If I were to tell you that Kendrick Sampson's journey into activism was inspired by a sign in the bathroom, you wouldn't believe me.
But the fact of the matter is, it's 100% true. A simple message, "Leave It Better Than You Found It," became the mantra that the Houston native would eventually tap into in order to shift his activism efforts from a simple act to a revolutionary lifestyle. He is coy yet hilarious as he divulges this story over the phone during a quiet yet busy evening in LA. And as he continues to speak, it becomes more and more apparent that while the impetus may be comical, his dedication to amplifying the voices of those who live in the margins of our society are indeed no laughing matter. "I have a platform, I have a voice, and I need to do the work and utilize whatever privilege I have in order to keep people from dying. And I can't be complicit in that," he tells xoNecole.
He continues, "It's our purpose, I feel, to leave this Earth better than we found it. And so I really just leaned into that and who I am because it's completely righteous and justified. I've gone about different creative ways in doing it based off what I feel led [to do] and what's most effective, but there's definitely tactics and nuance to all of this."
And tactics and nuances seem to be the main aspects undergirding his new initiative, BLD PWR (pronounced "Build Power"). It's a liberation training, freedom-fighting measure that seeks to leverage the collective power of those primarily in the entertainment industry, to lend their platforms and voices to increase civic engagement and create real shifts towards transformational social justice. In partnership with visionaries such as Tia Oso and Mike De La Rocha, they hope to not only raise up the next wave of socially conscious entertainers but to also foster a safe space that cultivates both imagination and radical love.
We recently got the chance to chat with Kendrick about his new initiative--and here's what he had to say.
In your own words, describe BLD PWR?
BLD PWR is about taking action and how to do that in a healthy way. It asks how do you lift up those vulnerable voices without speaking for them? And how do you learn from your mistakes and what that looks like in a training process? We want to build up the next Harry Belafontes, Marsha P. Johnsons and all these amazing, dope, radical change-makers that were involved in the process and movement. Whatever privilege they had, they aided in uplifting those with a little bit less privilege. Whether it was with their resources, or creatively producing content, or just showing up at marches and protests.
Everybody has their place in the movement and we don't want to give anybody an excuse if they don't agree with people's tactics. We want to train up and foster that imagination. I believe that it's our job, our duty, and our purpose to go into every situation and leave it better than we found it. And to lift up the most vulnerable, seek out the most vulnerable, and empower them and work to liberate them.
Courtesy of Kendrick Sampson
"I believe that it's our job, our duty, and our purpose to go into every situation and leave it better than we found it. And to lift up the most vulnerable, seek out the most vulnerable, and empower them and work to liberate them."
What do you hope to accomplish with this initiative?
Ultimately, people look at LA and Hollywood as a culture beacon. And to be honest, the everyday organizers are the true heroes of our society, the people that dedicate their lives to liberating folks everyday, whether that's in environmental awareness or lessening the maternal mortality rate or closing the pay gap. These people are heroes but a lot of the time, they look to celebrities and people with platforms more than they'll look for the community organizers that are experts in this field or the educators for this information. And so we also have that privilege being in a position where we have people paying attention to us, and my goal is to train leaders within the entertainment industry. So that they'll understand that the real work is on the ground, lead people to their work, and use media attention to reflect and amplify the good work that's already being done.
I want those in the industry to feel confident enough to speak on these issues in the right way. And when they do make mistakes, learn how to correct those easily and not retract back into a corner. I want to have a safe space to where we can foster the radical love and deconstruct all the things we suffer from--talk about it, bounce ideas off [each other] and then push that out into culture.
You’ve been known for your outspokenness and views on today’s social issues as much as your acting. When did you realize you wanted to pick up the mantle of activism? Was there a defining moment: what was it and how did it affect you?
There wasn't a clear defining moment, but I feel like my whole life, I just had this inclination towards trying to do right. And a lot of times it was more so about being right and that was a selfish thing. I think God used that against me to where it was like, 'If you really want to be right all of the time, you need to acknowledge that you're not right. That you don't know everything, you can't be a know-it-all and it's impossible. You need to humble yourself.' So I listened to God in that and try to do my best in allowing that to lead so that I can follow and be an example in that. And it's manifested itself into different ways throughout my life.
Eventually, I was posting stuff while Black Lives Matter was gaining momentum and I was connecting with different movement folks and other people that were socially conscious and getting advice. I was trying to hang back and go behind the scenes and have meetings and such. But then I realized I was placating the oppressor really, in that I didn't want to come off as an "angry black man". And when Eric Garner was murdered and got all this media attention and there was so much injustice and anger--I finally said to myself, 'You know I am angry, I am black, and I am a man.' But if I don't speak out and I try to placate people and not come off as this stereotype, then I'm aiding the oppression.
Courtesy of Kendrick Sampson
"If I don't speak out and I try to placate people and not come off as this stereotype, then I'm aiding the oppression."
The descriptor says that this initiative is: “A National Platform For Artists, Athletes and Entertainers Committed to Using Their Influence For Social Justice.” Do you ever think that there can be art/entertainment WITHOUT activism or are they always one and the same?
Yes and no; it depends on how people understand activism. A lot of people think that every project should be an activism-centered project. They think that there needs to be a protest or a statement on something. And I don't necessarily think that. But I think the way we approach stories should be activism in the sense that our lives are activism. Think about Insecure for example, there's no clear policy that they're trying to push, but it was activism in the sense that it told the story of vulnerable communities that had not been seen before in that space.
And that's so essential and important. So many groups of people of different ethnic groups, genders, and ages come up to me and say they watch Insecure. And now they're privy to an experience that they weren't before. It's not an educational piece, but it helps bring peoples stories to life and humanize them in a way that our society has historically been opposed to. So stories like that, that just tell a simple love story or life story of brown people or indigenous people--that show the humanity in people that aren't normally humanized. That's activism.
"I think the way we approach stories should be activism in the sense that our lives are activism."
Does your acting career play a part in your role as an activist?
I think people think I work a lot more than I do, meaning the projects and they think I'm consistently on set. And unfortunately, I'm not. But a lot of that is because I have to pick and choose what I want to do. Now I'm not gonna sit here and make it seem like I'm picking and choosing all my roles because there are a lot of things that I audition for that I just don't get. But this isn't a woe is me, because I get a lot more work than some actors do--but it is a very conscious effort to not take roles that are problematic, to avoid stereotypes and oppression, misogyny.
I have worked on projects because people are willing to change content, but I definitely think that activism is a lifestyle. And our career should fall under that umbrella. My career is a tool to do that work. Not a side from that work, it's not a side job. It's a part of my purpose and I do my best to utilize every aspect of my life with that purpose.
"My career is a tool to do that work. Not a side from that work, it's not a side job. It's a part of my purpose and I do my best to utilize every aspect of my life with that purpose."
Can anyone take part in BLD PWR or is it just for the aforementioned groups of people?
It's for creatives, but it's not for everybody. In particular, it's with those with platforms or those who are building platforms. There's no size to it but it's for people who are doing socially conscious work--or who WANT to do socially conscious work. So it's writers, filmmakers, storytellers, actors, athletes. It's open to influencers of all facets, but especially within the entertainment business. The main focus is to make sure people with platforms are more informed of the work of everyday organizers and are actually a part of and aiding that work.
When you think of this initiative 5-10 years from now, what do you want it to look like?
I want it to look like an army of freedom fighters. That we're out here building multiple safe spaces, we fostered other people's initiatives and communities, and that we won't necessarily get the credit for it. You won't be able to fully grasp the scope and reach of what we do and manifested in the world. I want it to amplify other people's work, the people on the ground, and in my heart, I want to be able to say, "That's beautiful that I was a part of that and no one will ever know."
But ultimately, [I] want to see safe spaces for the liberation of the most vulnerable folk and people of color, black, brown, indigenous folks and uplifting their stories and bringing them into the center. And having Hollywood lead the charge. Because there is no change, no revolution without art. The most effective communication is art. And part of that is oration and speaking and creating these stories and being active on social media, kneeling. All of that is a part of it.
Courtesy of Kendrick Sampson
"There is no change, no revolution without art. The most effective communication is art."
For someone looking to get more involved in activism or maybe just starting out, what are a few key things they can do RIGHT NOW to affect change?
Figure out what you're most passionate about because we can't cover everything. Find a local community organizer or organization that's working in that area. Because I guarantee you someone is already doing the work on whatever issue you want to take up. Then pursue your education and information in that area. See what the movement landscape is. For those who want to participate in training, they can go to bldpwr.com.
If you're in LA, there's Reform LA Jails, that seeks to transfer millions of dollars that they want to use to build new prisons and invest it into alternatives to incarceration for the homeless and mentally ill.
Featured image by Getty Images.