arts and pop culture | May 15, 2013

Cultural Diplomacy: Kal Penn On Combining Arts & Politics In Rolling Stone

If Kal Penn's time in political office has proven anything, it's that cultural diplomacy can go a long way in connecting people with important issues, and that a little humor can inspire people to get involved in a cause they feel passionately about. Known to most as a Hollywood actor, and to others as the former Associate Director at the White House Office of Public Engagement, Penn has fluidly shifted between acting and politics. Not only that, but he just finished up a graduate program at Stanford in International Security. As he tells Rolling Stone, he doesn't have definitive plans to use his new qualifications immediately. But he does say that merging the arts with public engagement is something that interests him.

"It comes from my interest in cultural diplomacy—how we use the arts for people-to-people understanding," he says in the Rolling Stone interview. "Obama's done a great job of that, and Reagan did a great job with it, too." During his time working with the President, Penn was instrumental in reaching out to Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities and helping to engage them in a variety of social initiatives. He was also a prominent voice in the youth community where he inspired young people to become politically aware and active in the democratic process. While his "first love is making ridiculous movies and TV shows," he says with a laugh, he also hasn't ruled out other options if someone inspired him to get involved in another industry. He's also considered returning to the academic world to pursue grad school work in cultural diplomacy. He's even taught a class at the University of Pennsylvania.

Currently, Penn is the host of Discovery Channel's The Big Brain Theory. On the show, he works with young engineers to solve important global issues in a reality show format. What's interesting about the show, he says, is that the contestants are redefining what it means to be smart. The contestants prove that intelligent people don't need to fit into one mold, nor are they restricted to only working in academia. "I feel like this generation of young people does not see things as mutually exclusive—you can be a nerd and an athlete, or a nerd and make music videos," Penn says. "The old-school thinking that you can be this or that—I don't think that's the reality this generation, particularly under 25, are growing up with. And that's awesome." Since Penn himself has more than one job title (actor, educator, student, keynote speaker, political advocate), he embodies this shift. His wide range of experience in different fields gives him a wealth of knowledge on different key issues—and his charismatic personality helps him convey those insights to people around the world.

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