I am an everyday American.
And I come from very humble beginnings: My mother migrated from rural South Carolina in the 1960s to Jersey City, where she met my father. She fell in love with him; he was not in love with her, but I was conceived anyhow. And except for a few experiences with him until I was eight years old, I do not know my father at all. I am an only child because my mother was determined not to make the same mistake twice.
No matter, mother took her God, her Southern work ethic, her grade-school education, mixed it with welfare and food stamps, and we survived. Survived poverty, dilapidated tenement buildings, violence, crime, rats, roaches and the kind of miserable living conditions I would not wish on anyone.
What saved my life, when I look back on it now, were our faith, my mother’s leadership and her vision for our lives — in spite of not having much in terms of material items — and a quality public school education. It was her, my mother, who refused to settle for my attending the worst failing schools in Jersey City simply because we were poor and stuck in the ghetto. I remember my mother applying, year after year, for this one particular grammar school, “across the boulevard,” because she had been told it was of a superior quality. In Jersey City it was called “open enrollment,” the process of finally integrating the city’s public school system. Back in the 1970s I had no idea that that was what we children were doing.
The other part of my education involved libraries and various after school programs. No way I’d be writing this blog right now had it not been for my mother pushing books on me, in spite of the fact she has never read a book herself, except parts of the Bible. We would go, virtually every Saturday, to the Greenville Public Library. My mother and I both had library cards just because. But she would read the newspapers while I roamed the shelves pulling book after book, thrilled that my imagination was being set free.
And those after school programs were a lifesaver. Everything from the Police Activity League, to the Boys and Girls Club, to the local YMCA were at my disposal. When I see so many Brooklyn youth just out there on the streets today, I know that would have been me had I had no community centers, no extracurricular activities, no evening, weekend or summer jobs to speak of.
In spite of the foundation my mother gave me, I have certainly had my ups and downs, as many of us do. I was a straight A student K-12, but was often suspended from school for fighting or for disrespecting a teacher or principal. I did go to college on a financial aid package, spent four years and eight full semesters there at Rutgers University, but never graduated because being a student and youth leader became far more important to me. I have been the victim of violent crimes and I have been violent against males and females in my past lives. Which is why my life now, in my early 40s, is dedicated to nonviolence, peace and love, and why I have become such an outspoken advocate for women and girls who have survived domestic violence and physical abuse.
I have experienced things I could not have imagined in my childhood, from being on the very first season of MTV’s landmark show “The Real World,” to being a very successful and visible founding writer for Quincy Jones’ Vibe magazine. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a boy, and I have authored or edited 10 books. I did not get on a plane until I was 24 years old, but over the past 20 years I have visited nearly all 50 American states and several nations overseas as a speaker, as an activist, and even as a negotiator in the middle of an international conflict in Antigua and Barbuda in the Caribbean just last year.
And I have experienced many lows, including deep depression, both when I was kicked out of college and nearly a decade later when I was fired from Vibe. I am a vegan now and only drink water, but I spent several years abusing alcohol to ease (so I thought) my wounds. And for a long spell I was financially illiterate and irresponsible, and that nearly ruined me until my mother helped me purchase a condo in Brooklyn and the reality of paying a mortgage forced me to get my economic house in order.
Finally, I love people, all people. My very rich and very broad life experiences — both here locally in New York City, and as I have journeyed America and abroad — led me back to the great passion of my college years about a decade ago: helping people to help themselves. For I could not imagine doing anything else with my life now other than being a public servant in some form or fashion.
And because of my lives as an activist, as a writer, as a public speaker, as a mentor, counselor, adviser, teacher and more these past 25 years, I have learned how to listen to and talk with people, how to create simple and proactive solutions, and how to be a bridge to information, resources and services in the manner I feel a public servant should be.
For I know what my mother and I needed in my childhood. I know what I needed as a younger man in terms of employment options, and guidance. And I know what I needed just a few years back as I tried to figure out owning a piece of property in Brooklyn.
That makes me you. And you. And you. And you as well. Everyday people, everyday Americans, doing what we have to do, to survive, and win.
Except for my great love of music and culture, and of sports and exercise, nothing, absolutely nothing, gives me greater pleasure than pointing someone toward a G.E.D. program, or another person toward a job opportunity, or someone toward an event to help them know their tenant rights or how they can avoid foreclosure, or yet another toward ways they can organize their block, their building, their housing project or even their own lives.
For what is the point of a life, any life, if it is not to experience everything possible, be everything possible, and, most importantly, touch as many other lives as possible in the most positive of ways?
Kevin Powell is a 2010 Democratic candidate for Congress in Brooklyn, New York’s 10th Congressional District. The Democratic Primary is on Tuesday, September 14th. Kevin can be reached at www.kevinpowell.net.
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