The upcoming elections are so important, I decided to use two quotes on the subject matter:
“Nobody will ever deprive the American people of the right to vote except the American people themselves and the only way they could do this is by not voting.”
— Franklin D. Roosevelt
“Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”
— Abraham Lincoln
Someone who does get the importance of voting is this week’s profile, Malcolm Kenyatta. The youngest board member of Liberty City LGBT Democratic Club, Kenyatta comes from a long line of family activists. A resident of Philadelphia with a strong background in leadership training, activism and performance art, the young go-getter holds a bachelor’s in strategic communication from Temple University and is slated to graduate Drexel University next year with a master’s in public communication. In 2008, Kenyatta founded a collegiate poetry collective, Babel, and in 2011 he was awarded the Lax Scholarship for his activism in LGBTQA causes on college campuses in Philadelphia. He currently teaches several performance-art classes with tweens and teens through the nonprofit Mighty Writers while holding a full-time job at Hahnemann University Hospital. Not bad for someone who just turned 24 this past summer.
PGN: Describe your parents for me.
MK: Well, my father passed away three years ago but he was a big man, 6-foot-6, a big towering man who was still very goofy, except when it came to grammar, which he was very serious about. We’d be on the bus and he would correct the grammar of random people. I’d be like, “Dad! You can’t do that!” I guess he got it from my grandfather, Muhammad Kenyatta, who was a professor and civil-rights activist in Philadelphia. He ran for mayor in 1975. My mom is the complete opposite, she’s fun but not goofy. She’s very even-keeled and gets along with everyone. She’s a mental-health technician and it takes a special sort of person to do that. I am the perfect balance of my parents’ sensibilities.
MK: I have three adopted brothers and sisters, all from the same biological family, which is cool.
PGN: Where do you fall in the lineup?
MK: I am the youngest.
PGN: [Laughs] Were you an “oops”?
MK: Ha, ha. No, I was about 3 or 4 when my parents started adopting. My siblings were all older than me from the start but I don’t remember a time without them.
PGN: So, what were you like as a kid?
MK: I’ve always been very outgoing, outspoken, very much my own person. I always liked having my hand in several different things. For instance, right now I am on the board of Liberty City dealing with political issues, plus I work a full-time job at Hahnemann and my partner and I are producing a show called “Ya Gotta Eat Dirt Before You Die,” about HIV and AIDS.
PGN: Interesting title, tell me a little bit more about that.
MK: It’s set in the 1980s and follows Jefferson, an African-American business professional whose lover, Nick, is dying from AIDS while his mother simultaneously is diagnosed with an untreatable and aggressive cancer. The project will launch Dec. 1 in tandem with World AIDS Day and AIDS Awareness Month. On Dec. 1, in partnership with Temple University Paley Library, we will hold three separate panels across the city to discuss the themes of the play and examine the cultural, medical and interpersonal implication of HIV/AIDS from it beginnings in 1981 to now. From Dec. 4-7, the show will take place on the Main Stage @ The Adrienne Theater. At each performance, rapid HIV testing will be available and tickets purchased at the door will be sold at the presale price for individuals who receive testing. I’ve always been about trying to bridge the arts with my social and political passions. “Eating Dirt” is the perfect project for that!
PGN: Cool. There was a story on NPR in April about dirt-eating. You can even buy special bags of it at many places in the South.
MK: I know, and people think our cast is actually eating dirt in our PR pictures but no, it’s just brownie mix and crunched-up Cheerios and Oreos! We’ll leave the Philadelphia dirt for the plants.
PGN: Play any sports as a kid?
MK: OK, I was, and still remain, the most sports-challenged person I know. I can’t even shoot a balled-up piece of paper into the trashcan. My mom unfortunately used to tell me, “You are going to play sports. You’re not going to be gay.” But all the coaches were like, “Uh, we don’t think this is for you.”
PGN: Was the family very religious?
MK: Yes, we were Christian and I was very involved with the church as a kid. As I became more aware of my sexuality, I became more disenfranchised from the church. Not like they were spouting antigay rhetoric every week, but it was clear that homosexuality was not accepted. I obviously don’t agree with that dogma and I still haven’t found a church where I feel ministered to in the way that I would like.
PGN: When did you know you were gay?
MK: I think I’ve always known and ironically having girlfriends in high school seemed to have helped. It was like [laughs], “You know I really like hanging out with you but I really don’t want you to kiss me, or touch me or do anything inappropriate.” I figured that was a hint. When I went to college at Temple that really helped. It wasn’t far from home — my mom lived right at 11th and Master — but I lived on campus and got to experience campus life. I met a wide range of people who didn’t care that I was gay.
PGN: I understand that cherry and white runs through your veins.
MK: [Laughs] Yes, both of my parents went to Temple and that’s where they met. And I was born at Temple [University] Hospital. My future kids are not going to have a choice, they’ll have to go to Temple!
PGN: What was a favorite moment from college?
MK: My favorite moment was probably also one of my toughest. In 2011 a friend of mine from Temple, Roswell Friend, took his own life, then another guy on campus that I didn’t know shot himself. In the response, I created a program called Students Together Ending Pain and Suicide, STEPS. I reached out to mental-health organizations and suicide-prevention groups and brought them in to be available for those who needed counseling. We did performances right in the Student Center, provided materials and held a candlelight vigil. There was a girl who told me that she’d been contemplating ending her life when she walked through the Student Center. She saw what was going on and it changed her mind. She said I’d saved her life. You hope putting together something like that would have a positive effect but knowing that it made such a profound difference in one person’s life was amazing. It was the launch pad for a lot of the work that I do. Art moves people. It changes people’s minds and perspectives. I could have just put up a table and passed out materials but having that performance was what caught her attention and made all the difference.
PGN: What got you interested in politics?
MK: It’s basically the family business. As I mentioned, my grandfather ran for mayor and was a big civil-rights activist. He helped bring down the “Black Mafia” here in Philadelphia. Though I was very young when he died, it’s just something that’s instinctual in our family. No one ever told me there was a separation between our daily lives and politics, it was always part of everything we do. Whether it’s how and where we cross the street or where something gets built or whether women get equal pay for equal work, there are people who make those decisions and as citizens it’s our job to elect people who will make a positive difference. I don’t have to be in office or have a cool, funky position in politics but, as a concerned citizen, I have to find a way to be involved. As a young person, I was involved with Upward Bound, and at Roxborough High School I was the student body president. It’s important to try to make the world a little bit better.
PGN: So nice to hear. I get frustrated at politicians coming out against politics! It’s like a gay person saying, “Make me a leader because I have nothing to do with the LGBT community.”
MK: Agreed, and why would you elect someone who ideologically thinks that our government is bad and then expect them to make things better? They are just trying to destroy it from within. I think the true paradigm shift will be when we elect more openly gay officials and younger elected officials. Unfortunately, with these ridiculously expensive campaigns, it’s almost impossible for someone young and idealistic to be elected.
PGN: Back to you, what is Babel?
MK: Oh, that’s a poetry group I started at Temple. It’s pretty cool. People in the group have performed poetry all over the country and the world. It was amazing to start something and watch it grow. It’s still in existence. Performance poetry is a kind of theater.
PGN: What was a memorable moment with Babel ?
MK: Dr. Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon was one of my mentors. That’s a mouthful but she’s worth it. Anyway, I did a piece called “Awkwardly Comfortable” and I performed it completely in the nude. It was an intense performance. I’d have people come up to me after the show who didn’t know what to say. They’d stammer and say, “Uh, nice legs.”
PGN: Who was your favorite poet?
NK: It was and is Nikki Giovanni. When I was at Temple I got a chance to open for her. [Laughs] Well, the whole group did, but I was the last one before she came out so I consider myself her opening act. When she got off stage she said to me, “You got something.” I just melted. I couldn’t believe Nikki Giovanni spoke to me, never mind complimenting me like that. It doesn’t get much better.
PGN: You’re now teaching poetry to young people. How much fun is that?
MK: I work with a group called Mighty Writers and we mentor kids from about 10-14. We have two different spectrums of kids and I love them both equally: the ones who come in dying to write and the ones who come in and don’t want to have anything to do with it. To watch both groups go through the process and get engaged with poetry is amazing. I’d never worked with kids that young before. My partner and I actually merged our classes together and that was really fun because I got to work with him and work with these kids. They just blew me away. I have one kid who came in who was a rapper and shy about sharing his lyrics. By the end of our workshops he was doing documentaries about rap music. I’d like to think he was inspired by the work we did with him.
PGN: You must go a little bit nuts hearing the grammar kids use these days.
MK: Because it’s poetry, I try not to be the grammar police in these workshops. I tell the kids, “It’s your world and I’m visiting.” I just want them to get their thoughts down and learn to express themselves. And they do. I had one girl write a beautiful piece about the education system. Sadly they know that they’re not getting the education they deserve.
PGN: You work with your partner; what is his name and what does he do?
MK: His name is Terrell and he’s an actor and a teaching artist. We’ve been dating for about a year now.
PGN: You do a lot of public speaking; ever get nervous?
MK: I used to have horrible stage fright, then when I was 13, my old pastor, Bishop Rudolph Nash, called me up to the pulpit at our church. My mother had told him I could sing so he insisted I perform a song before he began preaching. I told him there was no way I was doing it but he insisted. He stood there for 20 minutes while I cried until I finally gave in. I haven’t shut up since.
MK: “Every time I come to a place or meet a new person, I want to leave it better than it was before.”
PGN: I think you’re succeeding. As the youngest board member of Liberty City, what would you say to inspire other young people to get involved in politics and the upcoming elections?
MK: We have gay marriage in Pennsylvania and certain civil-rights protections in Philadelphia so it’s very easy to think we’ve won all the victories we need to win in the LGBT community, but there’s so much more to do. Liberty City and other organizations like it have a big role to play in making sure that we elect public officials that realize it too. One of my personal passions is the belief that we need to elect more LGBT leaders. I don’t think it’s enough to have straight allies in office. I think they’re great but as they say, if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. We need a gay voice to say, “This is not hearsay about the problem, this is actually what’s happening.” This election is so important; whether it’s about educating our kids or ridding the city of blight, or ensuring fairness for all, it’s not going to happen unless we elect the right people. It’s easy to say, “My vote doesn’t count” but when I hear that I get infuriated. We’ve never had an election where 100 percent of the people voted and I would love to see what would happen if everyone who is eligible came out and voted. I would love to see the change that would happen. Right now we have ridiculous people in office, this crazy Tea/Republican Party that seems to exist only to create gridlock. I don’t consider myself particularly ideological. There are Republicans that I like but sadly this group doesn’t seem interested in moving the country forward. They’re not interested in passing legislation or solving problems, they just want to shut everything down. That’s one of the reasons young people are so apathetic, but if they could fight past that apathy we could see some of the changes that we all want. With the economy and the climate and the skewed balance of power, at this point it’s becoming a matter of life or death.
LGBT political-action committee Liberty PA is still taking volunteers for get-out-the-vote efforts. Email [email protected] for more information.
For more information on “Ya Gotta Eat Dirt Before You Die,” visit www.eventbrite.com/e/you-gotta-eat-dirt-before-you-die-tickets-13634010693.
To suggest a community member for Family Portrait, email [email protected].