Kal Penn gives insight on work with the Obama administration during book talk

By Olivia Cohen, Staff Reporter

Kal Penn speaks to Vice Media co-founder Suroosh Alvi about his career and new book, “You Can’t Be Serious,” at a Chicago Humanities Festival event at the Harris Theater on Nov. 6. Abra Richardson

Whether it is in Hollywood or the White House, actor and former White House staff member Kal Penn has never been one to shy away from a new role.

Penn, an established comedic actor, took part in a Q&A on Saturday, Nov. 6 at the Harris Theater in Millennium Park, an event hosted by the Chicago Humanities Festival. Penn sat opposite of event moderator Suroosh Alvi, a journalist and co-founder of Vice Media.

The discussion ranged from Penn’s recent coming out as gay in his engagement announcement to his new book “You Can’t Be Serious,” along with his experiences with racism as an actor of color and, most of all, his days working under former President Barack Obama.

In addition to working in the White House, Penn’s memoir discusses his relationship with his family and how he overcame his family’s expectations to pursue a less orthodox career path.

“I didn’t take a sabbatical from acting to [work in the White House] because I wanted to write a book about it. … I genuinely thought it was the right thing to do for myself at the time,” Penn said. “There was no real epiphany. … I just thought I would like to write a book for the 25-year-old version of me.”

Penn discussed that he was never a fan of politics, but his family’s values instilled political topics in his mind, as his grandparents marched with Gandhi during the Indian independence movement. Given that politics have always run in his veins, when faced with the opportunity to meet Obama during his presidential campaign in 2007, Penn took it.

Penn joined Obama’s campaign as a celebrity volunteer in 2007 and later joined the administration in the Office of Public Engagement, serving on the National Arts Policy Committee in 2008 and serving as the Asian-American and Pacific Islanders liaison.

Penn said almost everyone in the Office of Public Engagement had taken a leave of absence from their previous jobs to try to make the country better through work with the Obama administration. Penn said his coworkers’ careers were wide-ranging, having worked alongside a pediatrician, a clean energy worker and more.

“I still continue to get a lot of questions like, ‘Wow, you took a leave of absence to work in government,’ but the truth was thousands of other people were doing the exact same thing,” Penn said. “I was in the company of really inspiring people.”

Aside from his career in politics, Penn has had roles in films, including the “Harold and Kumar” movie series, as well as television shows, such as “House” and “Designated Survivor.”

The book talk brought in a wide range of attendees, including school teachers Megan Quinn and Lisa Westholder.

Westholder, a middle school math teacher from Acero charter school in Chicago, said she did not know much about Penn prior to getting free tickets to the event, but she is now interested in reading his book.

Westholder said Penn did a good job at keeping the conversation relatable to the audience, even when talking about his work in politics.

“It went political, but in a way that you and I support,” Westholder said, referring to Quinn. “It was the conversation that we wanted to hear more often, about how we can bring change and how we can bring a more diverse platform.”

Penn said he was in a much more diverse workplace in the White House under Obama than he has experienced while working in Hollywood.

“Still to this day, from the Iowa campaign to the end of the eight years of the Obama White House, it was by far the most diverse place I’ve ever worked or had friends that worked,” Penn said. “It’s like a family after all of that time. … It was diverse, but not just ‘check the box’ diverse.”