From White Castle To The Heights

Kal Penn, Hollywood actor turned political activist best known for his performance as Kumar Patel in the comedy Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle, came to Boston College last night to discuss a far more serious topic.

The College Democrats of Boston College sponsored the lecture, titled “On Civic Engagement and the Youth Vote.” The event was also sponsored by the UGBC, the Americans for Informed Democracy, No Labels, Eagle Political Society, SOFC, and the South Asian American Student Association.

John Laadt, finance director of the College Democrats of BC and A&S ’13, explained how Kal Penn was able to speak on campus. “Every year, we try and bring a well-known, politically engaging speaker to campus who will generate a lot of excitement among the student body,” Laadt said. “When we found out Kal Penn was available to speak, we immediately sought out support from other student organizations and UGBC to show the University how much interest this event could generate.”

Laadt explained why so many BC organizations thought that Penn’s lecture would be beneficial to students, regardless of political party. “We believed the subject of his talk, civic engagement and the youth vote, and his years in the Office of Public Engagement at the White House are a great illustration of what it means to live in a participatory democracy.”

Penn began his talk by explaining to the audience how he ascended to a pivotal role in the Obama administration. While in Hollywood pursuing an acting career, which included a breakout role in Van Wilder and notable roles in Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle, 24, House, and the movie The Namesake, Penn was reminded by friends and loved ones of the political atmosphere and obstacles the everyday American faces. Influenced by friends in the armed forces struggling with the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Act, friends in college with financial problems, and the hardships of health insurance, Penn decided to become involved with Barack Obama’s campaign for president in 2007. Persuaded by Olivia Wilde, a co-star on House, Penn attended a benefit breakfast in which Obama encouraged his supporters not just to sign a check, but also to believe in what he wanted to do for the country.

Penn campaigned with Obama for nearly two years, and after Obama was elected as president, Penn applied for a job in the administration. Penn worked in the White House in the Public Engagement office, primarily in the area of youth outreach, Asian-American and Pacific Islander outreach, and entertainment outreach. The program consisted of 16-18 people dedicated to helping the average American have his or her voice heard.
Penn entertained the audience with anecdotes about his experience working with Obama’s administration, but also highlighted the impact he felt in such a powerful atmosphere. Penn traced each of his biggest accomplishments in each field, explaining the effects of passing health care reforms specifically for Asian-American and Pacific Islanders, breaking through the stereotypes of government funding for the arts, and simply meeting with young people from any political party to make sure “no American slips through the cracks.”

Penn also described some of the more challenging realizations he had in politics, as opposing parties skewed policies and reforms he was working on.

“You’re always going to have opponents, and your opponents will try and say incendiary things to discredit you, not really caring about what’s the right thing to do,” Penn said. He explained that working in the Obama administration helped him understand that it was important to work for what the people wanted, not toward the best campaign move.

Penn closed by explaining the issues that young people in America concern themselves with most, and what motivates their vote.

“Looking back, when I was leaving the White House after my two years there and seeing all the things that had gotten done, I think it was only possible because of coalitions and enough young people saying, ‘We don’t really care about the politics of it … we care about the issues that are the shared issues and actually moving that along,'” Penn said.

Penn reminded the audience in closing that the youth of America speaking up is what moves things along, and by voting and staying in touch with local and national problems, young people can stay informed and motivated to make changes.

“If there’s every any doubt whether it makes a difference,” Penn said, “it makes a huge difference.”