, following that path, and being a successful adult. And I’m so happy that I’ve had that opportunity. And I have a younger brother about 10 years younger than me, so I try to encourage him to finish college and aspire whatever it is that he has in his heart.

And in terms of my ethnic background, my mother is Mexican-American. And my father, as I recall– as I sometimes have fun calling — or, yeah, saying — is black and white. He is mostly black, but he has a little bit of– he’s biracial, so he’s part white.

And percentage– at what percentage? I’m not quite sure. But I know that he definitely does not look like every other black person that I see or every other white person I see. And so, I myself–

Does he see himself as a black man or–

Yes, he does.

Yeah, he does?

Mhm. He grew up– you know, he was born in the ’40s. And so, he grew up at a time when there was segregation. And he went to all-black schools and–

Did your father grow up in Texas?

Yes. Yeah, and so, I have a lot of family in Texas. And it’s pretty hard to get out of Texas. You drive 13 or 14 hours and you’re still in Texas.


And when I was growing up, I didn’t look like all of the other kids, but I didn’t really think about it so much. I knew that I was different. And what mattered to me was just being able to connect. That’s been an important part of my experience is just being able to connect with other people and share my passions, like the music.

So, I mean, you come from a multicultural background, but I think it’s also worth mentioning that you’re openly gay.


Did your background present any particular challenges for you in your career? And how did it shape your music?

Given that I wasn’t from a musical family and that I didn’t receive the pedigree– I didn’t have the pedigree to, basically, have a career in music. I mean, many students start when they’re five years old or something around that time. And I started when I was 10. And there are definitely people that start later on.

That’s considered late for a classical musician, by the way. And there are many people that still have careers, but it makes it much more challenging– and particularly the fact that I didn’t have lessons to start out. I would go to the orchestra class in middle school, and I would remember I would just play for fun.

And I played in the church. We went to– eventually went to a pretty small church with many minorities, racial minorities. And everybody knew each other’s business. I don’t think there was a stranger, anybody– there was somebody that would walk in and nobody would know. Everybody seemed to know each other. And they were very friendly.

And I remember just telling the pastor, “You know what? I’d like to play.” Because I loved playing. And I would get up there, and who knows whether I was in tune or whether I was perfect or not. But they didn’t really care. They just loved that I– I had a getting attitude and that I wanted to be able to share what I was doing. And so, that was something very special for me.

So your first encounter with classical music, was that at your church?

No, it was in the orchestra program.


And like I said, without having the lessons– I mean, I had orchestra class. My dad would tell me, you know, I pay– I pay for you to have– I pay taxes for you to go to school. And so, it didn’t really make sense to him. He was a little old-fashioned, I guess you could say. I don’t know–


–how to think of it. But it just wasn’t a part of our culture to know that you had to go to do lessons in order to become– like, that was an option or something that you should do. And they were just trying to make ends meet, really.

So in terms of the classical music, though, I remember first going to an orchestra concert in elementary school with the– I lived in Houston, in the Houston area. And we went to an orchestra concert, and we went to go see “The Carnival of the Animals.”

And it’s a great introductory piece of music where you hear different instruments that are in the orchestra play solos. And they represent different animals. So, for example, the cello represents the swan. And the bass represents, I believe, the elephant.

And so, I remember hearing it. And the swan’s considered, like, one of the most beautiful pieces of music and very vocal. And I remember holding my ear– holding my hands to my ears and thinking this music is so boring!


Because I had no appreciation for it. I didn’t really know how to relate to it.


But it’s amazing how joining around my peers, seeing my peers enjoying that experience and that they’ve already been– especially the successful people that I knew of, they were playing in the orchestra. And so, I wanted to be a part of that.

And so, fortunately, I was. And even though my background was different than theirs, I was able to join along. And, in music, really there are very few borders and boundaries, other than a measure– a bar line.

You know, that’s really– there’s not much that separates people. Everybody works towards a common goal. And you share the melody. You share responsibilities. And so, I learned a lot from playing in the orchestra.

I think that’s probably a reaction that a lot of kids get when they’re first exposed to classical music. What type of music did you prefer when you were growing up?

You know, I didn’t know exactly what to– like, they didn’t have the iPod, you know, when I was growing up. They didn’t really have– we had the radio. I mean, I sound old, but we had the radio.

And okay, I would wake up– there were some mornings I would wake up, and they had this show on VH1 called “Pop-Up Video.” And I loved it, because they would have all this information about the song. So I would say it was, like– I don’t know. It was something, kind of pop music, like, world pop music. I think that was probably about it. I didn’t really have very sophisticated tastes or know really what to listen to.

So, you know, I was pretty lucky growing up, because I was exposed to music at a young age. And I grew up more on rock music. I liked Pearl Jam. I liked The Beatles, The Rolling Stones. Really, I think I inherited a lot my tastes from my dad.

But my parents, they encouraged me to go to– go into orchestra and into band. So I started playing the violin in fourth grade and the trumpet in fifth grade. But I was pretty fortunate, because the public schools that I went to, they actually supported their music programs. And it was affordable for our family to rent the instruments. And they had dedicated professional instructors. But not all kids are that lucky. So what was the quality of your program when you were growing up?

It was terrific. I remember we had– we had an orchestra program that was probably, I would say, probably about 60 kids, which is huge.

Yeah, that’s a lot.

And maybe there were more. Maybe there were more. But in Texas, everything– you know how they say everything’s big? So it was a pretty big area that I grew up in. And I moved around a decent amount.

But I just remember that the area that I grew up in, I was able to connect through the orchestra program, through some other activities. I was able to connect and feel like I belonged. And so, that was a very important part of my growing up. And without those opportunities, I don’t know where I would have ended up.

You know, I imagine that a lot of parents are pretty skeptical when they hear their kid say that they want to study music–


–especially in college. Were your parents supportive of your music interests?

They were. My father, again, the emphasis was on education. And so, as long as I was applying myself in my studies, that was what mattered the most to him. The music, I don’t know if he– I mean, I think he saw it as an option for the extra curriculars.

I think it evolved or it turned into something that was somewhat surprising to him, in terms of me wanting to go to school for it for college and wanting to be a musician. But they always supported me the best that they could.

It is an expensive career field to go into, because you have the cost of lessons. You have the cost of the instruments, which instruments are so expensive. Instruments for professionals are basically the same price as a car, if not more expensive.

And so, there was a lot of– there were a lot of unknowns. But my parents always supported me and have been proud of me in my playing.

And it’s great to have that type of support.

It is.

In your field, you really need that kind of support.

Yeah, it’s true. And, I mean, I hear different things from other– my peers. And I know that it’s not the most lucrative job field, obviously. And there are articles that will say that, you know, what are the least valuables to earn? And they’ll list careers in the arts.


But, you know, I know that I’m a very well-rounded individual. And the other classmates that I went to school with, I know that they have something that’s invaluable. You know, we know how to connect with people. We know how to listen to others.

Listening is huge, in terms of interpersonal relations. And these skills, you develop them early on. It makes a big impact, in terms of your life skills.

For me, I felt like I was able to interact with others better. I grew up in an area where it was easy to stay– to be kind of like a homebody. And so, my mother and father, they are comfortable staying at home. I feel like they’ve always been comfortable staying at home.

We would be– would go on trips every now and then. But home life was huge, you know? We would cook together or we would– dad would watch sports or I would watch Lifetime with my mom, or something like that. But home life was huge.

Yeah. And you had a very large family, too.

Yeah, I did. I mean, I grew up with– I grew up with three of my other siblings, basically. The other ones had already grown up before I was born.


So they were already off on their own. But yeah, I mean, to have a big family like that, it’s definitely unique.

Where did you go for undergrad, again?

I went to the University of Houston for my undergrad. I didn’t realize that the application deadlines were what they were. I didn’t know whether musicians that were going into– like, studying violin or viola for college.

And so, I missed the deadline dates. I thought, well, I was hearing everyone else applying for schools in February or something. So I was like, okay, I’ll apply to Juilliard in February. And, of course, their application deadline was December 1. And so, I missed everything.

And my parents were so out of the loop, because they didn’t– they didn’t really have all of the red tape and all of the hurdles to go through when they finished high school, or when they finished what they– you know, their level of study. So it was easy for me to make some mistakes, in terms of applications for school.

But I’m just so thankful that my instructor– my viola instructor, Mr. Wheeler– he was incredible. We ended up meeting in high school. And I was just very fortunate to make that connection. And through him, I was able to take lessons and start to prepare for a career in music.

So it sounds like you had a lot of mentors along the way.

Yes, yes. And that’s one of the important things for me. I do believe that we stand on the shoulders of others. And it takes a village.

Can you expand on that a little bit?

Yeah. So, for many of us, we have those people in our lives along the way that help to guide us in the direction that we end up going and– from my sister teaching my how to read when I was really young before most of the other kids would read, or my debate coach in high school, or Mr. Wheeler, who I mentioned earlier. They were important people that made a big impact on my life.

And without them, I just wouldn’t be in the same place. I know that I– without Mr. Wheeler, I probably wouldn’t be in Boston. Without a lot of these people that have been there for me, a lot of the opportunities that I’ve had just would not be there. There’s a lot to take for– that’s easy to take for granted. And so, I have to thank– thank my lucky stars.


But, you know, also the internet was very helpful for me, because being someone that is now openly gay– I was not when I was in high school. And having the rise of the social media at that time in the, let’s say, in the early 2000– 2000s, or turn of the century– the second turn of the century or whatever you want to call it– having those forums to get to know other people and share your experiences, it helped so much, because I felt like I was alone.

I didn’t know other gay people. And through having something where I was able to not feel nervous or ashamed, I was able to connect with other people and be honest about parts of myself that I felt were not welcome. And so, I had some people that have been really instrumental. And I even met my husband online. You know, we didn’t spend a lot of time talking online, but the Internet has made a huge impact for me.

So let’s move forward to present day. You’re now an instructor of varying ages. First of all, is it a challenge to work with kids from different stages of development?

Fortunately, I’ve been teaching for over a decade, and I feel old for saying that. But even a decade is not really that long, when you think about it. I feel very privileged to be able to teach to being with. As a musician, it’s not always a given that you’ll end up with work or with the opportunity to use that knowledge and be able to share it with others on a daily basis like I’m able to.

And so, regardless of their age, it’s always– it’s always something that I have a joy of doing. And so, I don’t really think of it too much as being the challenge, more so the opportunity to get to learn how to help other people learn.

And so, I work primarily with students that are in elementary school, but I also have students that are in high school or that are– professionals that are in their 40s or 50s. And for each of them, it’s amazing to get to help them advance to the next level. And I– it took a while to develop a studio of students, but now it’s something that I– you know, this is my career.


My goal was to be in an orchestra– play in an orchestra. And it still is. And my side goal is to have a studio of students, which I do have. So I’m very thankful and very grateful to be able to have the teaching and to still– I do perform. So I’m very grateful for all of the opportunities that I have to be able to share music with other people.

You teach at several schools, right?

Mhm. Yeah, I teach at several schools in the Boston area. And I run an after-school program for lessons. And it’s very strong here, the arts programs in– around this city. I know that there are definitely places where they don’t have the after-school lessons as an opportunity, but around the city, there are definitely programs and extension programs that help to provide the opportunity for students, regardless of their socioeconomic background. And it’s something that is a great model for the rest of the country.

You also work at the Chinese– what is it? What are they called?

Mhm, the Chinese Cultural Connection.

Chinese Cultural Connection.

Yep. So I work in a few different areas, particularly in Chinatown in Boston. And I teach at a daycare in the mornings. And so, I teach kinder music, as well as some violin. And the–

Can you explain what kinder music is?

Yeah, kinder music– I mean, I say kinder music as, like, a general term. I never went to school for kinder music. But it’s, basically, an extension of my ability to play music for others and knowing music well. I’ve developed a repertoire of songs that– traditional songs that kids sing.

And I’ve been able to learn some of the songs that are traditional in Mandarin. And so, it’s a bilingual daycare, so they learn– they learn Mandarin and English. And so–

So you’ve actually learned from the students.

Yep. I’ve learned from the students, yep. It’s been great. And by the way, the Chinese Cultural Connection, it’s just an example of my connection with the Asian community. Because I grew up around a large Asian community back in Texas. You may not expect that in Texas, but there was definitely a large Asian community. Houston, in particular, is a very diverse place.

And so, many Asian families know the value of studying an instrument, studying the violin. And so, they have their children study at a very early age. And so, that was something that I really admired. And I made many friends in the Asian community.

And so, I felt like when I moved out here to Boston, that I knew that I could connect with the Asian community and have opportunities to help bring music lessons to families. And with the Chinese Cultural Connection, what’s great about it is that I teach in– like I said, I teach in various areas. Some are less economically able to manage the cost of the high cost of the lessons.

And so, I do kind of a crowdfunding model at one of the schools. And it just makes the opportunity available– more available to that community, that particular community. And so, I’m very proud of being able to have that opportunity to give back.

It seems that orchestral music, in general, has a pretty high barrier to entry, because of the cost of the instrument and the cost of lessons. How important do you think it is to make it more accessible?

I do think it is an important issue, because the arts are an important outlet. They’re an important area of life where we have the opportunity to tell stories, to learn, and to learn to think differently, and to think outside of the box.

And we develop the child’s brain. Children are able to sing at a very early age, versus doing math– the higher level math and the higher level academics. Those come much– many of them come later, but from very early on, kids can play music.

And so, I think it’s important– regardless of their economic background– that kids have the opportunity to study music. Because it allows them opportunities like I have had, to be able to go beyond what might have been the most obvious career path. And it gives them options, whether or not it be in music. And they’re able to keep themself active. That’s very important. There are so many different distractions, these days especially. And to have something where they can be constructive, and work together, and learn interpersonal skills, and to listen from a very early age, it’s really helpful.

Did you consider studying or going into a different profession?

I mean, I used to want to be an author.


That was my– before I realized I wanted to be a musician, I thought, well, it’s either a fireman or an author.


And the fireman thing sounded a little bit too scary for me. So I thought, well, let me– I love writing. I used to love writing and reading. And now all I do is type– type and read my phone.

But, yeah, I’ve had moments where I thought, well, is this the career for me? But for all of those moments, I have students that– you know, they come to me each lesson and they’re excited to get to see me. And I’m excited to get to see them.

And I know that there are days when I feel awful and– not many, fortunately, but there are days where I feel awful or sick or something like that, and I come in and teach, and I feel better.

And playing in the orchestra, also, the orchestra there’s a– like you said, there’s a high bar for entry into it. And it can be very challenging, but I know that I put a lot into this. I’ve played the viola for over 20 years now. And I haven’t come all this way to give it up.

I know that I still have more to learn. I still have more to do with what I have. And I study with a member of the Boston Symphony. And so, I’m very, very happy that I have the opportunity to continue to develop my craft.

Do you have a lot of friends in Boston that also play music?

I have a decent amount, because I went to grad school here. I went to Boston Conservatory, and I made connections there. I would say that that’s one of the other things that’s important is it’s just the– taking the opportunities, connect, making connections when you can. That has been very helpful for me, because without those connections, it would have been much more challenging to continue to aspire and to have opportunities to perform.

Have you ever tried to write any music of your own?

When I was younger, I would use MIDI, which is Musical Instrument Digital Interface. And I had a friend that would use it as well. And, basically, you can compose on the computer. And you can print out your compositions.

That’s like video game music, right?

Yeah. Well, I guess now it is, yeah.

Old-school video games.



I know that my calling has always been towards performance. And so, I don’t really dabble too much with compositions. I let the experts do that.

Every now and then, I have to do something special for my students. Like, I have a student that wants to play Maroon 5 on violin. He’s dying to play “Animals.” And so, I have to make up some kind of arrangement for him so that he can play along with the recording. And it’s fun. It’s fun to get to do creative things like that.

So, Bryan, what advice would you give to people who might be interested in pursuing a passion, such as music?

I would say that it’s important to take all of the opportunities that you can, studying with a professional, and having the practice regimen. That’s one of the more challenging things, but you develop fluency with it.

And I remember asking myself, what do I have to lose by taking as many opportunities as I could? And I would always say, I don’t have anything to lose.

So I would just say, take advantage of the opportunities that you have and make connections. And most importantly, have fun with what you do every day. And if you love it, it will never feel like it’s a burden or it’s something that you could do without. If you love it, you’ll want to have it as a part of your life.

Well, Bryan, thanks so much for joining us today.

Thank you.

I think that this a really important topic, especially for aspiring musicians, aspiring artists, people who want to pursue their passions in a creative way and actually find a way to be able to do that professionally.

So, one last thing, Bryan. If people wanted to visit your website, where can they find it?

Well, it’s a website largely for my students, but I think it shows you the level of teaching, the breadth of what I do. It’s It’s B-R-Y-A-N T-Y-L-E-R dot org.

Thanks so much for joining us, Bryan. It was a real pleasure having you on.

Thank you so much, Kyle.

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