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Comedian W. Kamau Bell on politics, activism and gentrification in Portland

“It feels like the day before ‘Mad Max’,” said socio-political comedian W. Kamau Bell on the night before one of the most divisive presidential elections in recent memory.

Bell came to Lewis & Clark on Nov. 7 for an evening of comedy, interlaced with social commentary and political analysis. The event was sponsored by President Barry Glassner, Campus Activities Board, Dean of Students Anna Gonzalez, Student Activities and Inclusion and Multicultural Engagement.

After his performance, Bell sat down with the Pioneer Log for an interview, tackling the subjects of gentrification, the political climate and social activism.

Bell is the current host of CNN’s “United Shades of America”, an Emmy-nominated docu-series in which Bell travels the country, interviewing people from far-flung subcultures across the nation–including even the KKK. One of Bell’s strategies for promoting social change is to embrace “uncomfortable conversations” and have genuine talks with people from different walks of life.

Regarding his conversations with vastly different communities, from the KKK to Portland hipsters, Bell said, “We don’t have to talk about political differences–we’re talking about life differences. Sometimes that can get connected to the political, but people aren’t really connected to that unless that’s the subject. They feel like, ‘I wish I had a better job, I wish my community was better, I wish there was less crime.’”

“Those aren’t political issues–at some point they get turned into political. Candidates go, ‘I’m the candidate who’s more against crime than the other candidate.’ That’s also not how those issues get solved. [They’re solved] by communities coming together and governments putting a premium on that.”

Bell has also taken his documentary crew to Portland for “United Shades of America’s” episode “Is it Cool to be Hip?” This episode focused on the rise of gentrification and the hipster phenomenon in the city.

“[Gentrification]–it’s about cities being run like corporations. When you do that, you put less value on people and more value on things. I don’t think you create good cities that way. The thing people like about living in neighborhoods, ultimately… is that you feel safe and know everybody and that the whole neighborhood has your back,” Bell said. “When you move people through and cycle people through, and keep thinking about running things as a for-profit, you’re creating a situation where there’s no more neighborhoods. People don’t value the individual connections to people. I’ve been to Appalachia, one of the poorest parts of this country, but people know their neighbors.”

Even in light of the divided electoral season and a dearth of community connections, Bell is optimistic about the future.

“Over an infinite timeline, the United States moves in a more progressive direction, it just takes awhile and there’s fits and starts and a lot of the fits and starts mean the death and oppression of people who don’t deserve to die or be oppressed. Over an infinite timeline, things are moving well — but you can’t sit back and go, ‘it will just get better.’”

Indeed, Bell sees the role of activists as crucial in pushing the country in a progressive direction, although he doesn’t see himself necessarily as one.  

“The activists have their foot on the accelerator. I’m just working hard to make them feel good while their foot is on the accelerator,” Bell said. “If I get caught up thinking that what I’m doing is the change, then it starts to be way less funny. Then you start to speach-ify and I’m not smart enough to speach-ify. I like to punchline-ify.”

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