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Writer Kevin Powell: ‘We’ve got to stay involved’

Kevin Powell
GREENVILLE, N.C.   (Jan. 18, 2011)   —   Many Americans have yet to make civic engagement part of their DNA, says writer and activist Kevin Powell.

Powell will be the keynote speaker at East Carolina University’s Celebrating the Dream event Wednesday, Jan. 19. The event, which will include a student panel discussion sponsored by Alpha Phi Alpha, Eta Nu Chapter, begins at 6:30 p.m. in Mendenhall Student Center’s Hendrix Theatre.

Powell spoke with ECU News Services by phone on Tuesday:

ECU News Services: What can college students do to advance Dr. King’s dream in the 21st century?

Powell: Be involved. It’s so critical that young people today, one, make an effort to join at least one organization. Number two, just like when I was in college back in the ’80s, it’s so important to make a commitment to learning not just about the civil rights movement but American history in general. I’ve found in my travels that a lot of us don’t really understand the incredible history that we’ve created around democracy in this country. Everything from the civil right movement, the abolitionist movement the women’s rights movement, there have been so many efforts. Many times it’s been young people — as we certainly saw with the civil rights movement — driving change in this country. So I think those two areas, reading as much as possible about current events and also American history, and so being involved and being engaged and developing leadership skills are so critical.

Last year, you wrote in Ebony magazine and the Huffington Post that, “Why, politically, did we come out in record numbers for Barack Obama, then instantly return to apathy?” Do you see any signs of African Americans and others moving away from apathy when it comes to civil rights and human rights?

Part of the problem is that a lot of us have not developed in our DNA the importance of civic engagement on a consistent basis. This is all Americans I’m talking about. I can’t tell you how many people have said to me, all over the country, that they don’t see the point of voting, two years after the ’08 election. These are folks who voted, many of them for the first time, or people who have quickly become disillusioned because they don’t agree with some of the things President Obama has done or said or they feel that he’s moving too slowly. Again, this comes back to people being involved. Once you’re involved you understand the political process in a very different kind of way, that you don’t just push through a bill or law instantly. It just doesn’t work like that. I think that the only way that that’s going to change is, again, by people becoming involved in their communities.

That’s really my message. All people, we’ve got to stay involved.

What lessons do you see in the Arizona shootings?

Unfortunately, the political climate has gotten so ugly in the last few years. There are a couple of lessons. We have a very serious problem in America around mental illness. That’s a fact. I’ve seen it in my own family. I think that we do need to have a better system of checks and balances in place if someone like Mr. Loughner is disrupting a college campus or he’s going to Wal-Mart and acting in a way that leads employees to think that something’s wrong. When you talk to people about health care, one of the things that the late Sen. Paul Wellstone talked about was the need for mental illness to be included under health care. [For many people] if you want to go to a therapist, you have to pay for it out of pocket. That’s actually discouraging for a lot of people who can’t afford it, to get them help.

I was coming back from vacation out of the country, when I started getting these Tweets saying a congresswoman got shot in the head. I was just stunned. I was in shock. I shouldn’t be. I’ve lived through Oklahoma City, I’ve lived through Columbine, and God knows here in New York City there's somebody who gets shot every day. I understand the Constitution back and forth. I was a political science major. I ran for Congress. I know all the arguments about the right to bear arms, but there is something wrong when our country has a higher percentage of gun violence than anywhere else on the planet, where people think the only way to deal with conflict and problems is by violence. This is unacceptable, and I think it’s hypocritical for any of us to one day celebrate Dr. King and then the very next day actually defend the very things that he would have been opposed to, which is violence in any form.

Lots of college students gave money and clothing to help Haiti soon after the tragedy first happened. As someone who’s visited Haiti and been involved in rebuilding efforts, what would you tell students and others to emphasize that the needs still exist?

All students need to do is look at New Orleans. It’s been five years since that tragedy and — I was just there recently — there are parts of New Orleans that have still not been rebuilt. We need to understand: This is a long-term commitment. The best way I can answer is to quote Bono of U2, one of my favorite bands of all time. Bono said that we as human beings need to understand the difference between charity and social justice.

Charity means that we give when we feel bad about something and we feel a sense of concern for a short period of time and then it’s over, whereas social justice means that we become committed to helping people in some form for the rest of our lives. It’s not just about Haiti or the survivors of the Arizona shooting or homeless people in North Carolina or New York, but any time you encounter any human being you feel a sense of empathy. No matter what their race, their gender, their class, their religion, their sexual orientation, you don’t allow those boundaries to separate you from your humanity. That’s what I would say.

Compared to other milestones in your career, how do you feel about writing Tupac’s authorized biography, with his mom’s blessing?

You know, it’s a great honor. But I’ll be really honest, the most important milestone for me now and for the rest of my life is just helping people. That really is the most important thing. I’ll always be a writer. I love writing. I’ve been doing it since I was 11-12 years old, but nothing gives me a greater sense of joy than giving back to people in some form or fashion. That’s really it for me. That’s what love is.


Contact: LaKesha Alston | 252-328-6804