“There are folks who think I’m just a writer, and that is absolutely untrue,” Kevin Powell begins. “I’ve been an activist for 30 years.”
He has just gotten off the phone with a woman from Guyana who is seeking his help to obtain an organ transplant for her sick father in New Jersey. Powell, one of the co-founders of BK Nation, is dedicated to helping people in all areas of life. Whether it be health and wellness advocacy, violence prevention, racial justice or gender issues, Powell and BK Nation are there to serve.
He is remarkably humble: “I don’t really like talking about myself as an activist; I just like doing the work,” Powell says. His passion for social justice began in college at Rutgers University through the auspices of New Jersey’s Educational Opportunity Fund. There, Powell discovered The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and the South African anti-apartheid movement. He woke up to the work that needed to be done to empower the black community. Writing became his primary tool.
Although he was originally an aspiring investigative reporter, Powell’s love of hip-hop culture got him tapped to write the cover story for Vibe magazine’s inaugural issue. Powell then became a senior writer at Vibe while juggling his ongoing activism work. Two decades later, with 12 books to his name, Powell credits his success to the love and support of his mother, who raised Powell alone after Powell’s father refused to support the son he helped create. These stories, and more, are detailed in Powell’s new memoir, The Education of Kevin Powell: A Boy’s Journey Into Manhood. The Root sat down with Powell to talk about writing, activism and his new book.
The Root: How did you become a writer?
Kevin Powell: I’ve been writing since I was a child. I read voraciously. I started out as a reporter writing for the Rutgers daily newspaper, the student-run black and Latino campus weekly; and also, by age 20, while still a student, I was writing professionally for the black press—the Amsterdam News, Black Enterprise. I wanted to be an investigative reporter. I also freelanced doing cultural and music criticism. I wrote for the San Francisco Weekly and Rolling Stone. And then the editor-in-chief of Vibe read an essay I wrote and asked me to write for them.
TR: Can you tell us a little bit about your activism work?
KP: When Hurricane Katrina hit, a bunch of us came together and created something called Katrina on the Ground. We sent 700 college students down there to the Gulf Coast to help as an alternative spring break. We did it again the summer afterwards. I did more relief work around Haiti. I do a lot of work around men and boys, trying to get men and boys across the country to redefine manhood away from the insane behavior so many of us engage in due to sexism and patriarchy. It’s been a lot of teaching and a lot of forums and education.
It’s always been about action and solutions. How do we figure out how people can be self-empowered? What are the tools that we can provide to people? What is it that we can do to let people know that their lives matter and that they have more power than they realize to transform their lives?
TR: How did you get involved with BK Nation?
KP: A group of us founded BK Nation five years ago during the time I was running for political office. I felt that elected officials should also have some sort of agency in their community outside of their office that could continually provide services to the community. At BK Nation, our motto is, “The leadership is us.” The most important thing we can do is to show people how to be empowered.
It has to be about the people—sharing information, resources and services with the people. A lot of times, people just don’t know where to go. Where are the GED programs? Where are the programs for single mothers who are looking for after-school programs for their kids? Where are the programs for people in prison? Where are the resources for kids who want to go to college? We help out with that.
TR: Your memoir talks about your childhood being raised by a single mom in extreme poverty in New Jersey. Was that a hard childhood?
KP: My mother was a poor black woman born in the South who migrated to the North. My mother had a grade school education. My grandmother couldn’t read or write. My mother grew up in a world where she was a victim of racism, sexism and classism—and then she had to deal with my father and his craziness, disrespect and abandonment. I can’t even imagine what it is like to be a woman—a woman of color, a woman of African descent—given all that they have to go through. It definitely fuels my anti-patriarchal work now with men and boys.
TR: What lessons did your mother teach you about life?
KP: I always say that black women are the real superheroes on the planet. My mother remains the smartest person I’ve ever met in my life. She is the first teacher, the first leader I ever had. Around fifth or sixth grade, my mother stopped being able to help me with my homework, but I never saw my mother as being uneducated.
From when I was age 3 and 4 years old, my mother taught me that I would go to college. She had never even gone to college or high school herself, but she had vision. That was transformative. She gave me a love of learning. She was always advocating for better schools and better living conditions. She always used her voice. My mother taught me how to be a leader, how to be an activist, how to express myself. She was a wonderful storyteller, and she gave me a love of stories that inspired me to become a writer.
TR: Your work on the film After Trayvon: Black Boys Speak was particularly inspiring and heartbreaking. What do you make of this ongoing, often state-sanctioned violence against black men and women in the United States right now?
KP: This country was founded on violence—on the genocide of Native American people and kidnapping of African people from their native land and forcibly made to work for free. When you look at the violence today, you need to understand that it has always been violent. The problem is that there is easier access to guns than ever before, and there seems to be more bloodshed than ever before.
The NRA is such a powerful lobby that people clearly are terrified of it. A lot of the violence is coming from men—whether it be from mass shootings or one-on-one shootings. And then you have the violence from the police. There is still a large part of this country that clearly despises black and brown people and does not view them as equal.
TR: What, to you, is important?
KP: I’m not interested in material things but in my soul. I’m interested in my purpose on this planet as a servant to others. I think about how I treat people. I think about the difference between charity, which is saying, “Oh, we’re going to go help disadvantaged people,” and spiritual social justice, as I call it, where it’s so ingrained in you to do for others that you don’t look at it like you’re doing someone a favor and pat yourself on the back. You do things because they are the right thing to do. In aiding other people, you are helping to transform this world.
Hope Wabuke is a Southern California-based writer and a contributing editor at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.