HOW KEVIN POWELL OVERCAME POVERTY

Encore: July 31, 2020

From poverty and abuse, to reality TV fame, to published author,  Kevin Powell, a former star of MTV’s “Real World,” shares his personal story about chasing and achieving his dreams.

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Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America is a multi-platform public media initiative that provides a deeper understanding of the impact of poverty on American society. Major funding for this initiative is provided by The JPB Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Ford Foundation.

Aired on October 1, 2019 and February 19, 2020. 

TRANSCRIPT

> NOW TO OUR 'CHASING THE DREAM' INITIATIVE ON POVERTY AND OPPORTUNITY IN AMERICA.

KEVIN POWELL GREW UP SO POOR THAT HE STILL HAS NIGHTMARES OF THE ROACH AND RAT-INFESTED PLACES IN WHICH HE LIVED.

WHILE YOU MAY KNOW HIM FROM SEASON ONE OF MTV'S GROUND-BREAKING SERIES 'THE REAL WORLD,' YOU MAY NOT KNOW HIS PATH TO CELEBRITY HAS NOT BEEN EASY.

IT'S BEEN PAVED WITH A LEGACY OF POVERTY, SELF-LOATHING, AND VIOLENCE THAT HAS LED HIM TO BECOME A SUCCESSFUL AUTHOR, JOURNALIST, AND POLITICAL ACTIVIST.

HE'S USING THAT PLATFORM TO TELL THE WORLD ABOUT HIS HARROWING CHILDHOOD IN A NEW AUTOBIOGRAPHY TITLED 'THE EDUCATION OF KEVIN POWELL.'

KEVIN POWELL JOINS US NOW.

KEVIN, WELCOME.

THANK YOU.

THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR HAVING ME.

KEVIN, IN THE ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS TO THIS BOOK, YOUR MEMOIR, YOU WRITE THAT, WITHOUT QUESTION, THE HARDEST THING YOU'VE EVER WRITTEN HAS BEEN THIS.

EVEN THOUGH YOU'VE WRITTEN 12 BOOKS.

WHY WAS THIS SO UNUSUALLY DIFFICULT FOR YOU?

IT WAS LIKE SELF-THERAPY.

YOU READ A MEMOIR, YOU HAVE TO RECOUNT EVERY ASPECT OF LIFE.

AGE 3, THE AGE ON THE COVER, TO MY LATE 40s, WHERE I AM NOW.

I HAD TO GO BACK TO THE POVERTY, THE VIOLENCE, THE ABUSE, THE ABANDONMENT OF MY FATHER WHEN I WAS 8 YEARS OLD.

BEING BRUTALIZED BY A POLICE OFFICER WHEN I WAS 15 YEARS OLD.

AND IT'S NOT EASY TO RECOUNT THE ASPECTS OF YOUR LIFE.

I'VE WRITTEN ABOUT IT IN DIFFERENT PLACES IN THE PAST IN MY POETRY, IN BLOGS.

TO HAVE TO BRING IT ALL TOGETHER, IT WAS PAINFUL.

I EVEN HAD NIGHTMARES WRITING THE BOOK.

THE RESPONSES HAVE BEEN SO INCREDIBLE FROM A VERY DIVERSE GROUP OF PEOPLE, EVEN INTERNATIONALLY, THAT IT WAS WORTH THE EFFORT OVER THE COURSE OF FOUR, FIVE YEARS OF WRITING THIS THING.

CAN YOU GIVE US AN EXAMPLE OF SOME OF THE REACTION?

AI'VE GOTTEN REACTIONS AROUND AMERICA, SOUTH AFRICA, ASIA, BRAZIL, A LOT OF SINGLE MOTHERS, AN ELITE BOYS' SCHOOL IN CONNECTICUT HAS ADAPTED THE BOOK FOR THE ENTIRE SCHOOL.

THOSE KIND OF THINGS ARE HAPPENING.

TALK ABOUT YOUR SITUATION GROWING UP.

I KNOW IT'S DIFFICULT BUT SHARE WITH OUR AUDIENCE, PAINT A PICTURE OF JUST HOW DIFFICULT IT WAS TO GROW UP AS A POOR BLACK KID IN JERSEY CITY.

YOU KNOW, I THINK ABOUT IT NOW.

WHEN DR. KING WAS AT THE END OF HIS LIFE, HE WAS ORGANIZING A POOR PEOPLE'S CAMPAIGN IN THIS COUNTRY.

HE SAID, WHAT DOES IT MATTER THAT YOU CAN SIT ANYWHERE ON THE BUS IF YOU HAVE NO MONEY TO GET ON THE BUS?

I DIDN'T REALIZE HE WAS TALKING ABOUT PEOPLE LIKE ME AND MY MOM.

WHEN I TALK ABOUT POVERTY, SHE AND I SHARED A BED IN THE BEDROOM AND MY AUNT KATHY, MY COUSIN ANTHONY, SHARED A BED IN THE LIVING ROOM.

ONE-BEDROOM APARTMENT, TWO MOTHERS AND TWO SONS.

NO DEFINITELY.

BLACK AND WHITE TV.

I WOULD GO TO FRIENDS' HOMES AND THINK SOMETHING WAS WRONG WITH THEIR TV BECAUSE IT WAS COLOR.

I HAD ONE PAIR OF SHOES AND ONE PAIR OF PANTS.

PEOPLE LOOK AT ME NOW, I YOU HAVE NO IDEA THE CIRCUMSTANCES THAT PRODUCED ME.

IT WAS DIFFICULT AND IT'S NOT JUST MY REALITY BUT THE REALITY FOR A LOT OF POOR PEOPLE IN THIS COUNTRY, WHICH IS WHY WHEN I HIT PEOPLE WITH DISRESPECT, POOR WHITE BROTHERS AND SISTERS, IMMIGRANTS, OTHER FOLKS WHO ARE TRYING TO MAKE SOMETHING OF THEIR LIVES, I EMPATHIZE.

YOU START WITH A VIGNETTE ABOUT GETTING PUMMELED.

OH, YEAH.

I LOVE MY URBAN ENVIRONMENT, BUT YOU KNOW, I WAS A YOUNG MAN.

I DIDN'T SAY SPECIFICALLY IT WAS NEWARK, BUT IT WAS NEWARK.

I WAS I WAS GOING TO GET KILLED THAT DAY.

GROWING UP IN AN URBAN ENVIRONMENT, YOU'RE LIVING A PRECARIOUS EXISTENCE.

A LITTLE KID, A LOT OF BLACK AND LATINO KIDS, WILL I MAKE TO IT 15?

WILL I SEE 21?

I WANTED TO START WITH SOMETHING THAT WAS JARRING BUT ALSO SET THE TONE FOR THE KIND OF EXPERIENCES PEOPLE WOULD SEE IN THE BOOK.

WHAT SAVED YOU?

WHAT GOT YOU OUT OF THAT WORLD?

WHAT PREVENTED AN EARLY DEATH, FROM A VIOLENT FUTURE, AND PERHAPS FROM INCARCERATION AS SO MANY OF YOUR NEIGHBORS AND YOUR BROTHERS?

THREE THINGS SAVED MY LIFE.

FAITH, BELIEVING IN SOMETHING GREATER THAN OURSELVES.

MY MOTHER TAUGHT ME TO BELIEVE.

MY MOTHER HAD A VISION.

MY MOTHER HAS A GRADE SCHOOL EDUCATION, BUT FROM THE TIME I WAS 3, YOU'RE GOING TO COLLEGE.

MY MOTHER WHO ONLY READS THE BIBLE, THE LOCAL NEWSPAPER, WATCHES THE NEWS, BUT SHE NEVER READ A BOOK.

BUT SOMEWHERE IN HER, BECAUSE SHE'S A PRODUCT OF THE BOOMER GENERATION, THE CIVIL RIGHTS GENERATION, SHE CAUGHT THE SPIRIT OF THAT MOVEMENT AND SHE UNDERSTOOD, MY SON HAS GOT TO GET AN EDUCATION, SHE'S GOT TO GO FURTHER THAN I DO.

EVEN IN SPITE OF THE COMPLICATED LOVE BETWEEN MY MOTHER AND I, YOU SEE RIGHT WHEN I'M 3, 4 YEARS OLD, SHE'S TEACHING ME HOW TO READ, HOW TO COUNT.

THOSE THINGS BEGAN THE PROCESS OF A LIFELONG LOVE OF LEARNING.

AS YOU SAY, IT WAS A COMPLICATED RELATIONSHIP.

SHE WAS TOUGH.

SHE DIDN'T SHY AWAY FROM HITTING YOU AND HITTING YOU HARD.

IT WAS DIFFICULT, ONE OF THE MOST DIFFICULT THINGS TO WRITE, TO RECOUNT THAT.

PEOPLE SAY, ARE YOU DESCRIBING CHILD ABUSE?

I SAY, WOULD I RAISE MY CHILDREN LIKE THAT?

NO, I FEEL I'M EVOLVED PAST WHERE MY MOTHER WAS.

SHE DID THE BEST SHE COULD.

SINGLE BLACK WOMAN, SHE HAD TO TEAL WITH RACISM, SEXISM, CLASSISM.

JIM CROW SOUTH IN THE '40s.

PEOPLE TALK ABOUT ABUSE.

THE WORLD SHE GREW UP IN, SHE WAS ABUSED AS A YOUNG WOMAN OF COLOR.

WHAT WERE THE LONG-LASTING EFFECTS OF GROWING UP POOR IN THAT ENVIRONMENT WITH THE VIOLENCE, ET CETERA, EFFECTS THAT LASTED BEYOND THE POINT WHERE YOU BECAME A SUCCESSFUL MAN?

YOU GROW UP ANGRY.

IT'S FUNNY, I WORK WITH A LOT OF YOUNG PEOPLE AROUND THE COUNTRY, ESPECIALLY A LOT OF YOUNG MALES, ALL DIFFERENT BACKGROUNDS.

NOT JUST BLACK OR LATINO KIDS.

HOW MANY HAVE ANGER PROBLEMS?

THEY RAISE THEIR HANDS.

THEY HAVE CONFLICTED RELATIONSHIPS WITH THEIR PARENTS.

I THINK IT'S IMPORTANT FOR BOYS TO BE TAUGHT EARLY ON, JUST HOW WE TEACH GIRLS TO BE EXPRESSIVE, TO UNDERSTAND IT'S OKAY TO CRY, TO FEEL THEY'RE IN SPACES WHERE THEY CAN BE THE FULL TOTALITY OF WHAT MASCULINITY IS.

OTHERWISE YOU GROW UP A WALKING TIME BOMB.

IN SPITE OF SUCCESSES I STILL WAS ACTING OUT, ENGAGING IN --

KICKED OUT OF COLLEGE, YOU HAD PROBLEMS --

ARGUMENTS.

NOT PHYSICAL VIOLENCE BUT ARGUMENTS.

AT THE TIME I DIDN'T UNDERSTAND THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PROACTIVE ANGER AND REACTIONARY ANGER.

REACTION IS DESTRUCTIVE, HURTS YOU, THE PEOPLE AROUND YOU.

PRODUCTIVE ANGER, TURN THAT INTO -- BE A BRIDGE BUILDER.

HOW DID YOU LEARN THIS?

YEARS OF THERAPY, COUNSELING, YOGA, MEDITATION.

THINGS I'M A BIG PROPONENT OF NOW THAT I WISH WAS THERE FOR ME AS A CHILD, A TEENAGER, A YOUNG MAN.

A LOT OF TIMES WE ARE THROWN OUT THERE, TRYING TO FIGURE ON IT OUT.

CELEBRITIES, SQULEESH, TUPAC SHAKUR, THEY'VE GOTTEN INTO TROUBLE.

JUST LIKE ME, I WAS IN THE REAL WORLD, AND IN MY 20s, THE NEXT THING I KNOW, QUINCY JONES 'VIBE' MAGAZINE, YOU KNOW, I'M STILL A YOUNG MAN, AND THERE'S NOTHING THAT PREPARES YOU FOR ANY OF THAT.

YOU HAVE A PUBLIC SPACE WHERE YOU'RE ACTING OUT ALL THE STUFF YOU'VE BEEN CARRYING AROUND, PAIN AND TRAUMA.

WHAT ARE THE LESSONS THAT YOU HOPE TO CONVEY TO BLACK KIDS, LATINO KIDS, WHO LIVE NOW IN THE SAME KIND OF POVERTY AND DIFFICULTIES THAT YOU GREW UP IN?

MORE THAT ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE.

MY MOTHER TOOK ME TO THE LIBRARY WHEN I WAS 8, AND I DISCOVERED 'FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS' AS I TALK ABOUT IN THE BOOK.

I REMEMBER SAYING, THIS BOOK IS AMAZING, I LOVE SPANISH BECAUSE OF PBS, GROWING UP WITH SESAME STREET.

ERNEST HEMINGWAY, THIS IS WHAT A WRITER DOES, SO FIND YOUR PASSION.

NO MATTER YOUR CIRCUMSTANCES --

WHAT IF THEY DON'T HAVE A MOTHER LIKE YOU DID?

FIND IT IN YOURSELF.

FIND A MENTOR.

FIND A ROLE MODEL.

FIND SOMEONE.

I DIDN'T HAVE A FATHER SO I WOULD STUDY MEN ON TV LIKE YOURSELF.

I WOULD LOOK AT HOW YOU WOULD DRESS, HOW YOU WORE YOUR SUIT ACTION THINGS LIKE THAT.

HOW PEOPLE SPOKE.

I STUDIED MEN FROM DIFFERENT ANGLES.

I FOUND MEN THAT I WOULD ADMIRE IN BOOKS.

MALCOLM X.

WHATEVER IT WAS.

I HAD TO FIND IT.

I WAS DETERMINED NOT TO BE STUCK, WHICH IS A THING I KEEP SAYING, I COULD NOT BE STUCK.

I KNEW THERE WAS SOMETHING BETTER FOR ME OUT THERE.

WHAT'S THE LESSON FOR THE REST OF US WHO DIDN'T GROW UP LIKE YOU DID?

HAVE EMPATHY AND COMPASSION FOR PEOPLE NO MATTER WHERE THEY COME FROM ARE LOVE ALL PEOPLE.

TAKE THE TIME TO LEARN WHO THEY ARE.

I DON'T CARE IF THEY'RE BLACK OR WHITE, LATINO, ASIAN, STRAIGHT OR GAY, POOR OR WEALTHY.

HAVE COMPASSION FOR EVERYONE, SISTERS AND BROTHERS.

THANK YOU SO MUCH.

THANK YOU, SIR.

Funders

MetroFocus is made possible by James and Merryl Tisch, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, the Sylvia A. and Simon B. Poyta Programming Endowment to Fight Anti-Semitism, Bernard and Irene Schwartz, Rosalind P. Walter, Barbara Hope Zuckerberg, Jody and John Arnhold, the Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Janet Prindle Seidler, Judy and Josh Weston and the Dr. Robert C. and Tina Sohn Foundation.

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