Interview with Kelly McDonald
Kelly MacDonald is a freelance writer, water protector, and former animal behavior specialist based in Brooklyn, New York. We talked about falling back into the media industry, Standing Rock, and German Shepherds. Check out her work on her Contently portfolio.
Your work has appeared on Vice, the Village Voice, the Toast, and more. Which stories are you most proud of and why?
The Motherboard piece was the first time to use a real life story to frame more of the hard issues. I was also able to use the weird research I’d been pursuing, like the eugenic project which was the German Shepherd.
How Police Dogs Turned into Cybernetic Hunters - Motherboard
A German Shepherd lies on a stretcher in a sterile exam room, tucked in a fleece blanket. The room's perimeter is lined…
I want to be more proud of the Standing Rock pieces, but I’m proud I came up with the pieces in a war-zone environment. I went twice. The first time, I was a water protector. The reason I went there was because I saw the video of people being attacked by dogs. I made a handbook self-defense guide against canines, that’s completely non-violent and [uses] everyday items to lessen attacks and minimize injury. I handed those out and organized a workshop at Standing Rock.
When I returned [home to Brooklyn], I wanted to go back. There was a media black-out. There aren’t a lot of Native writers that have a perspective on what this place actually is like. I was going on actions, hanging out with people at night, eating in the kitchen. A lot of reporters, especially mainstream ones, stayed at this top of the hill near the entrance called Facebook Hell. It’s the only place in camp where you can get cell phone service. Lots of younger people, sometimes older, go up the hill, but those are the only people [these reporters] were talking to, which happened to be outside of their trailers.
To me, it shifted my perspective of what the news can be read as in a front line situation, especially when it involves people of color.
Another thing about reporting — I was writing essays — I wasn’t writing crazy stuff about the police or anything and yet, the legal team had a meeting with me. They told me as soon as you leave camp, you need to take your badge off and mask up. The police are targeting the media and people of color, especially Brown and Black people, so you need to be careful when you leave camp and whenever you’re on the frontlines. And that’s true.
When did you start freelancing?
I have been freelancing for a little over two years. I used to work in animal shelters as a behavioral specialist, which was rewarding. Then, I malled by a giant dog.
When I was younger, my godmother was a black woman news anchor and I did a lot with her. I did reporting internships and radio work when I was in high school. I’d always wanted to be a writer or reporter, but by the time I got to college in 2004, it felt writing in that way was kind of dying and I wanted to explore other options. If I trained myself in other things, I could return to writing later.
Dispatch From Standing Rock: Meet the New Yorkers Bussing to North Dakota to Fight DAPL
This is the first of three accounts over the next week from Kelly McDonald, who is traveling with a group of fellow New…
I never expected to return to writing, but I was bedridden. I started writing about animals and society, things I’ve studied deeply in my career. I branched out into more environmental and other sciences by domestic reporting, which is where I’m at now.
What was your first story about?
I worked on it for months, but I wrote about a movie from the 80s called “White Dogs.” It’s a film about dogs trained to be racist. This white woman owns him and he kills three black people. She takes him to a black Hollywood trainer and they try to re-program a racist dog. It raises the question whether a person can have a change of heart, but also it’s representations of Hollywood animal training, the notion that police dogs trained to go after certain races — which has a lot of truth in it — and also the German Shepard itself, which was genetically manufactured to be a dog to go after people indiscriminately, more or less.
What do you enjoy about freelancing?
I like making my own schedule, because I’m kind of a nocturnal person. At my old job, I was working seventy and sometimes eighty hours a week. My roommate came to see me after I got out of the hospital, and he told me I looked amazing because I was so well-rested.
The past three days, I’ve been at the Westminster Dog Show. From that, I’m definately writing about the eugenic origins of the competition and dog-breeding in general. I was just hanging out, unsure of an exact story yet, but once the German Shepard won, I knew. It was cool to have the freedom to do that.
I can decide how intense I can make a story and which editor I can work with.
Another thing is that I’m physically disabled from my injury, so I don’t have to be on my feet. I can take breaks if I need to compared to working in a restaurant.
What don’t you enjoy?
I don’t like chasing people down for invoices. I don’t like when editors ghost. I don’t like when publications fold while I’m writing for them, which has happened to me twice. I also don’t like when I pitch something, a publication publishes a similar thing three weeks later. I think there’s very little recourse for freelance writers, especially women writing on cultural issues.
I think it’s one of the best times to be a journalist. The bar isn’t lower but based on your ability to do the work, your connections, your education.
10 years ago, I couldn’t write about these things without all the right internships, J-school, connections, and fellowships of the year. At this point, I can pitch and do the thing based on my research. At the same time, there’s freedom of the press, but the world is on fire. I think there’s good and bad.
Dispatch From Standing Rock: Election Night, and the Morning After
This is the second of three accounts over the next week from Kelly McDonald, who is traveling with a group of fellow…
What values are important to you as a writer?
Neutrality is ideal to make sure you’re getting all sides to the full story, but I also think there should be a recognition that it might be get harder some sides of the story, from voices that often go unheard, that won’t go out of their way to shout their feelings.
As you spend more time trying to find marginalized perspectives, especially people of color and queer folks, or even animals — not interviewing them but — there have been a lot of white men for a long time. We know their opinion. We have a great body of work as a society, but I think we’re lacking. When you’re talking to people as an interviewer, I think people have different emotions about the people interviewing them, based on how comfortable they feel.
Catapult | We, the Hunted: Dogs, Survival, and Resistance | Kelly Mays
I stood upon the fence until the dogs had reached the cotton press. In an instant more, their long, savage yells…
What message do you have for the Millennial Freelancer’s audiences?
Freelancing is really a possibility right now. I think it’s a really great thing for people that might have a day job or be a student, even in high school. It’s important for us to lend our voices. I can talk to a teen and that’s one thing, but a young person can closer to their age will have a whole new perspective to a new dance going viral compared to an old white person talking to them about it. I’m 30 years old, so I’ll get a different perspective.
We should all be pitching. We should all be interviewing everyone we know so we can create a body of work about our generation’s struggles.
It’s important to feel empowered. The bar is more accessible to write articles. We should all be offering perspectives. We can talk to our elders and get their perspectives before they’re gone. We need to create a body of work, it’s our job. We have the energy!
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