07/21/2008 01:13 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Open Letter to Congressman Ed Towns

Dear Congressman Towns:

I hope you and your family are well.

I am forced to write this open letter because you have failed to stand up and be counted during this election. After a quarter century you have also not delivered for the people in your district. I am disappointed because I had thought that a senior politician such as yourself, a 25-year-veteran of Congress, would be more than happy to participate in our nation's democratic process and agree to a debate in the venue of your choice. The condition of the district and your track record may have motivated you to stay away from the spotlight with the hope that you can just manage to squeak by and get back into office for yet another term.

But rather than meet me face to face to discuss the issues and challenges we have as a nation, you have chosen the low road. Please allow me to remind you that this path is wide and has led many of our politicians to perdition. Your attempts to discredit my campaign for Congress by personal attacks and character assassination will not work. The people of Brooklyn are tired of the same old political tricks. They demand a change. Instead of recognizing the needs of the people you are supposed to represent, you have chosen to tell lies about me and to distort my life to make me seem like some sort of criminal.

These underhanded tactics are disturbing to me on so many levels. I really didn't expect this from you. As someone born in North Carolina in the early 1930s, during the era of legal segregation, I thought you would know better than most how it feels to be treated in such a rude and disrespectful manner. And as someone who participated in our Civil Rights Movement, I thought you would remember that the whole point of that struggle was to create a level playing field so that future generations of African Americans would be able to pursue their lives and their dreams in liberty and happiness.

I challenge you, Congressman Towns, to FIVE PUBLIC DEBATES, any time and any place, to talk about the real issues facing the people of Brooklyn:

The war in Iraq



Violence in the Community

The environment

Jobs and the Economy

Gender Equality


This campaign has given me the opportunity to share my vision for the future of Brooklyn and America. I have done my best with my staff to put together wide-ranging information, legislation and new proposals on many areas of concern to our district and nation. In fact, we are calling our action agenda The Plan: A New Way for the 21st Century. I am not naive enough to believe that I will get to Washington and single handedly swing the legislature. But by doing the work and with the right information I will be able to knowledgeably vote on the bills before me. While always remembering that every vote is for the people of Brooklyn, not for my political and financial carriers.

I plan to use my office and the resources it provides to bring help to the district. And I plan to help educate my Congressional peers and other leaders about some new and innovative ways to approach our problems, and what I have learned from the many people I have worked with over the years. I will also make use of my skills developed as a community organizer for over 20plus years, since I was a teenage activist. I have a great ability to bring people and groups together who can work to cooperatively solve some of the problems we face. The formal Congressional committee structures are not the only way work gets done in government. I am committed to on the ground action in my community, and not simply legislating from Washington. As a progressive public servant, I have no other choice but to think and act outside the box, always, to be the kind of leader who will do whatever it takes to empower people so that they can empower themselves.

Congressman Towns, I challenge you to come with something more than tired phrases; you need to come to the community, with some ideas, programs or bills to seriously address the problems in Brooklyn. Moreover, I ask you and your staff and your family members and circle of associates to deal in facts, to tell the truth when describing me, your opponent--and to refrain from the kind of personal attacks and distortions that people are no longer willing to tolerate.

It has come to my campaign's attention that you, your staff, your family members and associates, have been referring to me as a "woman beater" and suggesting that I have spent time in jail.

Once and for all, I am going to set the record straight, for your own information -- since you like to tell the media that you do not know me -- and for the information of the good people of Brooklyn, and of America. Ironically, Mr. Towns, it is members of the media who have tipped me off, time and again, to your efforts to demonize me in hopes of winning yet another reelection.

I find it fascinating that you say, again and again, that you do not know me. For most of the nearly 20 years I have lived in New York, I have lived here in Brooklyn's 10th Congressional District -- your district. I have been an active member in this community, running forums, town-hall meetings, anti-violence and mentorship programs. I frequently speak and conduct workshops in our community's schools, churches, and foster care programs, from Fort Greene to East New York, and points in between. I belong to the Fort Greene Association, I attend Emmanuel Baptist Church, and I routinely support businesses in our community, like the Five Spot, like Karen's Body Beautiful, like Night of the Cookers. For several years now I have been working hard to improve the lives of the people in our district and yet our paths have never crossed. In my travels around the district I have learned that I am not the only one you don't know. Many of your constituents have noticed that you are not present in their lives in any meaningful way. Even as I keep reaching out to the community and learning better who they are and what they need, you have closed two of your offices -- during this campaign cycle -- l eaving many residents scratching their heads. After 25 years the sad reality is that much of the district does not know who you are. You have failed to reach out to them; you have not effectively brought help and change to the lives of the people in the 10th Congressional District. In short, you are out of touch.

So for your information, here are the facts, Congressman Towns:

First off, I have never spent a night in jail in my life.

Now let's address the second charge. You have called me a "woman beater." Violence was me, Mr. Towns. But let's not get stuck in the past, and let us never ignore the full story and context of any person's life. That is how we dehumanize each other, and as a man of God and someone keenly familiar with the bible, Mr. Towns, I am sure you know better than that and I am sure you know about personal redemption.

I was born and raised in Jersey City, New Jersey, to a young single Black mother, who was never married to my father. Indeed, my father so emotionally devastated my mother by his irresponsibility, absence, and neglect, that my mother turned that hurt on me, her only child. Yes, like many young people in your district, Mr. Towns, I was a victim of all manner of violence as a child, including physical and mental abuse. I strongly recommend that you Google my poem "Son2Mother" to get the full picture of what an inner city child like me, born on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement, had to live through in terms of violence and low self-esteem, and feelings of worthlessness.

In spite of all the above, Congressman Towns, I was able to get a decent public school education, enough for me to see some glimmer of hope out of the poverty and misery of my youth. That is why public school education matters so much to me today.

But I am also very clear, today, that if you teach a child that violence is the only solution for conflict, then that child will become violent as an adult. We see that every single day here in Brooklyn, Mr. Towns. I see and hear the stories as I walk the streets of our community, listen to the children, the teens, the parents, the teachers. Violence, to paraphrase Dr. King, is the language of the unheard, the cry of the powerless. As an adult, in spite of my college education, in spite of moving to New York City and becoming a relatively successful writer, I became someone who had to battle my own feelings of powerlessness through a bad temper and violent outbursts against both males and females.

As I have done in my speeches all across America, in several of my eight books, in essays in Essence magazine in 1992 and in Ms. magazine in 2001, on the website in 2008 (see my essay "Ending Violence Against Women and Girls"), I have always spoken publicly, locally, nationally, and in all forms of media, about my life's journey and my personal challenges. I have nothing to hide. Nothing. My life is an open book, a testimony of the possibilities of personal growth and redemption and change if one is willing to do the hard work.

So once again, for the record -- yes, between the years of 1987 and 1991, I did have a pattern of violence against women. And, it took me even longer to control my temper and aggression toward other males. But thanks to years of therapy, spiritual development, and personal evolution, and the support and encouragement of women like bell hooks, Susan Taylor, Pearl Cleage, Dr. Johnetta Cole, and Gloria Steinem, I have moved beyond that destructive behavior to become a pro-feminist, anti-sexist man committed to gender equality and nonviolent conflict resolution. I have worked alongside males like Michael Kimmel, Byron Hurt, Jelani Cobb, and Charles Knight, in trying to craft new ideas of American manhood not rooted in domination, violence, homophobia, fear, and confusion.

American males have been taught some dangerous lessons over the generations. We have been taught to hide and suppress our emotional responses to personal troubles. This emotional pressure is often released in violent and self-destructive behavior. Coming to grips with the realities of victimization has been the greatest challenge of my life. Looking for one's own flaws is never easy and it hurts even more when you find them.

I cannot even begin to count, Mr. Towns, how many people in Brooklyn as well as other parts of New York City -- indeed, all across America -- have said that my testimony gives them hope for all the poor, disenfranchised men and boys out there. But only if we are willing to be honest and accountable for all our actions. That is what a leader, a public servant, is supposed to do: give people the opportunity to imagine the unimaginable. The realization that I could change and redeem my own life and those around me has led me to community organizing fulltime. To being a public servant for the remainder of my life. I could not think of anything that brings me greater joy and fulfillment than helping people, all people.

Some of my most recent work includes:

I organized approximately 700 college students into something called Katrina On The Ground, which did relief work in the Gulf Coast after the devastating storm.

I routinely participate in organizing efforts around affordable housing, around the subprime mortgage crisis, around quality educational options of our youth, and many other quality of life issues for our communities, like healthcare, a cleaner environment, and more money resources for social programs instead of the war in Iraq.

Just this past Spring I was honored to participate in the United Nations global campaign to end violence against women and girls, and I have also worked with Amnesty International on this issue as well. If the United Nations and Amnesty International know that I am no "woman beater," and have brought me in as a spokesperson to reach males and females in the global community, then why can't you and your circle of supporters see that, sir?

Here in Brooklyn, I have been a part of private sessions with gang members, many of whom live right in the 10th Congressional District, helping to educate them about the destructiveness of violent behavior against each other, and against women and girls.

We held a national conference on black males, right here in Brooklyn in your district in June 2007, with 3000 attendees. That gathering turned into a monthly Black male empowerment workshop, which attracts older and younger Black men from New York, New Jersey, and other parts of the metro area.

All of this work around black male development will culminate with a practical self-help book, Mr. Towns, entitled The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life, to be published in early September. I encourage you to pick up a copy. In fact I will send you an autographed copy as soon as they arrive from the printer. I am the editor of this book, sir, and it offers practical ways that black males of all ages can develop spiritual foundations, become politically involved, learn about our great cultural traditions, become healthier physically and mentally, and rid ourselves of violent tendencies, against other males, against females. Nothing like this book currently exists, Congressman Towns, and I was only able to create The Black Male Handbook, with the help of contributors like the actor Hill Harper, BET's Jeff Johnson, and the brilliant young financial wiz Ryan Mack, because of all that I have overcome in my own life. I am so determined to make sure that American males, black American males, do not make the mistakes I made in my past lives. There is no way to do that, Congressman Towns, without being the kind of leader who is an open book, entirely. And there is no way to do that without being a mentor, a guide, in some form or fashion. If one is placed in a leadership position, then one must lead. There are no excuses, no easy paths to leadership. It is a calling, as we say in the church.

Moreover, my point is that we have to do more than just talk about the issues and challenges facing our communities. We must do something to bring about CHANGE. That is what I have always worked for: ACTION and SOLUTIONS. Anything less would mean that we are simply stagnating and wasting our time on earth.

Unfortunately you have chosen not to see any of this work, Mr. Towns. Even though I once had a meeting with your daughter, Deirdre, to talk about her help with my annual holiday party and clothing drive to benefit homeless young people. Your own daughter, sir, knew who I was, knew my work as a community organizer, knew that I was a founding staff member at Vibe, that I appeared on the very first season of MTV's The Real World, the most popular series in that network's history; and your daughter knew that I had a voice that people respect and listen to, because I had earned that respect, Congressman Towns. But do you even talk with your own children about the leaders of their generation? You can always ask them what is happening now, on the streets of the community you claim to represent.

But, alas, Mr. Towns, it appears that you do not, and perhaps that is why the 10th Congressional District has been stuck in a state of arrested development for so long. We can no longer afford to wait for things to happen. We must take bold action and put in the hard work that is required to change the current situation.

So, again, Mr. Towns, you say that you do not know me. You have failed to see my work and the work of others going on right under your nose. How many other community organizations and community leaders struggling for that little bit of assistance they so justly deserve are simply not in your field of vision?

But I can see you, and so can the good people of Brooklyn. We see that you are mostly interested in keeping your comfortable Congressional seat. We see that you have raised over 60% of your campaign funds from PACS and lobbyists. We see that you invited Congressman J.C. Watts -- a Republican aligned with President George W. Bush and his neoconservative agenda -- to raise money for your campaign against me.

It seems that you are willing to win even at the price of destroying the reputation of another man, a black man young enough to be your own son. In fact, Mr. Towns, I am your son, as are all the black males of the 10th Congressional District. Some of us stand on street corners every single day, wondering where their lives are going -- other than prison or an early death. We are all the black males who seek employment and education only to be let down by failed public schools and a lack of basic life and job skills. Do you ever speak to these young black males in your district, Mr. Towns? Do you know their names? Do you even care about their lives, sir?

One of your former staffers recently told me that you long since stopped caring. He said that in the 1960s and 1970s, you cared, but that over time, you drifted away from the mission of the Civil Rights Movement. He said that you cared less about the people, and more about making sure that your family and your circle of friends were taken care of. He said that you have become a caricature of a black leader, that you now see your Congressional seat as a family business, to be passed on to your son or daughter-in-law, with no regard for democracy or the public good. His words saddened me deeply.

Are these words true, Mr. Towns? If so, then your so-called leadership is a slap in the face of all the women and men, all the girls and boys, who marched and died, during the Civil Rights era, so that you could have your Congressional seat in the first place. Is that what you want your legacy to be, Mr. Towns? That few of your constituents knew your name or your face? That even fewer know of anything you've done to empower the people, to transform lives here in Brooklyn?

I could go on and on, but the fact that you have resorted to attacking me personally so far away from the Tuesday, September 9th election suggests to me that you are concerned -- maybe afraid, of losing your Congressional seat, and the unchallenged privilege you've enjoyed for a quarter of a century. And this privilege and lack of challenge has led to some very wrongheaded votes on your part. Let's review your record:

-- Voted in favor of the No Child Left Behind Act

-- Voted in favor of CAFTA

-- Voted in favor of the Death Tax Repeal Permanency Act

-- Voted in favor of Energy Policy Act Of 2005 [Hr 6]

-- Voted in favor of House Concurrent Resolution 362--Declaring Iran a military threat

You have missed nearly 1000 votes since 1993, including votes on key issues like:

-- H R 2975 The Patriot Act

-- H R 2082: Intelligence Authorization Act

-- H R 526: Supporting Home Ownership and Responsible Lending

-- H R 3246: Regional Economic and Infrastructure Development Act of 2007.

-- H R 1: Medicare Prescription Drug and Modernization Act

You have also demonstrated an incredible detachment and disengagement from the people you claim to serve, which includes:

-- The very recent closing of your Bedford-Stuyvesant office, the historic heart and soul of Brooklyn's black community

-- Standing idly by while schools and community centers lost funding

-- Receiving a "C" rating from the Drum-Major Institute in 2005 for your voting record on middle class issues

-- Overseeing the building of developments that displace current residents in favor of high priced luxury housing

Mr. Towns, you have been in office for 25 years, with a paid staff of at least 20 people in New York City and Washington. But what do you, and more importantly, the people of your district, have to show for it? You have had as many as four offices, so the residents of Brooklyn's 10th Congressional District find it unacceptable how little you've brought back to Brooklyn, how little you've done for our communities. Indeed, when out campaigning, most people we ask cannot name three, two, or even one significant thing that you have accomplished in your 25 years in office. Your seniority means very little given that, outside of Congressman Charles Rangel, you have the second longest tenure of the New York City delegation, yet you do not chair a single house committee.

All of these are the reasons why I am challenging you, Congressman Towns, for your seat. In a democracy no public servant, no elected official, no party leader, should be above being questioned, above being held accountable, or above being called to public debate on the issues of the day.

This is why, Congressman Towns, individuals as different as George Soros, Chris Rock, and his wife Malaak Compton-Rock, and Gloria Steinem support my campaign. This is why we have a committee called WOMEN FOR KEVIN POWELL, which includes over 100 diverse and influential women from Brooklyn, New York City, and across America. You can view the WOMEN FOR KEVIN POWELL committee and their statement of support right at This is why, in fact, much of the leadership of my campaign is women. Feminist, progressive, no-nonsense women. Apparently they do not consider me a "woman beater." And, moreover, I APOLOGIZED to those few women I violated nearly twenty years ago, and they have accepted my apology and forgave me, as have all the males I have ever had conflict with, Congressman Towns, for the record. Human beings appreciate honesty, and they appreciate accountability. If a Malcolm X or a Bobby Kennedy, two of my heroes, could change, could grow, could learn to be fully human, self-critical, and accountable in their very short lives, Mr. Towns, why can't I? If they both could grow into world-class humanitarians, Mr. Towns, why can't I? Your attacking a younger male like me, with my background, says that you do not believe in any of us in Brooklyn, that you have no hope for any of us, that you see no possibilities for any of us, that we are all just annoyances to be attacked and discarded. Is that how you really feel, Congressman Towns, about the men and boys who could easily be your sons and grandsons?

But there are those who do see me for who I am today, who do see me as a whole human being. This is why we have growing support amongst the netroots community throughout the various social networks. This is why as we walk the streets of Brooklyn younger people and older people of all different backgrounds, tell us it is time for HONEST LEADERSHIP. This is why people tell me everyday they respect me, because I am real, I am accessible, and I am not above the people in any way. Their lives are my many lives. Their triumphs and tragedies are my triumphs and tragedies.

Without question, the American people, here in New York, and elsewhere, want leadership that is visionary, leadership that they can relate to, leadership that builds bridges, that give people a chance at life, at the American dream. For sure, a leader should be doing one of three things, if not all three, on a consistent basis: changing the direction of tired conversations, or creating new ideas, new conversations; building institutions, organizations, or businesses that support and benefit a community; or working on the frontlines, there with the people, as often as possible. If someone in a leadership position does not do any of those things, then he or she is not a leader. He or she is merely a spokesperson, or a figurehead, or, worse, a puppet for the interests of others outside the community.

Congressman Towns, my team and I will continue to run a clean and honest campaign. Your character attacks and dirty ploys are the politics of yesterday, of the age of political machines and backroom deals, of politicians who think it is their birthright to hold office either until they die or until it is time to pass the seat on to a family member. It is time for a new leadership in America, this much is clear, Mr. Towns. Generations X and Y, or the hiphop generations, or whatever pundits like to call us, have awakened, and we finally realize how much power and clout we have. And we are going to use that power and clout to create the world we want to see. Tomorrow is today for us, and we are very clear it is our turn to lead. I remember when I interviewed Tupac Shakur for Vibe back in the 1990s, he talked about the power he had just by virtue of all the millions of fans who bought his cds. Well guess what, Mr. Towns? All of us who grew up on MTV and BET, all of us who vote on American Idol, all of us who download music from Itunes, all of us with hand-held devices and MySpace and Dacebook pages, have networks that communicate in ways that were unimaginable when Tupac was alive. And we are using it to rally people around the Sean Bell verdict, to rally people to vote and volunteer on campaigns, to speak out on the issues of our times. We respect and admire those who've come before us, but we want to lead in a new way. That new way will include street teams and netroots organizing. That new way will include remixing politics with marketing savvy and marching and protesting when necessary. That new way will include music and poetry and using our cellphones for political mobilization. And that new way will include creating an entire nation of small donors so that progressive candidates don't ever have to sell their souls just to be in politics. Yes, that new way means we want real democracy, and we want it now.

Lastly, many of your former staffers and interns, in Brooklyn, and in Washington, DC, have confirmed a common assumption about the workings of your office, your lack of vision, and remarkably lax attitude about the challenges confronting Brooklyn. They have noted your preference for your homes in Washington or in Florida rather than your house on a hill here in Brooklyn.

Congressman Towns, you are a Christian, as I am, and you are an ordained minister. I can only assume that this means, somewhere in your soul, you can see what your community really looks like. But still I marvel at the staggering amount of inaction on your part. We stand today at a critical juncture in the journey of urban America. Your pleas for Barack Obama's endorsement will not get you the support you need to win this race. Neither will the last-minute town-hall meetings or your efforts to grab some media attention even, embarrassingly, while posing with disgraced baseball player Roger Clemens.

Mr. Towns, let's bring our campaigns before the people and let them hear what we each have to say. LET US DEBATE and show the good people of Brooklyn that our campaigns really believe in the democratic process. And on election day, we can let the people decide what kind of leadership and what kind of community they want.


Kevin Powell,
2008 Democratic Candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives
10th Congressional District, Brooklyn, New York