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Former Rep. Kennedy and NAACP President Johnson Discuss Political Activism at IOP Forum

From left to right: Boston Globe journalist Marcela E. Garcia, NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson, political strategist Tracey Lewis, and former Massachusetts Representative Joe Kennedy III discussed political activism at a Thursday IOP forum.
From left to right: Boston Globe journalist Marcela E. Garcia, NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson, political strategist Tracey Lewis, and former Massachusetts Representative Joe Kennedy III discussed political activism at a Thursday IOP forum. By Grace R. Bida
By Thomas J. Mete, Crimson Staff Writer

Former Massachusetts Representative Joe Kennedy III discussed the importance of expanding civic participation through grassroots organizing at a Harvard Institute of Politics forum Thursday evening.

The event, moderated by Boston Globe journalist Marcela E. García, also featured political strategist Tracey Lewis and NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson.

During the discussion, Johnson said collaboration between people from different regions of the country is important to find solutions to pressing issues.

“If you begin to put communities together — talk about mutual strategies and approaches — you can address systemic problems that are national in scope from a very local perspective,” he said.

“There’s real human consequences and repercussions from not being able to have that infrastructure in place, where people can build not just capacity but support and networks to take on challenges at a local level,” Kennedy added.

Kennedy, who serves as a member of the IOP’s Senior Advisory Committee, said both Republicans and Democrats do not build party infrastructure in many regions of the United States.

“There’s large sections of the country that Republicans don’t invest in, and Democrats don’t invest in; and the Democrat party has actually ignored the plains, the deep South, Appalachia,” Kennedy added.

Even in the “tried and true” blue state of Massachusetts with “robust Democratic infrastructure,” Kennedy said the party’s operation in the state often leaves many voters behind.

“It ends up, oftentimes, focused on turning out the folks that vote, and not so much focused on the places that don’t,” he said. “The consequence of that, with regards to political power — the political power gets concentrated in the places that do vote.”

During the event, Kennedy and Johnson also criticized the use of social media as an avenue for political outreach.

“Because the platforms profit off of hate speech and misinformation, it is causing a level of chaos in our democracy.” Johnson said. “It’s a powerful tool — in the wrong hands will and has caused harm.”

“Put people and faces behind bots and screens, then engage in conversation,” Kennedy added.

The panelists also gave advice to students attending the forum who aspire to engage in political activism and grassroots organizing.

“Harvard is an incredible place that will provide you extraordinary opportunity. It is also a bubble unlike any other place on the face of the planet,” Kennedy said. “The question is how do you take advantage of all that it offers in the time that you have here.”

“Don’t forget why you are here,” Johnson added. “The biggest change is you absorbing as much knowledge as possible.”

The event marked Kennedy’s first IOP appearance since his appointment as special envoy to Northern Ireland. The last remaining Kennedy family member serving on the IOP’s Senior Advisory Committee, he will continue his role at the IOP while working in the Biden administration.

—Staff writer Thomas J. Mete can be reached at thomas.mete@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @thomasjmete.

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