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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A Talk with Kevin Jennings

"They were ordinary people who saw something wasn’t right
and stood up to fight against it"

Yesterday, the Alliance for Justice hosted its annual summer lunch for Washington DC summer interns at the SEIU. After a warm welcome from Nan Aron, the Alliance for Justice interns and I listened to the captivating Kevin Jennings, Assistant Deputy Secretary for the Department of Education, speak to a packed house. Secretary Jennings, a teacher, civil rights leader, and writer gave a poignant speech; I think it is fair to say that everyone in the audience was left feeling that they could go out and improve the world. Without using clichés like “you are the future,” Jennings gave the young progressives in the room tangible ways to create change.

Secretary Jennings gave several pieces of advice about individual people creating change. First he simply juxtaposed the images of the modest home that Martin Luther King Jr., shared with his wife and four children, with the picture of Dr. King giving his “I have a dream speech.” Secretary Jennings said that when you think about how to make change you should not think about the almost divine icon King became, but instead think of the man who got out of a tiny double bed every morning and just tried to make the world a little better.

Then Secretary Jennings offered a surprising suggestion; he reminded us to downplay the importance of Washington. Instead, he encouraged emerging leaders to make grassroots change in their communities, because local and state change will lead to an overwhelming tide that will move our country towards change on the federal level. Secretary Jennings noted it was not just the inspirational speeches like Dr. King’s that made a difference at the 1963 March on Washington, but was also the dozens of grassroots activists who spent three days making the 120,000 cheese sandwiches that fed the hungry crowds sweltering in the August heat on the National Mall.

Finally, Jennings gave a deeply nuanced analysis of history and time as only a history teacher could. He mentioned how when he was growing up, the idea of a homosexual senior presidential appointee, a Hispanic Supreme Court Justice, and an African American President would have been ludicrous. However, he quickly dismissed the idea that acceptance and the righting of injustice were a mere product of progress with time. Rather he argued that it was individual people who realized that it was their moral obligation to do something about the fundamental wrongs they saw in the world, that were able to make so much progress in the recent decades. Secretary Jennings left us with the cautionary message that even now that there is legal equality of opportunity, there is still a gap in actual opportunity, and education is a place to remedy that. I hope our event inspired other young interns to go out and make a difference after their summer in DC. As Secretary Jennings reminded us, we as young leaders need to believe not that time will bring change but that we will bring change.

-by Lauren Bohdan
2010 Summer Intern, Alliance for Justice

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