Michael Skolnik is a white guy with the zeal of a black civil rights activist.
The 35-year-old award-winning filmmaker-turned-campaigner articulates the plight of the underprivileged with such emotion you almost believe he has walked in their shoes.
Still, Skolnik admits he has lived a life of privilege. Raised in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in Westchester, New York, he could easily have opted for a conventional suburban lifestyle.
Though, he says the privileges he takes for granted are only valid if he strives to give those same rights to others.“If I don’t fight for those same rights for everybody in this country, then my life is pretty much worthless.”
In his late 20s, his life changed forever following the 2008 historic election of President Barack Obama. At that very moment, Skolnik says, he felt compelled to leave the film industry to pursue a new career in social justice.
“When [President] Obama was elected I told myself I’ve got to be part of that,” he said. “This incredible energy that’s swept the nation.”
In line with his newfound ambitions, just a year later he forged an indispensable partnership with hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. He was hired as Simmons’ political director and took on a role at the newly established digital website GlobalGrind.com, where he now serves as president and editor-in-chief.
Skolnik is unapologetic about the site’s content and passionately believes hip-hop and politics are intertwined. “There is nothing wrong with going to the club on Friday night and going to the rally on Saturday.”
Alongside his day job, Skolnik’s demand has skyrocketed with a grueling schedule of speaking engagements and frequent television commentary on issues such as race, drugs, LGBT rights, gun violence, Obamacare, undocumented workers and immigration reform.
Skolnik, who has been dubbed a modern-day civil rights leader, has become a voice for young America.
His 2012 open letter, titled “White People, You Will Never Look Suspicious Like Trayvon Martin” raised his profile even further, going viral on the Internet. He now serves on the Board of Directors for the Trayvon Martin Foundation, founded by the 17-year-old’s parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin.
Skolnik undoubtedly inspires affection and respect among those who applaud his vision to bring to the forefront issues affecting the voiceless. But he completely understands that a good number of people don’t ‘get’ him.
“I think that the majority of people want to believe I am not white,” he says, in response to being asked whether people ever speculate if he’s a light-skinned African-American. In fact, his low cut hair makes it nearly impossible to gauge its texture.
“If I’m white then it’s confusing. If I’m mixed [race] it’s an easier story to tell. If I’m a light-skinned African-American then it’s a really easy story to tell.”
“If I’m white, then wait a second, we’ve never heard a white person talk like that.”
Although, Skolnik says the motivation behind his work is pretty simple: empathy or a desire for a more “inclusive” and “compassionate” society.
His critics, both black and white, are dumbfounded because he doesn’t fit neatly into a box. Skolnik is an enigma: a college-educated white American, from a comfortable background, who unashamedly voices the concerns of the less privileged.
“As my work deepens and as my profile becomes more public I get more criticism. I get it, but I’m not offended by the criticism because we are at a very challenging time when it comes to race in this country.”
Still, Skolnik’s commitment is infectious and you get the impression he isn’t going to stop. And frankly, in a country so polarized by race, this white dude of distant Russian ancestry is a breath of fresh air.
This story was originally published on April 3, 2014
Follow Kunbi Tinuoye on Twitter@Kunbiti