Kevin Powell: My Troubled Financial Life Mirrors Many In America

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kevin powell

“And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

—John 8:32

When I was a child, my mother would regularly quote that line from the book of John in the Bible about the truth setting us free. For ours was a very harsh life, as my grade school-educated mother was forced to raise me alone, after my father just disappeared (they were never married). There were years and years of welfare, food stamps, government cheese, and the kind of poverty I would not wish on anyone. In spite of these circumstances, my mother always encouraged me to work hard, to be honest at all times, and to keep God first in my life. Yet like most people in America struggling from paycheck to paycheck, there was little to no savings, no investments, no assets, and we never knew of anything in the way of financial literacy or empowerment workshops. My mother simply took the coins and dollar bills she had and made magic happen year to year. One of my most vivid memories of my childhood is my mother and I going to the local deli and getting baloney, with my mother always nudging the butcher “to slice it a little thicker, please.” It was her way of saying “We do not have any money, and I need this baloney to last as long as possible.”

The other thing I remember about my mother and finances is that she was always preaching to me “save your money” as I held down several jobs in my adolescence, including newspaper routes, delivering groceries, and those low-paying and long-hours summer jobs for the city. But it is one thing to tell someone to “save your money,” and another to actually show them how. Perhaps because my mother worked so hard to make ends meet, and perhaps because she simply did not have the formal education to teach me, fully, how to be financially wise, even with no resources, I simply never got that lesson until many, many years later.

So in 2010, as I run for Congress here in Brooklyn, New York City’s largest borough, and I am being attacked by my opponent and some in the media for having financial debt and owing taxes, I felt now was the appropriate time to come forth about my financial life. Anyone who truly knows me, or has followed my work for years—as a community leader, as a writer, as a public speaker, or has seen me on television programs like The Oprah Show—knows that all Kevin Powell has ever been is honest and transparent. That will never change because we have far too many people in the world, particularly in politics, who are absolute and unapologetic liars.

The above said, having debt, struggling to pay one’s mortgage or rent, or owing taxes does not make you a bad person. It makes you a regular person, one of millions and millions of Americans who are in similar situations regardless of race, class, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or geography. This, in fact, is one of the reasons why I decided to run for Congress again in 2010, after my first real bid in 2008. I am not going to lie. That previous race not only left me in financial debt, but it was coupled with the recession literally stopping cold my main source of income, delivering speeches at colleges and universities.

As a matter of fact, 2009 turned out to be the worst financial year of my life and it was not pleasant being dragged into court to deal with a mortgage and the need for a loan modification program. Nor was it fun to watch friends, colleagues, and neighbors around me lose their homes or jobs or both, forfeit their apartments, or suddenly find themselves on government assistance programs. I imagined a similar fate for myself, but I managed to get through 2009, by the grace of God and the kindness of quite a few friends.

Consequently, I decided to run for Congress again, in spite of my own difficult financial situation a year ago, because I care so much about the community. Person after person shared their financial struggles with me, and person after person asked me to give it another shot, to win not just for me but for all the folks like us who are dealing with everyday challenges my opponent could not fathom. I knew I would be scrutinized much harder this time around. I knew there would be questions about every single aspect of my life. But leadership often means great sacrifices and a kind of nakedness of one’s soul that most would never want to encounter. And, frankly, given what I have experienced on this very public stage the past few years, I really don’t blame them. But I’ve chosen this as my life work, helping people to help themselves, so I really have no other choice, in spite of my own personal struggles. What our nation needs, more than ever, are jobs, better public education, and community healing on various fronts, and I feel my life journey and my twenty-plus years as an activist and agent for social issues position me to help and understand everyday people in a way my opponent just does not after 27 long and uneventful years in Congress.

So, yes, again, of course I have debt, lots of it. It really began when I left my mother’s house at age 18 for college on a financial aid package, 26 years ago. Four years later I was kicked out of college, never finished, and all I had to show for it was a mountain of student loans and the prompting of my mother to “go get a job.” Which I did, but with my eyes firmly on fulfilling my childhood dream of being a writer. Within a few years, due to a lot of persistence and a great deal of luck, I had appeared on the very first season of MTV’s landmark reality show “The Real World,” and also became a staff writer for Quincy Jones’ Vibe magazine. Literally overnight I had gone from the poor ghetto child who had been tossed from college to a 20something and very well-known writer for America’s fastest growing publication. But underneath that celebrity gloss were some very serious realities:

One, we were paid approximately only $2000 and no future royalties at all for “The Real World.” And, yes, I did make good money working at Vibe, but like most young people who were never taught basic financial responsibility beyond “save your money,” I blew threw it in the four years I was affiliated with that publication; and when my career there was over, what I had to show for it was a stereo system and a computer. It’s like I had never been paid at all.

And once my relationship with Vibe soured in 1996, I plunged into an alcoholic-fueled depression for the remainder of the 1990s, not paying much attention to my finances, and allowing a hack accountant to know more about my financial life than I did.

Two decisions with very different results came of that critical period in my life. First I decided to quit journalism and the entertainment industry entirely, and to devote my life to activism, as I had done in my earlier years, back during college. Second, I felt so badly burned by my first accountant that I did not retain another one for several years. The great part of these decisions is that I made public speaking my main source of income and was able to visit nearly all 50 states in our country over time, and I cannot tell you how much traveling and interacting with so many different types of Americans profoundly changed my life, and cemented my desire to be help people, all people, for the rest of my life.

The downside of these decisions is that the more I became involved in community work in New York City and elsewhere (I did extensive Hurricane Katrina relief work, for example), the less interested I became in money and material things. I sacrificed everything to help strangers, family members, anyone who asked for my assistance. As long as I had a place to live, food to eat, and clothes to wear, I was good. Even during my Vibe days, I never was about material things. For sure, to this very day I have never owned an automobile, and have never worn much jewelry beyond a basic watch. In spite of all I have experienced in the past 20 years alone, I remain very much that person who grew up with little to nothing. A shock to many because of whatever celebrity they think I have, but what they fail to realize is that I have no real interest in that lifestyle. I did, for a moment in the 1990s, but that moment is gone and what I do now is what matters to me.

Thus what wound up happening is the neglect of my finances in the 1990s became exacerbated in much of the 2000s by my intense desire to serve people more than take care of myself. A foolish mistake, yes, but one many of us activists make throughout America. There are so few of us who really spend time on the frontlines addressing needs like education, violence prevention, prison reentry programs, immigration and housing rights, and more, that we wind up working 18 to 20 hour days, ignoring our own personal finances and our health (I am in great health, but I have not had health insurance in several years), and we become that person everyone in the community calls upon for help, no matter what the issue or the cause. Add to that, which being a public speaker basically means being an independent contractor responsible for estimating your own taxes year to year, and that is how I wound up with back taxes.

It was not until early 2006, when a friend offered me the very rare opportunity to purchase his Downtown Brooklyn condo for no money down that I began to think about my finances in a very different kind of way. I had been living as a renter in the same basement apartment for eight years, but was being forced to move on due to my landlady’s mother needing the space because of cancer and inability to climb stairs any longer. I did not want to rent again, so I jumped at this opportunity to be an owner. But I could not do it alone, so I asked my mother, still frugal all these years later with her own limited finances, to purchase the condo. She did, with the agreement that I would pay the monthly mortgages. We closed on the condo in June 2006, and I was immediately given a crash course in property ownership.

I naively believed that I could pay a monthly mortgage on two loans totaling approximately $5000 because I often made that in speaking fees. Wrong. Although the recession did not officially hit until 2008, we were feeling tremors of it as early as the Fall of 2006 when I was suddenly not getting the number of paid gigs I had been accustomed to.

So the past four years have been about making ends meet, just as my mother did when I was a child, just as many in Brooklyn and throughout America are doing in these times. And I’ve had to make some very tough decisions, the same kinds of tough decisions many in Brooklyn’s 10th Congressional district have had to make: Pay the mortgage or pay the estimated taxes? It is tough for those of us without preferential or V.I.P. mortgages like the current Congressman representing my district.

And my accountant and I purposely estimated high on my campaign’s recent financial disclosure statement, as we are still talking with the IRS about what the actual amount is. It is definitely not what is on the financial disclosure statement. This is a process, but one that is happening, because I am a man and a leader who takes responsibility for all my actions, always. And only with this second accountant, and a great attorney, over these past few years, have I been able to correct a lot of previous mistakes made, including bad contracts I unwittingly signed for various business deals that went south.

That said, I live a very basic life at this point, my mother and I are no longer in danger of losing this condo, my accountant and my lawyer have gotten all my financial obligations under control, and many are paid off or in the process of being paid off.

And after all these up and down financial tribulations, I feel very strongly they actually make me uniquely qualified to serve the people of Brooklyn’s 10th Congressional districts. For their experiences are my experiences. There was no greater example of this than one night when I was campaigning in Boerum Hill, and myself and Jacob Bloomfield, one of our volunteers, stumbled upon a 50ish man with a slight limp. When we tried to give him campaign literature, he yelled and cursed and told us how useless politicians were as he struggled to hold onto his home for the sake of his wife and two daughters.

We put down our campaign literature, and sat down with that man for nearly an hour listening to his life story: how he became injured and disabled; how his bank is trying to take his home; how he called the current Congressman’s office and got no help whatsoever. He was near tears at some points, and I felt his pain. When done, he thanked us for listening and, in spite of his own dire circumstances, offered a $100 donation to our campaign, and he has been a volunteer ever since.

And I encounter these kinds of stories all over Brooklyn’s 10th Congressional district. Of people who are behind on their taxes, like me. Of people who have struggled, at times, to hold on to their homes, like me. Of people who have not always been financially literate, like me, but who, like me, have become so out of experience and necessity.

This is our America, these are our stories, and these are our truths, raw and unfiltered, sometimes pretty, sometimes not. And, again, if I did not really love and care about people, if I did not really believe that I, as a leader, could make a serious difference, in Brooklyn and in Washington, I would not put my entire life on display like this for others to poke and prod at will.

I do so because I feel this is what every single public servant should do. We serve the people, not the other way around, and the people have the right to know everything about us if we claim to be representing them.

Kevin Powell is a 2010 Democratic candidate for the United States House of Representatives, Brooklyn, New York’s 10th Congressional District. He can be reached via http://www.kevinpowell.net

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