Kevin Jennings on What's Next: ‘Change That Makes Concrete Progress'

Kevin Jennings has been fighting for equality for decades. In 1988, he created the first school-based Gay-Straight Alliance Club while working as a history teacher in Concord, Massachusetts. He went on to serve as the assistant deputy secretary for the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools at the U.S. Department of Education from 2009 to 2011. Today, he is the chief executive officer of Lambda Legal, a legal and civil rights organization focused on equality for LGBTQ people and persons living with HIV. Jennings has been recognized for his documentary film work and has authored seven books, including "Mama’s Boy," his memoir. He’s a first-generation college graduate and earned his undergraduate degree from Harvard College, a master’s from Columbia University’s Teachers College, and an MBA from NYU Stern School of Business. 

This is the eighth part of a series where civil rights leaders, cultural influencers, advocates and critical thinkers explain race relations, societal change, community protest and the political awakening happening in the United States following the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and other Black Americans. The group, including NAACP President Derrick Johnson and #OscarsSoWhite Creator April Reign, pose their thoughts on race relations during the summer of 2020 and how America may move forward less divided. Join the conversation on social media using #PassTheMic.

Kevin Jennings, Chief Executive Officer, Lambda Legal

Kevin Jennings

We need to see demonstrable changes in outcomes for Black people in American society. Nothing less will do.

Kevin Jennings

Q: How would you describe the civic unrest occurring in America right now?

A: Given our ongoing failure to come to terms with our history of racism and its insidious impact on our society, the word that comes to mind is “inevitable.” I am reminded of the poem "Harlem" by Langston Hughes, now nearly 70 years old but still relevant.

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Q: Is this a fleeting moment or have we reached an inflection point where lasting change is possible?

A: That’s up to us. It will only be an inflection point if we, the people – and our leaders – commit to making serious, systemic changes in response to this moment. It’s possible, but it will take commitment and hard work for real change to happen. Only we can decide if we are committed to so doing.

Q: Is there another moment in history that relates to the moment we are living through now?

A: During Reconstruction (1865-1877), the United States made rapid progress towards racial equality. Formerly enslaved Black men were given the right to vote, numerous Black people took office (including as US Senators and as Governors), and the first schools for Black people were established. But then the federal government withdrew its support for such efforts, and — through a campaign of both physical and political violence by white people — the gains made by Black people were largely erased as legal segregation was imposed, Black people were disenfranchised, and the white elite regained its power in the South. That teaches us a lesson, i.e. that progress is neither inevitable nor irrevocable, and we’d do well to remember that now.

A civil rights activist, attorney and writer explain race relations, societal change and the political awakening happening in the United States following the tragic death of George Floyd. When it comes to race, “systemic problems have plagued the nation for not only decades, but for centuries,” says Derrick Johnson, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The summer of 2020 is proving to be a moment for multiracial coalitions to come together, according to Fatima Goss Graves, TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund co-founder and National Women’s Law Center president and chief executive officer. Bestselling author George Johnson explains the revolution is being televised.

Q: What specifically needs to happen for Black lives to matter in the United States?

A: We need to see systemic change, change that makes concrete progress towards erasing the continued disparities between white people and Black people in education, income, and wealth. Just giving Juneteenth as a holiday is not enough. We need to see demonstrable changes in outcomes for Black people in American society. Nothing less will do.

Q: What does social justice mean to you personally and why should others care?

A: I am proud to be an American, and I understand that even that pride is part of my privilege as a white person in this country. I grew up pledging allegiance to a flag that stood for “liberty and justice for all.” As Langston Hughes wrote above, this dream of “liberty and justice for all” has been a dream deferred for too long for Black people as well as a host of others – disabled people, LGBTQ people, religious groups such as Muslims, the list could go on. Social justice to me means we decide, as a society, that we are finally going to live up to that pledge with no exceptions based on race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability or any of the other myriad ways people are held back in the United States.

Q: What solutions will heal racial divisions and disparities?

A: People must see concrete changes. As long as Black people have fewer opportunities to get a quality education, to get good jobs, and to walk safely down the street, racial division will persist. We need to invest in Black communities, providing high quality schools and more, and better career opportunities, things that make a tangible difference in people’s lives. We need to fix a criminal justice system that yields different outcomes for people based on race. And we need to come to terms with, acknowledge, and atone for an ugly history of 400 years of systematized racial oppression in the United States.

Q: How do you feel about the future?

A: Depends on the day, to be brutally honest. There are days when I feel like we may be on the verge of truly meaningful change, and then others when it all feels hopeless. I routinely see signs for hope as well as signs for despair. I am in the hope business – anyone working for social justice is, as we deep down believe that change is possible, or else we couldn’t do this work – but I’d be lying if I said hopeful was the only way I was feeling. Like that relationship status on Facebook, it’s complicated.

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