Kendrick Sampson: The Activist and Actor Shaping a Celebrity Social Justice Movement
"I get a lot of influential people, or people with platforms, that come to me and say that they want to use their platforms for good, for social justice. And they want to get more involved in activism. And they say like, 'Let's sit down for coffee.' And I always tell them, 'I don't drink coffee.' You know, I can't do caffeine, but let's find some time."
For a guy who cares a lot about important things, Kendrick Sampson is pretty chill. His deep voice is measured, and he's in no rush, even toward the end of our almost 40 minute phone chat. Though he has some ambitious goals, he sometimes seems like he's a bit too modest.
Case in point: The 31-year-old activist and organizer has recently launched BLD PWR (that's pronounced “build power”), a grassroots personalized training program to turn those influential people with bold names into the next super activists on social issues, a la Jane Fonda or Muhammad Ali. But Sampson was so busy learning about and developing this initiative that he forgot to have a launch party. (The event finally happened May 16 in Hollywood.)
On his Wikipedia page, you'll see that he's been on half a dozen popular shows, including Vampire Diaries and How to Get Away With Murder, and you'll read that he's a devout Christian. What you won't read about is his extensive activist résumé. Someone should fix that.
And remember that delegation of high-profile actors that visited migrant shelters in Tijuana back in March to directly contradict the Homeland Security department version of the Remain in Mexico policy and its impact on legal asylum seekers? Yep, he was there, often lurking behind Gina Rodriguez, America Ferrera and Wilmer Valderrama. The latter two founded Harness (along with Ferrera's husband, Ryan Piers Williams), which has similarities to BLD PWR.
These two groups are tapping into a fledgling movement of celebrities, influencers and athletes brought about primarily by the policies and rhetoric of President Trump. Both groups act as trainers and advisers for those kinds of people whose lives involve management teams. When these VIPs want to deepen their understanding of their preferred personal cause, they now know who to call. Activists-in-training will also learn that issues seemingly as varied as migrant labor, forced migration, criminal justice reform, affordable housing and healthcare are all intertwined — they are power structure issues. Call it best practice celebrity activism.
The Houston, Texas, native, born to a black father and white mother, grew up in an artistic and socially conscious household and dove into performing as a pre-teen. At the same time, his activism would grow from his family and his faith. The difference between Kendrick and the 2016 post-election generation of do-gooding entertainers is that his activism has always come with his artistry, not after it.
Fittingly, he isn't plugging any acting projects when we speak. Featured on the BLD PWR site is a video supporting a law called AB 392. The legislation calls on police to use deadly force only as a last resort (you'd think that'd be rule No. 1 for peace officers!). That's what he's plugging — that and imaginings of radical love.
CHICA: You were on the trip to Tijuana in March with America and Wilmer to visit migrant shelters and see first-hand what was going on at the border back. How did you hook up with that delegation? Were you connected with Harness?
KS: Yes, I've been attending Harness since it started. I've been doing activism for a while and got heavily involved in 2016.
CHICA: When did your activism originally take off?
KS: It was a slow development. I think it started in different phases by just trying to pick roles correctly that didn't perpetuate negative stereotypes. And trying to write stories about police brutality and then sell them. Nobody was buying them.
For my birthday for the past 12 years, I would always find some sort of cause to dedicate it to, inspired by my old pastor. That kind of translated into a grassroots activism, more so with the Black Lives Matter movement around 2014, 2015. And then that led into, of course, 2016 elections and traveling around with Bernie Sanders heavily. I was one of his few surrogates, from Hollywood anyway. ‘Cause all of his surrogates were activists. And there weren't a whole lot of activists in the entertainment business — or as many, I will say. There was a big surge after 2016. And Harness came out at that point to kind of, I guess for lack of a better term, harness that energy, that swell of interest in social justice. And to see what we could do to counter the hate that was already on the rise.
CHICA: I want to go back a little further about what really inspired you to do that birthday thing. Did you say it was your pastor?
KS: So, my pastor, Frank Wilson. Like I said, I've realized my activism in several stages. So there was the fact that my dad was orphaned and picked cotton and called his foster overseers “master” and, you know, grew up with segregation. And [the foster home] didn't use the money on them that they were getting from the government.
My mom grew up in segregation as well. Both graduated while segregation was still in place. My dad had us watching Roots and Rosewood in like second grade. And then my mom's brother, my uncle, died of AIDS. Nobody would help her take care of him except for some of her gay friends.
When I got to L.A. when I was 18, I met my pastor, who has since passed away. And he gave this sermon where he was like, “How would you feel it if somebody came to your birthday and asked for presents.” And everybody was like, “I'd be like, what the hell?”
But he suggested that that Christmas that we don't accept gifts and do what Jesus would want. 'Cause that's what we do every Christmas, we come talking about what we want. And then we ask for presents, and we get all these presents when were supposedly celebrating Jesus' birthday. And so that inspired us. We went to the homeless shelter that year instead of exchanging gifts, and it was a much simpler experience and profound. Just serving there.
And there was a bit of ego that was checked, thinking that [those at the shelter] should be so grateful that we're there to serve them. And sometimes they would ask for special things. You know, “Y'all ain't got no hot sauce,” you know, kind of thing. And then, all of a sudden, you're ready to be like, “You should be grateful for….” And then you've just now betrayed the purpose that you're here to serve in the first place. You should be so grateful to be here to serve, right? And if they ask him for something, if you can get it, you should get it. Right?
So it was a big check in humility. And so I started serving at homeless shelters, and trying to figure out ways to prevent homelessness. And realized that the nonprofit model was different from the grassroots models, and that was different from the policy model. And so I started moving toward more grassroots, and just discovered so much about the injustice and, you know, the criminalization of homelessness.
Then the Black Lives Matter movement rose in prominence. And I started to really understand, like understand [lawyer, activist and critical race theorist] Kimberle Crenshaw, intersectionality, and all of these things that I was studying and wanted to get more involved in.
During 2016, me, Shailene Woodley, Rosario Dawson, Mike de la Rocha … we all jumped into this RV, and we're going to all the disenfranchised areas, not all of them, but about 15 or so super-disenfranchised areas in California. And the first stop was at the border to meet the pueblos en canteras, the caravan that comes up through Mexico. This was, of course, during the Obama presidency, when he was on his way out.
I was enlightened on this caravan that had been coming up forever, and just immigration in general, and its intersection with criminal legal system, and how it's really not separate, and how they're housed in jails and prison, and that it largely targets brown and black people…. And it's just, “Ah, I gotta do something.” You get overwhelmed about all these things. And so, since then, we've done, I think, two other trips, same team almost, except different people, but like Mike de la Rocha and Tia Oso, who I just launched BLD PWR with.
CHICA: Right. Revolve Impact. They are your partners, is that right?
KS: Yeah. And so they helped organize the other tours, whatever you want to call them, to the border. And Harness was the last one.
CHICA: So you'd been to the border a couple of times before?
KS: Probably about four times, five times before. We also went to El Paso. And then the last one was crossing over to the Tijuana side with Harness.
CHICA: When did the light click on BLD PWR? Was that another slow coming together? It's your kind of your baby, right?
KS: Tia Oso and Mike de la Roche, we had been working together on these trainings, and we all had these different entry points. They had a long history in grassroots. We were working on trainings with influencers, athletes, actors, filmmakers.
I have several people that advise me, but they were two of the most frequent, and we were already working on stuff together. So with these trainings, people would come to me all the time — I get a lot of influential people, or people with platforms, that come to me and say that they want to use their platforms for good, for social justice. And they want to get more involved in social justice and activism. And say like, “Let's sit down for coffee.” And I always tell them, “I don't drink coffee.” You know, I can't do caffeine, but let's find some time. And it's really hard to do that when I'm flying around or doing whatever, and they have crazy schedules.
It was just kind of serendipitous, formalizing this training process, because whenever I wanted to bring somebody through a training, I knew that Mike and Tia were already doing that work. And so, I would set it up through them, or they would sometimes call me to participate in a training. Because a big part of what BLD PWR does is add a peer element to the training. So that we could say, this is how you deal with your reps, this is how you deal with your agents. The media. This is how you deal with your publicist and managers, and there's that unique element.
So, we finally just said, let's formalize this. With all the on-the-ground training, the active training that we do, and the peer stuff, and bringing in high-level academics and grassroots people and making sure that people are always connected to the communities they're trying to serve.
Since we kind of have a process that we already go through, let's really formalize it. So we started working on that in late 2017, early 2018. And then all of 2018 and developed it and started to get to work later in 2018 with different actions. We had our first action, our first event in New York. And then finally, a couple months ago, we were like, we just realized we didn't ever have a launch.
CHICA: What have you been doing for AB 392 [Assemby Bill 392, the California legislation aimed at reducing the use of deadly force by police]. Did you guys have an event for that or are you just spreading awareness?
KS: Both. We had a bunch of influencers, activist and people in the community, like Alice Corley, who lost her son to police killing, and brought them all together to be a part of this coalition that has pushed passing AB 392 [calling for limits to the use of deadly force by police]. And so we wanted BLD PWR to be a part of that. So technically I am a co-founder of BLD PWR, but I'm also going through the process of BLD PWR.
Two projects that I was already working on is getting a bill like this passed and also reform L.A. jails. Last year, I was working on the AB 931. That was the first iteration of this bill. It did not pass. So AB 392, assembly member, Shirley Weber came back even stronger, and said she is taking names. And I was like, I'm with you. So as soon as it came through, they already knew — because of last year, working on this bill as hard as I could — that I was on board for this one…. So I did my best to organize as many people in Hollywood to make sure that we had pressure on it.
I went up and lobbied for it in Sacramento, and I wrote an op-ed on it. BLD PWR produced a really beautiful PSA video on AB 392 [called “Let Us Live”]. A lot of people have been supportive. Celebrities, people with platforms, activists.
CHICA: BLD PWR mentions Harry Belafonte, Jane Fonda and Muhammad Ali as inspirations. Pretty big icons that turned to activism. Is BLD PWR project based? Or are you trying to recruit bigger names in Hollywood in general?
KS: At its core, BLD PWR is training and community. Education, action and community, I would say. So the trainings are a mixture of education and action, connecting people with those things based on where they feel they are, and whatever unique path they want to take. So they foster projects within that. If they want to put something together through BLD PWR, great. If they want to do it outside, we can advise them with that.
There's going to be a bunch of stuff that, I believe, we're not going to get credit for. We shouldn't get credit for it, because it's really about fostering people's own imagination and their own movements. What they're passionate about. So I wouldn't necessarily say it's project based, but there will be projects that move through BLD PWR.
And then the community aspect is having a safe space for all those people to come back. For Harness and Inspire Justice and Imagine Justice and all of these different places to have a place to come back and foster that imagination of radical love. Like, what does this world look like without all this radical hate? How can we counter it, and what does it look like if everybody has a home, you know? What does it look like, where our kids are not afraid of guns in our schools, or police in our schools?
Instead of just saying, like, what is the solution? Having a place to think about those things and to talk about those things and to imagine those things to the point of manifestation, right? To come with plans and take them back to your organization. Whatever you feel your best tactic is; however you are most effective in the movement. So those are the two aspects, community and training, but there will be projects that move through different activations. Supporting other people's work, lifting up the work of everyday activists and organizers that may not get that attention. So whatever we can do to help.
I forgot the part where you said, are we going to be recruiting people? Yeah, for sure. We're going to be recruiting people, and trying to build that up. But more than anything, it's not building a database as much as it is building community. So a place where those new age Muhammad Alis and Joan Baezes and Sacheen Littlefeathers and Marsha P. Johnsons can come together and not feel so siloed. And if they want to deepen their education on something, they can. They can pair with grassroots organizers or an academic or a fellowship. Or they can just come to the community and feel safe and talk about things.
And we're trying to expand that as well, to make it as convenient as possible, to have multiple spaces. Because we can't have enough right?
CHICA: Have you been like targeted by right-wing hooligans? Are you guys getting harassed at all?
KS: These people that are online, they are so well-organized, right? They have all of these safe spaces. They target people, they decide what day they're going to target people in organizations, and they have all sorts of safe spaces to imagine all this radical hate. All of this, abortion bans and attacks on women and attacks on communities of color and mass incarceration, all of that has safe spaces and think tanks. And it's all well-funded. So we need as many as we can get, physical and metaphysical safe spaces.
I'm not sure if BLD PWR [gets hate mail], I don't run the account. So I haven't been paying as much attention to what they're getting. But I know I do get attacked, and told that I should be hung, and called the N-word and all kinds of mass and threats and BS. I've been getting that for years, so that's not really new.
CHICA: Did you have anything else you wanted to add?
KS: We are centered on liberation. We're focused on intersectionality. [UCLA professor of African-American Studies] Kelly Lytle Hernandez gave a really powerful thing on the intersections of forced migration and how that's transitioned into what we are looking at today. We're trying to get other people involved as much as possible. All of our liberation is linked together, and we need everybody involved. But I'm particularly looking at black, brown and indigenous unity. White people are, of course, welcome [laughs]. But I think that a lot of the time, we're taught that we need white people in order to move forward. And I think that it's important that we build laterally. Build a base. Because those benevolent factors of, like, the top leaders who just happen to be white, are gonna just reach down and be like, “You know what? You're right. I've heard you screaming and you know what…” It just doesn't happen like that. It's the power involved.
And I hate that we get separated by, literally white supremacy and patriarchy and such try to divide us by issues. And somebody like Kelly can break down that so succinctly and showing that there is no separation from mass incarceration and immigration. You know, law, state violence for law enforcement, abuse, ICE is not separate from police abuse.
CHICA: And then there's the media component too, but I won't get started.
KS: Yeah, I know exactly what you mean. When they try to brand certain issues with certain faces and certain looks. I think that y'all have probably been dealing with that a lot. In media, in the Latinx community, it's just usually all these pale faces.
CHICA: I had one other question. You mentioned Bernie Sanders. I know it's a very loaded term, but do you consider yourself a socialist?
KS: I don't like to put labels on what I believe. I'm not supporting anybody yet for 2020. I want to make that clear. But I'm very aware of how capitalism, especially the extreme capitalism that we have here in the U.S., oppresses. I'm very aware of that and how we're just taught to think in excess. And that if people are not doing well, that are not affluent or able to support themselves, that they're not working hard enough. It's such a big problem.
I loved while I was out there campaigning for Bernie in 2016, how people were like [criticizing] “democratic socialism.” And I was like, so you don't like your parks, you don't like firefighters…
I tend to fall in alignment with those who want to deconstruct the way that we are currently operating and the foundation of the country in terms of racism and genocide, slavery and this idea of capitalism. I'll say our perception of what capitalism is is how people kind of deserve punishment and imprisonment and poverty and that somehow they've manifested it themselves. And it's not the way this country was built. And it's a falsehood. It's a myth that I want to bust. I'm working very hard at educating people on a different way of existing and being a part of the change.
CHICA: It sounds like you're getting through to a few of them.
KS: People are now talking about universal healthcare, where in 2016, that was a curse word. People were talking about white privilege. Some people are still very offended by it. But on CNN, you say white privilege in 2016, 2015 and people would kick you off the network. Like, why would you say that? Why are you calling me racist? No, you're just saying you have a privilege and it happens to be white. We have so much further to go.