Kevin Powell grew up in a single-parent home in Brooklyn, N.Y., in a life of poverty. But his mother was determined that he would go to college and have opportunities she never did.

Kevin Powell grew up in a single-parent home in Brooklyn, N.Y., in a life of poverty. But his mother was determined that he would go to college and have opportunities she never did.

Now an engaging and in-demand motivational speaker, Powell used her story and his own accounts of growing up and personal growth Tuesday night in Pittsburg State University’s McCray Hall to illustrate the importance of education and accountability. Powell addressed an audience of primarily African American students and faculty as the wrap-up for Black History Month activities. But he said his message is intended to cross ethnic, racial and cultural boundaries.

Powell’s articles, essays, and reviews have appeared in Newsweek, Essence, The Washington Post and Vibe magazine, where he interviewed prominent figures from Colin Powell to the late Tupac Shakur. He has written 10 books including the best-selling “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight: Manhood, Race, and Power in America.” His latest book, “Open Letters to America,” features essays on Powell’s dream for the country to come in the wake of Barack Obama’s historic presidential victory.

Powell said that for the country to turn itself around and for people to stop misunderstanding each other, they need to take ownership of their lives and become more culturally rounded. That starts with an understanding of United States history and being willing to look at it through various cultural lenses.

“When we talk about black history, we’re talking about American history. When we talk about women’s history, we’re talking about American history,” he said. “It’s a door to open up a new conversation about our history. If you don’t know who you are, what can you bring to the table?”

People need to address their priorities in life to truly be happy, Powell said. Too often, he continued, people base their sense of self worth on material possessions to mask their fear of being meaningless.

“Part of the problem in this country is that we don’t know who we are,” Powell said. “You all have to ask the question ‘Why am I here?’”

That’s where education and travel comes in. College, Powell said, is for soaking up knowledge about the world and learning to become a critical thinker, not just to learn a trade to make money.

“College is important so our minds can expand and we can go make a real contribution to the world,” he said. “Education is critical. The world is your classroom. Anyone can go make money.”

Powell’s definition of education is manifold. Part of being educated, he said, is having some sort of spiritual foundation. Spirituality, he continued, comes from understanding and love.

“Do you really believe in people?” said Powell, who is Christian calls people of all types his brothers and sisters. “Anyone can be ‘religious, but do you have a kindness in your heart for people and not engage in petty jealousies or senseless competitions?”

Being educated also means having the responsibility to be more political, Powell said. And being political means having the ability to move in various circles and identify with people, and that can only happen by traveling and interacting with others.

“Too many people are living their lives in this prison called ‘fear,’” said Powell, whose goal is to visit all seven continents before he dies. “You’ve got to go places people don’t expect. People ask me ‘Why would you go to Pittsburg? What’s out there?’ I tell them ‘America’s out there.’”

People also need to “manifest their cultural swagger,” Powell said. That means knowing modern music and art, but also knowing the predecessors that influenced them.

“I’m not impressed if someone tells me they’re educated but they don’t know about culture in different forms,” he said.

Powell also said people need become financially literate before they graduate college, and improve their mental and physical health. Bad diets are the root cause of many deadly diseases such as heart disease and Type II diabetes, and mental illness and bad attitudes slowly erode the spirit, he said.

One of the main causes of today’s country, Powell said, is a media culture that promotes materialism, excess, and selfishness. He outlined three qualities he sees in what he considers to be true leaders. They are:

• A willingness to change the direction of a conversation and change the vocabulary of that conversation

• Have worked to build something that serves the common people, i.e., a non-profit entity or a park or an advocacy publication, among others

• Must have love, compassion for others and be accessible to people