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Author, activist to deliver keynote at MLK celebration


Kevin Powell has been many things—reality TV star, journalist, political candidate, author, public speaker, and activist. In his most recent roles, he’s traveled across all 50 states and to some 1,000 college campuses to share his passion for lifelong learning and civic engagement.

On Thursday, February 8, he’s bringing his message to Buffalo State as part of its Martin Luther King Jr. celebration. Along with visiting a political science class during the day, Powell will speak to King’s life and legacy in a keynote address at 7:00 p.m. at the Burchfield Penney Art Center. Sponsored by the college’s Equity and Campus Diversity Office, his talk is free and open to the public.

“I’m going to address what Dr. King represented in his 13 years of leading the civil rights movement,” Powell said from his home in New York City, “And how he was able to see past racial division and hate.”

To contextualize King’s message in the current climate, Powell will encourage students to consider what they have in common with those different from them and how to bring people together.

“I will ask, 'Do you vote? Are you engaged in Buffalo State and the larger community?'” he said. “There is no reason not to engage, not to be intellectually curious and be critical thinkers. We should all be informed, well-rounded human beings now and for the rest of our lives.”

This motto is what catapulted Powell to the success he’s enjoyed as an activist and author. Despite growing up in poverty in a rough part of Jersey City, New Jersey, Powell attended Rutgers University. It was there he started writing poetry.

“Reading my poetry aloud gave me confidence,” he said. “At first I was terrified of getting up on stage. Then I realized that my voice matters, that all voices matter.”

He transferred that confidence into a stint as a cast member on the inaugural season of MTV’s The Real World in 1992. The groundbreaking reality show focused on a group of young people who shared a house and aired their differences in real time. CNN called it “a harbinger of American culture to come.”

Powell went on to serve as a senior writer for Vibe magazine, along with writing for several other publications. He’s authored 13 books on topics ranging from American politics and pop culture to a collection of essays on being a black male in America today. He said the one that should resonate the most with college students is The Education of Kevin Powell (Atria Books, 2015), a memoir that takes readers from his rough and tumble childhood to his varied career as a speaker and writer who’s made three campaigns for Congress. It also details his bouts with depression and alcoholism and points to a trip to Africa that changed his worldview and personal mission.

His mission includes a commitment to eradicating domestic violence and assault against women. He’s delivered workshops everywhere from prisons to college campuses to help young men understand gender equality and respect for women, and he’s appeared on Oprah.

He’s currently producing the performance of his new bride, Jinah Parker, an acclaimed dancer, choreographer, and Buffalo native. SHE, which explores sexual violence, is opening off-Broadway in May.

This performance and Powell’s overall mission is especially timely in light of the recent #MeToo movement. However, Powell said the idea of treating everyone with dignity and respect harkens back to King’s message.

“Regardless if we’re talking about race, gender, gender identity, or class, we have to treat everyone equally,” he said.