By Matthew Kogut
“I am an activist for the common struggling person in this country, the underdog, the person whose consciousness and voice has been shut down in mainstream America. I don’t dare have the nerve to think I am better than someone because I am more fortunate. I respect all people.” William O’Connell
William “Bo” O’Connell, instructor of communications on the Grant campus, has become a powerhouse when it comes to his work with the homeless. In his new book, “Chief Keetoowah “Legacy,” ” O’Connell details his experience with Chief Keetoowah and other homeless people in Venice Beach, Ca., through pictures.
It all started with his first book, a Lulu Press worldwide best seller “Homeless In Paradise : Communicating with the Bohemian Venice Beach, CA Subculture”, where he talks about Chief Keetoowah, also known as Chief Soaring Eagle. As stated in the book’s synopsis, Chief Keetoowah is a Native American man who is an astrophysicist with a PhD. He is called “The Chief” and although he has been homeless for 27 years, “he has been a civil rights activist through all of the movements against oppression, which transformed America in the 1960’s.”
O’Connell first met the Chief four years ago in the underbelly of Venice Beach, Ca., living among the homeless. What drew him to the Chief was, “his vision, his sense of reality, and his ability to communicate and articulate on a level which for me was compelling enough that I wanted to know more,” O’Connell said. “Chief is a spiritual force,” he added.
“The book was easy to write,” O’Connell said. “I am the type of person who sets up what I want to do in my mind well ahead of time and then I just go out there and do it! I am not waiting for the world to come to me — I am out there everyday living life to the fullest — you should too! We never know how life can change from one second to the next. There are people who lift and people who learn in this world — my mind stays busy.”
O’Connell is now an expert when it comes to the homeless. He has studied the homeless for five years and has stated he is one of a few people in the country who has spent more than 2,000 hours with homeless people. Being around homeless men, women, children, and even animals, has changed his way of thinking in life.
He got inspired to work with the homeless by a Vietnam Veteran named Pruitt. When asked about how he got inspired, he said, “His story moved me because he only had one arm. The other arm he lost on the battlefield of Vietnam. Pruitt’s fascinating story is captivating. Every 18-year-old has a dream. His was taken away fighting for the American Flag. When he lost his arm, he lost inspiration to fulfill his dream. My dream is not to the elitist mentality…Most people go through life talking about making a difference, while I am making it in the lives of complete strangers whose voices would otherwise never be heard,” O’Connell said.
What does the Chief have to say about this? On being a member of the homeless community, he stated, “Being homeless on the beach there is really no want for anything. There is nothing there but the sand, and the sea, and the sky. As far as the subsidence by prayer, meditation and getting focused and balanced in that arena, everything I received in the last seven years I did not have seven years ago. I received nourishment, good information, good entertainment, everything that a person needs to have through a movement achieved on a daily basis.”
In O’Connell’s research, it is also important to state that the Chief, for a number of years, has worked for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Ca.
But when it comes to working with the homeless, why Venice Beach, California? Why not New York City or any other places with an elevated level of homelessness?
“Venice Beach and Southern California has more homeless than anywhere in the country. More than 250,000 people are homeless in Los Angeles compared to 55,000 in New York,” O’Connell said.
The communication instructor’s hard work is finally paying off. He is currently working on a documentary called Voices in the Sand which is based on his books on the homeless of Venice Beach and the people who he has built close relationships with, including gang members. He is not giving much information out about his documentary. He has also been hired by British actor Russell Brand to serve as a contributor and consultant on a feature length documentary film titled Russell Brand’s Happiness Project. He set up locations, scenes, and brought the homeless to Brand, educating him about the crisis of homelessness. That movie is expected to air during the summer of 2011.
On the topic of “fame,” The Chief was asked about how he felt about becoming more recognizable, “It’s the greatest honor that a person can be recognized and to be on a front cover of a book is extra love…You know I think that the spirit at this time in my life is calling me to be part of something that’s never been thought of or created.” He also stated, “Since the release of Professor O’Connell’s popular book I have been interviewed six times already. The Thai media recently interviewed me on a piece that they plan to use for children.”
The Chief told O’Connell, when O’Connell went homeless in January of 2010, “it doesn’t matter if a person is homeless for 30 years or 30 seconds–what changes when someone experiences homelessness is that a person develops a deeper level of understanding of how important it is to help people.”
“Chief Keetoowah “Legacy” “can be purchased at www.lulu.com , and all proceeds go to the Chief. O’Connell’s first book is also available for purchase as well on the same website. More information on Professor O’Connell, his books and current movie projects can also be found on his website www.williamoconnell.net.