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Kevin Powell

Open Letter to Young America

Excerpted from Kevin Powell's essay collection, Open Letters to America (purchase book)

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Dear Young America:


I’ve started and stopped this letter to you several times before. The magnitude of these times has been both my muse and my chief distraction. All these months since you, we, elected Barack Obama president of the United States, I have yet to rejoice the way many of you have. There has been great pride, no question, and a sense of relief at this new chapter in American history. But beneath my pride and sense of relief are both an element of shock, and, for sure, anxiety. Shock in the sense that I never thought I would live to witness someone who looked like me becoming president. And certainly not someone with the name Barack Hussein Obama. And shock, too, because, like me, President Obama is the product of a single mother, an absent father, an extended family, and so much movement in his early life that he did not fully grasp the significance of his own name, his own identity, until many years later. So I view Barack Obama as an ordinary American—we are all ordinary Americans—who accomplished something extraordinary on this Earth because he had the audacity to believe in himself and the possibilities of the hard-to-obtain American dream. Dream Mr. Obama did, and the anxiety reached a boiling point for me as I watched the millions of Americans descend on Washington, D.C. for the inauguration. I, too planned to be there, but when the University of Dayton called me to deliver a Dr. King holiday lecture on the same day Mr. Obama was to place his hand on that inaugural Bible, I chose the Midwest instead. It’s as if I wanted a safe emotional distance from it all: the media hype, the sensationalized merchandise, the overpriced parties, the shameless efforts of some to feign connections to the Obamas’ inner circle. We in America had never seen anything like this, and we had the inalienable right to bask in the glow of what we’d accomplished, together. But I could not write a single word about it because not only was I baffled by the spectacle of it all, I was also in the midst of a very lengthy period of mourning and, to be mad candid, depression. I was coming to terms with losing a Congressional race here in Brooklyn, New York, and the character assassination and divisiveness dredged up during the campaign. I expected resistance from some corners, but the degree of ugliness and hate levied toward me took a toll on my mental state. Just as the election ended on Tuesday, September 9, 2009, I received word from my mother that her sister, my oldest aunt, had died of kidney failure due to diabetes complications. I cried shamelessly, at my aunt’s funeral. In the period that followed I had moments of deep sadness and displacement, trying to figure out what America means to me, now, in the aftermath of Barack Obama’s victory, my campaign loss, and my aunt’s lonely and terrible last few days of life. In a word I had been trying to heal—


But what finally got me on my way and out of my slump was you, young America. You in Dayton, Ohio drenched in tears of euphoria on that bitterly cold January day. You in Virginia who stated, without wavering one bit, that you too could be president one day. You in South Carolina, my family’s home state, who suddenly and forthrightly walked with your head higher, a sweeping gait of promise and a brand new swagger. You in Kansas self-assured that finally your vote counted. And you here in my beloved Brooklyn, who still wear your Obama hats, tee shirts, and buttons these many months since the historic night of November 4, 2009, as if the magic of those trinkets will somehow penetrate your being and transform you, into an iconic beacon of change and hope.


And I am writing to you, to us, really, two generations: X and Y born between the mid-1960s and about 1990. We have arrived at an incredible time in American history, a time where words like “activist” and “organizer” have become fashionable again, a time where so many of us are rethinking our life purposes and goals. For the first time in nearly two decades we are making a commitment to help others. I could not have imagined this twenty-five years ago as a wild-eyed, eighteen-year-old freshman on the campus of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.


It was the era of Ronald Reagan and the Republican Revolution, and I was just grasping what that would mean for me, and for America. Young Republicans were everywhere, and what was particularly striking to me, was not only that they had a dynamic, charismatic leader in Reagan, they had something even more powerful: a holistic plan of action. Republicans took over the White House, and created an army of young followers dedicated for the long haul. They elected up and coming Republicans to Congressional, state and local positions; they propelled conservative media personalities like Rush Limbaugh to shape the dialogue on everything Americana; and they redirected our religious and spiritual conversations with powerhouse organizations like the Christian Coalition. Like the Obama juggernaut, the Reagan Revolution was also about “change.” I did not agree with the change that movement generated, but I could not deny the power of it, just as we cannot deny the power, today, of what President Obama’s change has stirred in our restless souls.


As impressive as the Reagan Revolution was, it was the presidential candidacy of the Reverend Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988 that truly captured my youthful imagination and energies. In some ways, he embodied the very factors that would later propel Barack Obama onto the national stage. Jackson was also a fired-up, 40-something candidate who spoke of a “hope” that ordinary people could be agents for the common good. He preached of bringing America together. His campaign for the people was fueled by his magnetism: here was a southern preacher with a Civil Rights pedigree and none other than Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for an early mentor. Handsome and articulate, Jackson could bring people to tears. Regardless of what some of us may think of Rev. Jackson these days (and I certainly have criticisms of his leadership and vision since that time), his campaigns transformed my mind and my life just as a generation later Barack Obama has done for young America. Jackson’s 1984 presidential bid in particular is the single reason why I became a Political Science major at Rutgers, why I became a student leader, and why I decided, then and there at all of eighteen, to dedicate my life to public service.


You see I had been incredibly shy and awkward growing up. My voice came out in barely decipherable bursts: quick-speak born in urban America and remixed with the South Carolina accent of my mother’s roots. Truth be told, I was terrified that what I had to say would matter to no one including myself. My youthful self-esteem was that low at times. When I first heard Rev. Jackson say “I am somebody” it was as if someone had thrown a piano out a window, onto my unsuspecting head. Until that moment, I knew that I was a human being, a young man, Black—that I was some-thing. But to be told, as if he were speaking directly to me, that I was some-body; it was akin to lifting a veil, unloosening the chains, opening a door I had not known even existed. For the very first time, I felt that my thoughts and my voice mattered.  When I think back on it now, my becoming an activist, an organizer, and what I guess some would call a leader, was inevitable. I come from a single mother with a grade school education, extreme poverty, fatherlessness, violence all about me, large pockets of despair, and, yes, a profound sense of alienation. In spite of those circumstances my young mother used her voice to demand a better public school education for me, her only child.  She was equally adamant about quality housing and the basic services that can make or break a mother, a son, a family, a life, our lives.


I didn’t realize it until much later, but there is no denying that my mother was the very first leader, the very first activist, the very first organizer I ever met. She knew that if she did not muster the nerve, she and I would be doomed to an existence where “change” would never occur. So it was only a matter of time before I followed in her footsteps. How I would do so still shocks me to this day. You see it is no small leap to transform oneself from a blindly patriotic young person enrolled in R.O.T.C. to a mouthpiece that roared at every instance of inequality, discrimination, or oppression—real or imagined.  One moment I was timid and invisible; the next brazen and outspoken. It was both thrilling and liberating.


I participated in the anti-apartheid movement that exploded on college campuses across the globe. I had never heard of South Africa, apartheid, Nelson and Winnie Mandela, the African National Congress, the Pan-African Congress, or Steve Biko, until my eyes were opened by this worldwide cause. I did voter education work in the American North and helped disenfranchised voters re-register in the American South. I marched against racial hate crimes across New York City in places like Howard Beach, Queens, and Bensonhurt, Brooklyn. I worked in New York City’s infamous welfare hotels and co-founded a North Carolina summer camp for welfare youth. Between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four, I participated in every kind of organization imaginable. In the process I began to see myself as a drum major for justice. But along the way I made many costly mistakes: I was too angry, too often. I had a low tolerance for those who did not share my views. I did not respect women leaders because I had yet to develop the emotional and political maturity to comprehend the power of sexism amongst us. I did not understand the importance of coalition building with people who were different from me. I sacrificed my grades, my relationships, my emotional and spiritual development, and, yes, my sanity, all for one political agenda or another. Reactive rage was my dominant form of social expression when it should have been proactive passion and loads of patience. It was many years before I realized that activism must be rooted in the very simple principle of love: love of some kind of moral or spiritual guidepost (some call their guidepost “God”), love of self, love for each other, and, unquestionably, love for humankind. Because I did not base my work on that foundation of love, I failed to reach beyond the battles that were convenient for me. I opposed racism, but injustices like sexism, classism, homophobia, and religious intolerance should also have been on my agenda. It took me years to understand that all the leadership, public service and community work cannot mask our inadequacies as human beings. We must work on ourselves as we work for the people.


And so it was for me that well into my twenties I fought and protested and screamed and cursed and cried. I really believed, deep in the base of my soul, that no matter how misguided, my work was a blow for freedom, a blow against injustice. But something happened along the way, young America: one by one those of us who had been filled with baby-faced idealism grew profoundly tired. Our wild eyes were now bloodshot or a dull gray; our laughs of joy now punctuated by tinges of cynicism; and the boundless quest for change now tempered by the harsh realities of life, work, family responsibilities, and the uneasy realization that change is a road seldom traveled by the multitudes.


For the next decade, I set aside my public service work and instead focused on my writing career. In the early 1990s, I grew deeply involved in the spoken word scene. In 1992, by sheer accident, I wound up on the very first season of the now pioneering reality television show, MTV’s “The Real World.” Then in 1993, I became a founding staff member of Quincy Jones’ Vibe magazine, the fastest growing pop culture publication in American history. Between my experiences with MTV and Vibe, I saw firsthand the power of the media and pop culture to both reach young America and speak on their behalf. I had no political agenda whatsoever when I was selected to be on “The Real World;” it did not occur to me at that young age how powerfully my words and actions would affect young people across America. But, my God, did they. This was the very first show of its kind. We weren’t performing for the cameras to enhance our “fame” or “careers.” What you saw is who we were, raw and unfiltered. For me that meant young America saw me as I was in 1992:  a struggling writer doing poetry readings at Manhattan’s Nuyorican Poets Café and teaching high school and college writing classes; a mentor to a troubled young man from Brooklyn named Morris; and someone who was quick to passionately challenge my roommates around racism. Add to that how I wore my hair at the time—the immensely popular high-top fade of the day, uncombed and purposely uncontrollable—and the power of popular culture brought my Rutgers brand of politics into living rooms nationwide. It was mind-boggling, to say the least. When we cast members were flown to Los Angeles for MTV’s annual Video Music Awards, young people screamed our names as if we were The Beatles. Even more surreal was being recognized on the streets of New York City by folks who would literally chase me requesting autographs, opportunities, and more. While I did not necessarily appreciate the “angry Black male” moniker that stuck with me for years, I could not imagine how greatly that first season would impact so many young Americans.


Equally powerful was the wide-reaching influence of the newly launched Vibe magazine. It was there that I would become the primary journalist in the country to interview the late Tupac Shakur during his short 25-year life. In 1993, when I was introduced to him as Kevin Powell from “The Real World,” he greeted me with: “Whassup dogg! I had your back on that show man!” There I was a fan of his, and he was a fan of mine, too. On some level we resonated with each other across our different struggles, and the activist in me was drawn to his story. In addition to his pure talent and genius as an artist, his mother, Afeni Shakur, had been a member of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s. She was imprisoned during part of her pregnancy with Tupac. Given his revolutionary roots, it’s not surprising that he became a dynamic spokesperson for the hiphop nation, for young Black males, and for young America. He was well-versed in issues of the day, and he gave back to the community tirelessly. When the youth vote became a hot topic during the 1990s, Tupac proposed that if the almost 10 million young people in his fan base and Snoop Dogg’s fan base combined and actually voted, young America could change the world. Yet, the ironic tragedies of his life: the disturbing criminal charges leveled against him and his nearly year-long imprisonment for sexual assault, were problematic on so many levels. Witnessing Tupac’s experiences motivated me to begin rethinking American manhood away from patriarchy, sexism, and violence. He remains the most fascinating interview subject of my career.


When confronted with the challenges and battles of our generation like those that Tupac faced, I sometimes felt extremely guilty for not being a fulltime activist and organizer. I wrestled with the idea that I had given my life over to pop culture, but in retrospect, this period was extremely important in shaping my subsequent work. I was learning new ways to reach people around social issues, particularly young Americans. For example, it was widely believed that General Colin Powell could become America’s first Black president if he mounted a campaign. So, when the 1996 presidential election arrived, I encouraged Vibe to start a new political section entitled “Get Up On It,” and I interviewed the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (his position at the time). In my work at Vibe and my role on “The Real World” I saw how pop culture was changing politics and activism in our nation. Gone were the days of mainly relying on grassroots efforts as an organizing tool. Mobilizing young people also required a working knowledge of contemporary music, media, magazines, and social networks. We saw a glimpse of this during Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign when he played the saxophone on “The Arsenio Hall Show” and spoke with young voters at a televised MTV townhall meeting. What we were creating in the 1990s, without realizing its significance, was the framework for twenty-first century activism and volunteerism: a merging of politics and pop culture combined with a savvy use of new technologies.


Diverse groups of young people came together as never before in this developing era of activism. As evidenced by the eclectic gathering of personalities on that first season of “The Real World,” the “MTV generation,” was more diverse than any before it. The pages of Vibe magazine illustrated it perfectly: Hiphop was uniting youth from every walk of life. With a shared cultural aesthetic, we of different social, ethnic and economic backgrounds re-mixed the earlier movements for political empowerment and launched our own. In many ways, the Obama campaign represents the fulfillment of this transformation. The iconic campaign image of Barack Obama by graffiti artist Shepard Fairey is just one example of how youth culture, innovative new media, and online social networks, spurred young people to action across this nation. The massive waves who responded showed the potential of a truly multicultural movement in America: crowds of Obama supporters—White, Black, Latino, Asian, Native American, female, male, straight, gay, all classes, all faiths—the hip hop generation, bolstered by those who came behind us and rallied with those who came before us. Mashed together, chanting in unison, “Yes, we can” or “Si, se puede,” the crowds we saw at President Obama’s inauguration and throughout the 2008 campaign revealed the undeniable truth I came to believe in the 1990s: we can create multicultural coalitions to achieve justice and full equality in our nation. The possibilities of who we are and what we can be have been there all along. Just a simple spark was needed to ignite the revolution within.


But the challenge for you, young America, now that Barack Obama is the president, is to not allow this spark, this newfound activism, to go the way of an outdated social network or cellphone. We need to be clear that the Obama campaign was not the movement. To paraphrase the great actor and activist Danny Glover, the Obama phenomenon was a series of great moments and great events linked by raw emotion and a sense of purpose across America. The seed of a movement is what made his campaign possible and what continues in the era of his victory. A movement by definition is the mass energy of people for one great social cause or another over the course of time. A movement is not about getting one person elected to office. It is about changing the lives of many people. Young America, I say these things to you because I have been struck by how many of us seem to believe that Barack Obama’s presidency happened of its own accord, or that it will magically transform our country. It’s as if people think his story only belongs to these times. If that were the case, then why were so many elder Americans of all races weeping tears of joy on election night? It is because regardless of our collective achievement on Tuesday, November 4, 2008, like me, they never thought they’d live to see something like this. They believed it fundamentally impossible that a Black person, a biracial person, a person with America’s grand tradition of diversity and multiculturalism embedded in the marrow of his bones, would actually one day ascend to the highest office in the land and, without question, on the planet Earth.


Indeed, so many African Americans were hoping that Barack Obama would not win. Their heavy sighs and looks of profound concern would say, Remember what happened to Black leaders like Medgar Evers, Malcolm, X, and Dr. King. That fear is still there now because despite their best efforts, our parents and our grandparents cannot forget the long saga we call American history. I agree with you wholeheartedly young America that fear, hatred, violence, poverty, and a contaminated environment is entirely unbecoming the most powerful nation in the world. My own mother, when I asked her if she thought she’d experience a day like this, was mad blunt: “Maybe never” was her response. You must understand my mother, conceived in a South Carolina shack in 1943, was bred into that dishonorable, fearful America where it was normal to see signs that read “For Coloreds Only” and “For Whites Only.” And it was not just the signs which were quite visible everywhere. It was the signs in people’s minds that ultimately blocked her from obtaining anything better than that grade-school education. She was forced to begin working at age eight, picking cotton for the wealthy White folks in her dusty little South Carolina town. Those signs in peoples’ minds ultimately led her, and two of her siblings, to flee the South. Challenging that version of America, they packed up for Jersey City, where I was born and raised. So we need to be clear that Americans like my mother represent an era, a generation in which the very thought of a Barack Obama becoming president was beyond the realm of sanity. The insanity that is American racism made the average quest for a better life a sheer impossibility. I wonder, matter of factly, what my mother aspired to be when she was a little girl, if she had any hope of a better life, of doing great and historic things herself, if she believed she could transcend the racism, yes, but also the sexism and the classism that engulfed her from birth? This ordinary American, my mother, has, in her lifetime, been called “nigga,” “coon,” “jigaboo,” “lazy,” “shiftless,” “welfare queen,” and these are some of the kinder words. Americans like my mother know this country better than any of us ever will. She knows what is on the flesh, and she knows what is beneath the surface, in the underbelly of our journey together. Nothing in her life, nothing in her worldview could have predicted the election of Barack Obama. Nothing.


But ordinary people, throughout history, have always achieved extraordinary goals so it needs to be stated until it lodges into our hearts and minds: had it not been for all the ordinary people like my mother, Mr. Obama would not be president, and this most powerful nation on the planet would still be stuck in a pathetic state of arrested development, our “democracy” weakened by our inability to get past , well, the past. So we owe a great debt to those ordinary people, Black, White, Latino, Asian, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, all faiths who marched, sat in, rode buses, stood up to water hoses, guns, billy clubs, prison sentences, and the like so that we could be a better nation, under whichever God we chose to believe in. And President Obama’s election is as much a culmination of their sacrifices as it is the hard won victory of many whose names we do know: Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Dr. King, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the National Urban League, the Congress for Racial Equality, the Black Panther Party, and the martyrs: those four little Black girls in a Birmingham, Alabama church, two Jews and a Black man named Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney, a White female civil rights volunteer named Viola Liuzzo, and all whose blood, sweat and tears drove us closer to the freedom and equality we’re still fighting for.


The struggle that brought us to this historical moment certainly did not begin with the Civil Rights Movement. For instance, this year marks the 100th anniversary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. We know the N.A.A.C.P. as an organization linked to the rights and progress of African Americans. What many of us do not know is that this organization had the same kind of multicultural coalition—Blacks and Whites coming together to form the group in February 1909—that propelled Barack Obama to the presidency. My point is that in spite of America’s racist history, whenever we have chosen to see our individual and collective humanity we have inched forward this great democratic experiment. So when we Generation Xers and Yers talk about the Obama age, we cannot afford to be arrogantly dismissive of that which made it possible. If there were no N.A.A.C.P., there would have been none of the landmark Supreme Court victories, like Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka Kansas, nor all the smaller victories, in lower courts, long since forgotten. Had there been no Civil Rights Movement, there would not have been the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 nor the Voting Rights Act of 1965, major legislation that formed the foundation for the record voter turnouts in November of 2008.


President Obama’s path was cleared not only by the Civil Rights movement and all the freedom-fighters who came before it, but also by post-Civil rights era Americans, a majority of whom became comfortable with people of color in positions of leadership, authority, and influence. We owe this gradual and subtle change to a wave of images of Blacks in the mainstream including the brand of pop culture exemplified by Vibe, “The Real World,” and the hiphop generation. Over the past two decades, The Cosby Show, Maya Angelou, Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey, Tiger Woods, Will Smith, Beyonce, and, yes, all the hiphop iconic figures like Tupac Shakur, P. Diddy, Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Lil Wayne—have slowly but dramatically dismantled the “Colored Only,” “White Only” signs in our collective American psyche. We are now witnessing a generation coming of age having been under the influence of mainstream Black role models for their entire lives. The use of pop culture as a political force was a simple, but radical approach. Little did we know, how remarkable the change it achieved would be, especially given our very checkered and disturbing history around race.


Still earlier this year, Eric Holder, President Obama’s Attorney General, suggested we are “a nation of cowards” for not having the courage to deal directly, once and for all, with our nation’s legacy of racism. I happen to agree with Mr. Holder, and I don’t feel it contradicts my desire for a progressive, multicultural coalition in America. We need an emotionally honest and raw national dialogue about our past. We need people to work together for this—ordinary people, who have the guts to get past their own pains, traumas, and hurt feelings. And, by God, we need to love each other. In spite of Barack Obama’s presidency, the business of American racism remains unfinished. If this were not the case, how do we explain an early 20something Black male named Oscar Grant being shot in the back, by a White police officer, point-blank range, while on the ground, at a Bay Area train station? He had no weapon nor was he resisting arrest. In fact he was pleading for mercy, referencing his little daughter. Mr. Grant was shot and killed just three weeks before Barack Obama’s historic inauguration, and the outcry was so heavy in Oakland that young people took to the streets smashing windows and flipping parked cars. I do not condone the reactive violence, but I understand it. The violence was those young people’s way of saying, yes, Mr. Obama is in the White House, but that does not mean we are in a post-racial America. Post-racial should mean, among other things, that no people and no community should ever feel that they can lose their life anytime they cross paths with a police officer because that police officer, regardless of race or creed, views that people or that community as a menace to society, as animalistic, as not worthy of basic human love and respect. And to this now centuries old struggle of race and racism in America, we must add some observations about the current state of affairs President Obama has inherited. There are the endless and unimaginably costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is the everywhere and nowhere war on terrorism. At home we have one of the worst financial crises in our nation’s history. I have never heard of so many searching for jobs or losing their businesses and homes. They are utterly terrified that it may be their turn to fall through the trap formerly known as the American dream. Indeed, if the American dream is getting an education, then what does it mean that the 21st century education means years of debt and the ironic inability to find work comparable to one’s schooling?  When property ownership feels more like a prison sentence than real freedom and empowerment, the dream has become a nightmare. The immeasurable depth of these challenges proves that President Obama’s victory was not the grand finale of Dr. King’s “dream,” but in actuality, an announcement that the real work has just begun.


The real work starts with the understanding that America is not the country it once was, but neither are we the country we can be. We need to ask ourselves this question: What would America look like today if there had not been any effort to create inclusive definitions of freedom and democracy? We deceive ourselves mightily if we believe, in our naivete, that Obama’s presidency has miraculously ended our many problems and our many forms of discrimination, and political, economic and gender oppression. A great symbolic victory, yes, but when it comes to America’s social relations and the many crises confronting our nation, one man’s victory does not change an entire political history or a sobering present reality. The real work is for you and I to do, young America. We must take up the causes of transforming our educational system; cleaning up our environment; closing the massive gap between the super-wealthy and the super-poor; ridding our society from all manner of violence; of ensuring access to healthcare for all; of seeing every single American as our sisters, brothers, and members of the human family, regardless of color, hair texture, speech patterns, faith, gender, sexual orientation, or political ideology. In short, the real work must be about the forward march of time, and the forward march of our souls.


That march once was once accompanied by a Civil Rights era song that proclaimed “ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around.”  As I watched young America become enthralled by Barack Obama’s campaign, I felt that, having captured the spirit of that song, we might just be ready and able to move into the next era and do the real work. The magic of this historical victory is that a determined, diverse army of us made it happen. We proved that the Civil Rights Movement, the difficult and very slow integration of American schools and neighborhoods and the pop-culture phenomena that followed did something to our very American psyches. In spite of ourselves, in spite of our history, in spite of our daily stumbles, we did not turn back. Instead, we became far more human than we could ever have believed possible. We grew morally averse to the ugly, visceral, in-your-face hatred that my mother’s generation recalls as easily as their own first and last names. We finally learned the lesson that I missed as a young activist: substantive progress is not possible without building bridges across multi-racial and multi-cultural groups. Whether we are African Americans from the Old South, West Indians from the Caribbean, the First Nations who originally populated this land, Mexicans returning across American borders to ancestral homelands, or the scores of Europeans, Asians, and Africans who’ve come here voluntarily, as that Civil Rights song says, we cannot turn back to our divisive past. Young America, our resolve is strong and if new victories are to be won, as we say in hiphop, we must keep it moving. Forward. Our eyes firmly on that prize we’ve all been dreaming of.


We must realize that, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” Barack Obama’s successful presidential campaign reminded us of these now immortal words from the late poet June Jordan. Her message liberated us at a moment when we had become conditioned to believe that we were powerless. Over the past two decades we have been anaesthetized by a huge dose of leadership that was not really leadership at all: politicians, ministers, talk show pundits and the like who were handpicked, ordained, elected, or appointed. Dr. King once warned us of such manufactured leadership, but still we allowed them to entrap us. Not only can we now affirm that these people are not leaders, we have been inspired by President Obama’s victory to know the truth: the power to lead is in our own hands both individually and collectively. Lead, as in changing the direction of the conversation, or creating a new dialogue entirely. For Obama that meant refreshing our American memory with words like “hope” and “change” for a people whose lonely eyes have been resting on fear and despair for so long. Lead, as in creating or building a program, an organization, an institution, that services the people, any people. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out what any given community needs to survive and, more importantly, to win. You simply have to ask the people and they will tell you. Lead, as in being accessible and available to the people, the community, the humans you claim to serve or want to help. This means you know the ways and culture of the community you serve, you know their language, their food, their customs, their hopes and their fears, and you love them without any pre-conditions. This means you earn their love and their respect because you serve them, not the other way around.


It is this spirit of leadership that speaks to the best of who we are as Americans, a truly global people. We know, collectively, that we are so much more than racists, sexists, classists, homophobes, religious bigots, religious zealots, raging provocateurs or perpetrators of violence. There is goodness in us all, if we are willing to sow, nurture and grow that goodness. I honestly believe this, in spite of history’s promise that moments like this one won’t last very long. Movements and moments in history may come and go, but if we, the leaders of this era can make helping our fellow human being as critical to our lives as whatever God, higher power(s) or values we say we believe in, then what we experienced in 2008 will become something we can sustain for the remainder of our natural lives. My challenge to you, young America, is that you accept this mantle of leadership, that you make of it what you will, even if you sometimes travel the road alone. Find in your heart and soul something you love, something you are passionate about, something you are willing to use your voice for, and change it for the better. Engage your life fully, be courageous enough to fall down and get back up. Be so idealistic as to believe that, yes, you can save this world of ours from itself. But don’t forget to save yourself. Take care of yourself holistically, as you work to take care of and help others.


Do not do what I was guilty of in my youth and run away from what you feel now, do not fear it, do not avoid it, or pass it off to someone else as I did. Those are the great regrets of my younger years. I wrestled so much with my own self-esteem, yes, with loving myself and others, that I missed many opportunities to be an agent for change. I did not fully grasp the love and the power I had in my hands. Love in the very basic and tender sense that it takes an enormous emotional capacity to actually want to do public service, to help others to be free and empowered, to give back. Just the thought of it is love manifested. Be courageous enough to love those who make you comfortable and even those who make you uncomfortable. And, without a doubt, love those you may not like, or who you know do not like you. If the world is to change, one human at a time, we must practice what Dr. King called a dangerous kind of selflessness. We must love ourselves and each other like the universe’s very existence depends upon it.


You live in a world that I could not have imagined when I was a twenty-something just two decades ago. I never actually expected Jesse Jackson to become president, even in 1988 when he amassed millions of votes and for one brief moment actually was ahead for the Democratic nomination. With Barack Obama’s victory you accomplished something in your youth that none of us thought possible: an underdog, outsider candidate for president would become president of our country. You did it and we did it. You did it, we did it by believing in something even when older Americans were walking the safe route. You did it, we did it because we were bold enough to lead our elders, our parents, bold enough to be the leaders we’ve been ordained to be. You did it, we did it by believing in the strength of our diversity. You did it, we did it going door to door, the old-school way. You did it, we did it by volunteering our time to register people to vote, in the spirit of all those young Americans who registered people to vote during the Civil Rights era. You did it, we did it by using the social networks, e-blasts, text messaging, and all the technologies at our disposal to rally Americans, especially young Americans, from Brooklyn to Berkeley, from Harlem to Hawaii.


Those facts give me hope. With more young Americans voting in last year’s presidential election than in any other in history, I now have hope that our nation can go forward when the mass energy of the people is brought to bear on current affairs. But I ask, with all love and respect for you, that you do not become disillusioned like some in my generation, now in our thirties and forties. Voting on Tuesday, November 4, 2008 was simply not enough. Once more, we cannot entertain the illusion that Barack Obama’s election means we have finally arrived at Dr. King’s promised land. He is neither a savior nor the savior. In fact, it is very rare that a politician has created dramatic changes in American history, save Lincoln’s “Emancipation Proclamation,” Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” and Johnson’s “Great Society.” More often than not change comes from the people and infiltrates the corridors of power, not the other way around.  Lincoln’s words would not have occurred had it not been for the abolitionists. Roosevelt’s vision would not have become clear had it not been for the workers, the artists, and the activists.  Johnson’s Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act of 1965, and his War on Poverty would not have been made possible without Dr. King’s moral authority, Ella Baker’s organizing, Fannie Lou Hamer’s priceless courage, and Malcolm X’s bravado. And Obama’s change will not be possible without your making volunteerism, organizing, and political and social awareness as natural to your being as breathing. The worst possible thing any of us could do is become complacent and decide, victory now won, that we will not vote on a consistent basis—from school board elections to presidential elections—for the remainder of our natural lives. The worst possible thing any of us could do is believe that change is now in the hands of our leaders, expecting them to be the change agents we want to see here, everywhere, now.


And so it is for you, young America, to cease to quote historical figures, and start to make your own history in these times. There are two types of people on the planet: those who make things happen, and those who wait for things to happen. I am especially talking to those of you who are teenagers and twenty-somethings. Some amongst my generation think we are wiser because of years. I respectfully disagree. There may be wisdom in some quarters, but you possess something that is immeasurable: you have the daring to believe in freedom because you have not yet been corrupted by politics, by people who lack morality and spirituality, yet pretend to be leaders—like the Assemblyman from my Brooklyn community who told me publicly that I did not understand “the pathways to leadership.” Do not let anyone tell you that there is only one pathway to become a leader, to be an agent for change. Barack Obama would have never defeated Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries had he followed some pathway to leadership. He invoked the vision and courage to throw out the rules and buck the system. Obama is not the exception to the rule. His achievements are not beyond the possibilities for you. Young America, we the people of this nation and this world need you all to be the leadership we are waiting for. Find your passion, find your cause, locally and nationally, and keep it moving, don’t turn back. If not you, then who, and if not now, then when?


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