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  April 17, 2000

Embrace Dream of Multicultural Society, Says Powell

The day he realized everything he had been taught was wrong, Kevin Powell's journey began.

His journey brought him to the dais of the Harriet Jorgensen Theater April 10, where he spoke on the final night of metanoia, a week of reflection on diversity. He was pleased to see diversity among the audience of about 60 people. He said UConn's week of reflection revealed a body of students genuinely concerned about people unlike themselves.

Powell reached national notoriety by appearing on MTV's Real World, a show that places people of diverse backgrounds in close quarters and films the results. He has maintained a national presence through his intelligent social criticism and has been closely identified with causes of social justice and activism.

Contradictions are his life lessons.

As a child, Powell went to church and felt the drama, saw his neighbors swept up by the power of the spirit they felt and wondered where, under the watchful gaze of a blue-eyed, white-skinned savior, he fit in. "Everyone was black but Jesus," he said.

As a child and through high school, Powell earned straight As. Yet in growing intensity grade to grade, he said, "I learned to hate myself going to school.

"I felt powerless," he said. "I wanted to identify with the powerful, but like a lot of black kids, I walked with my head down. I didn't look people in the eye."

Powell said he felt left out of American history. But he realized he was not alone. "All of you were left out," he said, addressing the diverse crowd. "We're talking about multiculturalism, but we're not talking about where this country is. We don't realize how deeply miseducated we have been."

Given his schooling, Powell's rise may seem remarkable, but it is no accident. He unlocked his ability to think critically by reading extensively, something he strongly advocates.

Powell said there has been progress in the last 30 or 40 years: basketball player Khalid El Amin "would not have been here doing what he is doing 30 or 40 years ago." He also cited the Vermont law recognizing gay and lesbian unions as another sign of progress.

He said we must understand our diverse history. The indigenous people of America have a story and it must be known. The Asian American story is different, but still must be known. The Italians, Irish, Jews came here under unique circumstances and that must be common knowledge, he said.

"My ancestors came here as slaves," he said. "My mother had a fifth-grade education before she left school to pick cotton. I am the first in my family to go to college.

"I am a journalist," he said, "but I come from the working class. And I still see the world with working class eyes."

Powell said the exploitation of poor people on shows like Jerry Springer create a national in-joke at the expense of the poor - an inhumane practice. "Unless you come from the working poor," he said, "you don't understand the level of desperation."

Powell said television also fosters uncritical thinking. Uncritical thinkers objectify women - something he admitted he once practiced - and are seduced by glorified violence. "When you hate people, you dehumanize yourself," he said. "But when you've been denied your story all your life, you'd better believe you are angry."

Powell determined his life would be more than anger, however, without forgetting its lessons. He shed his misogyny, but remained aware of its effect on him and others. Powell grew beyond the Real World of MTV and embraced the real dream of a truly multicultural society.

Monday night, he urged others to embark on their own journey.

Andy Woodcock