By Tarice L.S. Gray
Kevin Powell, 44, has been a reality television star on MTV, celebrated journalist with Vibe Magazine, public speaker and activist, and now he wants to add Congressman to his resume. He is currently in a hotly contested political race running to represent his beloved Brooklyn, New York, in the U.S. Congress. Powell talked with us about his political aspirations, his life’s mission and the challenges that informed his insight on the African-American community.
What are the issues that most concern you? Why are you running?
I am running on 26 years of doing political and community work. That’s what I’m running on. I’ve [delivered] services to constituents for a long time without the title honestly and that comes from working the schools, having been an educator, working on after school programs for kids here in Brooklyn. I’ve been active around issues of affordable housing. I’ve been dealing with the issues of health and wellness. In urban city areas unfortunately we have high levels of HIV/AIDS, obesity and the list goes on and on and on.
We work with a lot of people looking for jobs, job training, and people who have been in prison. We have a full campaign platform on our website KevinPowell.net that covers everything from the environment to education, jobs, job training, the economy, and how we can get out of these wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on a real basic level - it’s not just about legislation because we know that’s a glacier process at best. If you have a staff and office space and access to resources there are basic things you can have on a community level. There are folks in our community that don’t even know where to go for basic health services. That should be a function of a public servant to be a resource and bridge to information.
Many people were first introduced to you on the television on MTV’s The Real World. Since then, they’ve been able to follow you as a poet, public speaker, writer, educator, and activist. You ran for Congress before in 2008. Why are you determined to add politician to your resume?
At some point you begin to realize your life purpose and you act on it. My life’s purpose has always been to be someone who lives as fully as possible.
I’ve been a political activist since I was 18 years old, since I walked on to Rutgers University’s campus in 1984 and got turned on to the anti-Apartheid movement. It was the year Reverend Jesse Jackson ran for President of the United States which was just as exciting to us then as Barack Obama was in 2008.
For years, I’ve worked in so many different types of political organizations. A lot of people didn’t know that because I never made it a point to broadcast it. Even at Vibe [magazine] we were organizing against what we thought were unfair hiring practices. We organized about the fact that the first 14, 15 covers of the magazine were not shot by a single person of color. My nature as a teenager has always been to be political. This is not anything new, it’s simply a new journey.
According to the new MSNBC/Wall Street Journal poll nearly 60% of voters would not re-elect their Congressional representative. Good news for you as a challenger but how do you intend to avoid the trappings of Washington?
Number one, I have a reputation in this community. You should see the response we get from people. I always say ‘we’ because it’s a team of people. We are legitimate leaders in this community, we’re not out here talking a lot of stuff and not doing anything. We really do deliver consistent services to people and we really do connect people with resources. Number two, I’m not doing this for money. I’m doing it because I want to have access to more resources that help more people in this borough that I love and will spend the rest of my life in.
And last, part of the reason people become really corrupt is the power of incumbency. Once you get in, you could stay there for 15, 20 years. My opponent has been there, and there are such levels of voter apathy and lack of awareness in our country that most people don’t know who their Congress person is and so these folks can just get by. I’m term limiting myself. I say to everyone I only plan on being in Congress for 10 to 12 years and then I’m going to step away.
You have to come in with a different kind of spirit, you have to come in with a different kind of mindset and I’m not coming in with some idealistic ‘I’m going to change Congress, I’m going to change Washington.’ No, I’m coming from the understanding of how ridiculously bureaucratic the whole system is and how a lot of folks are losing their imagination because they become disconnected from the people. I can’t imagine being inaccessible to people. I give my e-mail address, and my cell phone number and my home number. I’m not going to change just because I’m a Congress person – that’s not going to happen.
I’m thinking about borrowing pages from people like Bobby Kennedy. Before he was assassinated, he helped create the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation with other community leaders. It was the very first community development corporation in this country. That’s the stuff you can do as a Congress person if you have an imagination, if you have any vision, or a game plan.
Congressional campaign cost big money. Politics and money go hand in hand as candidates have to raise funds to compete. When it comes to fundraising, how do balance between the elite supporter and the every man?
Shakespeare said ‘ to thine own self be true.’ As long as you are true to who you are, as long as you are very clear that you simply are raising money whether it be five dollars from persons in the community or if it’s $2400 from Chris Rock or Julius Peppers from the Chicago Bears, or a thousand dollars from the President of MTV networks, everyone is treated equally.
That’s what makes us different from other campaigns. I don’t consider myself a politician, I consider myself a public servant and so I’m not going to cater to someone just because they wrote some big check to the campaign. They’re going to get the same amount of attention as the person that makes the five dollar donation.
Stepping into Congress as an African-American is significant. We have President Barack Obama but the majority of government leadership is still white. The Congressional Black Caucus is there but it has lost and may lose some more of its members. How significant is the Caucus and would you be involved in helping to preserve it?
They do the most with empowering younger leadership and developing leadership, but we’ve got to be brutally honest, the civil rights movement is dead. It’s been very dead for a long, long time, and I actually believe that we need to come up with new terminology. It’s not the 20th century anymore, it’s the 21st century. Most people in our community, and I try not to do generalizations, have no idea what these organizations do. They have no idea what they’re about. I wrote an essay for Ebony magazine for the April issue called an “Open letter to Black America” I talk about the fact there is not an agenda for Black America. There has not been an agenda for a very long time.
So I say that to say, it’s not whether or not the CBC is relevant, I mean of course I’m going to be a member as a person of African descent, but I’m also going to join the Progressive Caucus as well, which is a progressive coalition of multi-cultural folks because there’s no way I’m going to be a part of any organization where I feel like they’re still using the language of 30 years ago.
I know the CBC well and I’ve gone to the conferences pretty much every year for the last 10 years or so. It’s no different then a lot of organizations where we come together, we talk about the same issues over and over again. We often times put way too many people on the panels, who talk too long and talk too much and often and, except for a few shining examples, there’s no practical solutions being put forth.
That’s the problem with black organizations no matter what they are. People want action, they don’t want a lot of talk. I don’t know how much energy I’m going to put in CBC other than my membership in terms of supporting the organization.
What I’m interested in is the work in Brooklyn with the folks that I work with because we are about making things happen. We will continue to bang our heads against the walls trying to fix organizations that, in my opinion, can’t be fixed at this point. When we talk about our leadership or lack thereof we need to start telling the truth about our organizations. It’s not disrespectful, it’s honest.
The fact that millions of people in this country are dying of AIDS and there’s no national black response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic except for the Black AIDS Institute out of L.A. That’s problematic to me. All these black males, and a growing number of black females, who are going to prison every single year, that’s problematic. It’s problematic [in relation to what's] happening to black male/female relationships.
These are very serious issues that I’m talking about and I’m not with all the marching and rallying and summits. What I propose is to deal with it in six ways: spiritually, politically, culturally, economically, and two areas black folks don’t like to talk about, health and mental wellness. It’s got to be a holistic approach to our people. If it’s not holistic we will continue to be stuck. And I don’t know about anyone else but I don’t like to be stuck. I like to move forward and I like to see our people move forward.