Speaker pushes for more activism

BY LUKE VOELZ | APRIL 20, 2011 7:20 AM

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When Kevin Powell was a child, he fixed his torn sneakers by filling them with cardboard and newspaper. The New Jersey native often walked to school through snow while wearing such shoddy footwear.

These trials gave him a steadfastness that carried him from a life in Jersey City raised by a single mother to national renown for his lectures on social activism. Powell spoke in the IMU second-floor ballroom Tuesday as part of the "Be a Hero" Summit to stress the need for activism in the community.

The UI Society of Graduate Black and Professional Students sponsored the event, which cost $6,500.

A cornerstone of activism, Powell said, is youth. U.S. volunteer rates among 16- to 19-year-olds rose 15 percent between 1989 and 2005, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service. But modern distractions make it difficult to keep these numbers stable, he said, especially among college students.

"You guys are the smartest generation ever and the largest since World War II," he said. "[But] you all got way more distractions than the last generation. Five-hundred channels on TV, iPods, BlackBerrys — they're competing for the real estate of your minds in ways like never before."

Another culprit, he said, is apathy.

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"People think they've accomplished everything in this generation," he said. "We have women's rights, gay rights … but we still need to go further."

Powell recommended making civil-engagement courses mandatory for college students, similar to several universities he spoke at on the East Coast. Low voter turnout could also be alleviated, he said, by making voting mandatory, as it is in Australia.

Kevin Pinkston, the president of the UI Society of Black Graduate Students and Professionals, saw this apathy firsthand when he and some friends began volunteering at Parkview Church in 2008.

They began carpooling with students from City High and West High to help teach students from southeastern Iowa City. But the number of volunteers started to dwindle after a few months.

"Some people would say, 'I'm too busy,' or, 'I'm too tired,' and that's OK if [working with kids] isn't your cup of tea," the 25-year-old said. "But some people I see just doing nothing. If they had a test, they waited until they had community service to study, as opposed to having better time management."

Though Pinkston said he first volunteered just to spend time with kids and his friends, his mindset changed following Hurricane Katrina, which hit during his junior year at Dillard University in New Orleans. His sociology studies, many of which took him to New Orleans' Ninth Ward, furthered his understanding of inequality in large communities.

"Being a sociology major, you start seeing many reasons others aren't getting a fair chance in life."

Sociology major Darys Kriegel said he agreed, and admitted he wasn't as socially active as he could be.

"I'm one of those people who is notoriously stuck in his own little world," he said. "Part of the problem is we don't recognize what's going on around us."

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