Kal Penn, accomplished actor and civil servant, came to BC Tuesday Oct.24, to talk about civil engagement and help engage the student body during the final run-up to election day. Drawing from his experiences portraying the unfortunately named Taj Mahal in the Van Wilder movie franchise and the popular Kumar in the Harold and Kumar series, Penn had the audience laughing while considering the politics at hand.
“Surely there has to be an adult in the room?” Penn said. He talk about his initial feelings when he took on the responsibilities as the associate director in the White House’s Office of Public Engagement. Penn was charged with making sure that the average person’s voice was heard in the Obama administration, specifically the voices of young citizens, Southeast Asian Americans, and proponents of the arts.
Kal Penn at the Democratic National Convention 2012
With his target audiences packed in Robsham Theater, Penn certainly connected with them. Detailing the story of a letter addressed to the president and leaders of both houses of Congress, issued in conjunction by roughly 150 different student-run organizations, Penn illustrated the change that students can—and should—aspire to make.
At a particularly contentious time in the debt ceiling talks in 2011, when it seemed that the federal government as a whole was on the brink of shutting down and American credit was being threatened, these students made a marked difference. Their letter—a plea to not balance the budget in question on the backs of students who were perched in a precipitous position—became a tangible part of the president’s negotiation strategy. The president refused to budge because it was right thing to do, Penn said.
Penn described his first series of involvements in presidential politics as both exhaustive and fulfilling. Volunteering in Iowa in the fall of 2007 while Hollywood was on hold due to a writers’ strike, Penn felt a connection, a call to action shared by his grandparents who marched in the streets with Mahatma Gandhi in India to protest British rule. It was the same action of knocking on undecided voters’ doors and calling them up every day until election day that Penn first tentatively participated in five years ago that he is recruiting for now.
Taking advantage of his timing, speaking with only 13 days to go until “Game Day,” Nov.6, Penn urged young voters to make their voices heard. In a private talk afterwards, with on-campus political groups, Penn downplayed the media narrative of the “enthusiasm gap” among both Democrats and Republicans in this election cycle and young voters now, compared to 2008.
Citing examples relevant to young voters, from the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell to the continuation of the college tax credit, worth up to $10,000 after four years of education, Penn had one simple request: VOTE. Preferably, he said, for his boss.
The lecture was sponsored by College Democrats of Boston College.