A Conversation with Kevin Jennings

21st century America is undoubtedly a difficult political terrain to traverse at times, especially with respect to the contentious issue of sexuality. Opposing camps have staked out their respective territories, completely unwilling to engage in productive dialog. It is clear, then, that Mr. Jennings’ approach to these issues is a novel one; his willingness to search for unity rather than divisiveness is worthy of emulation. At the core of these debates is the fact that the lives of young people are at jeopardy, and Mr. Jennings sets partisanship aside in order to advocate for the needs of America’s queer youth. Furthermore, the education of our young people is a shared responsibility that relies upon the support of allies. The anti-LGBTQ climate in American public schools is more than a problem for the queer community; it points to a larger lack of inclusivity, knowledge, and compassion that affects all marginalized groups in specific ways. It is essential to address this problem, not only for LGBTQ youth, but also for the safety and efficacy of our schools generally. Harassment is an issue that must concern all of us, for we all share a commitment to the education and wellbeing of youth of all walks of life.

Moreover, each of us has a part to play in engendering a spirit of community, and our status as Harvard students gives us a unique opportunity to use the resources available to us to advance youth development. At the same time, we must be cognizant of our roots and mobilize the Harvard experience to enable us to empower the communities that are so integral to our identities. It is in the combination of love for our roots and the implementation of skills learned at Harvard that one finds the key to meaningful social reform. Mr. Jennings’ call to action was especially meaningful to me as a gay man from a rural community. We each have our own stories of how we arrived at this school, and we must never forget that as we pursue the goals that we hold dear.

Indy (CW): So my first question is about your most recent position at Be The Change. The mission of Be The Change states that progress is possible even where strong societal divides rift two groups. How does Be The Change seek to overcome the challenges that these divides cause?

KJ: Well, I think what you need to do first of all is meet people where they are. What I mean by that is start with the point of agreement rather than the point of disagreement. I think that’s really critical. It’s the opportunities you get sometimes; there will be things you can get everybody to agree upon like “everybody deserves the opportunity to succeed”. So, if you can start with something everyone agrees on and then work from there, we can all at this point agree on how we might activate that concept and we’ll get a lot further. I think that people often, instead of thinking and feeling the middle ground, they kind of stake out their position and then you get boxed into that, so I think that whatever thing you can start with where people already have a point of agreement, you’ll make progress.

Indy: Yes, that’s fantastic. When we were reading about some of the past issues, and, just in light of the current political climate, how have you navigated the sometimes tense, divisive political atmosphere in pursuit of these reforms? I know a lot of people are actually united, so how do you communicate to those people as well as the people who are serving partisan interests?

KJ: Well, it’s tough, I’m not going to lie. It’s a very polarized area — I’m going to be forty-nine next week and I’ve never entered into something this polarized in my life. But I think it’s absolutely critical that you look at these people and realize you’re not going to agree with them on everything. I think what you have to decide sometimes is: we’re going to work together in places where we agree and we’re going to let it go in places where we disagree. I think that’s a much more useful approach. If you’re expecting everybody to agree completely with everything you stand for you’re going to find it very hard to be in Congress. Whereas if you can agree that there are certain points in which we have a point of agreement and I’m going to stick with those and not get too fixated on the areas where we disagree, that gives you more of a fighting chance.

Indy: Sure, that’s great. So my next question is about your work with the Gay Straight Alliances. My parents are gay actually, so I’m pretty interested in the position that allies play both for younger students, either middle school or high school students, and older adults or college students. How do you think that allies can best serve the interests and needs of LGBTQ youth?

KJ: …From the very beginning, obviously, with the concept of the Gay Straight Alliance, I’ve believed strongly that allies have a unique role to play and I continue to believe that. I think that there’s a certain credibility that an ally brings to the table that somebody from the target group does not have, first of all. When an ally speaks up for LGBTQ rights, no one says, oh, they’re trying to recruit, they’re perverting their gender or whatever, just like if I speak up on sexism nobody calls me a bitch. You know? People call me a bitch on occasion but not when I speak about sexism (laughter)…So there’s something very unique in the role of the ally — you’ll sometimes be heard by people who can’t otherwise hear you, if that makes any sense. The other thing I would say is that it’s wonderful when someone from outside your group affirms you. Very few people from targeted groups have that experience on any kind of regular basis. So there’s something particularly important when an ally chooses to do that because it’s really felt in a different way. I don’t know how to put it any other way — it simply has an affirmative quality that’s incredibly important and uniquely powerful. I think that someone from your own group affirming is incredibly important and we need that as well, but there’s something unique about having an ally that affirms you.

Indy (WS): Wonderful, wonderful. My questions revolve around youth in public schools specifically. I’m wondering, what can Harvard students and graduates do to create social change, especially with respect to LGBTQ youth?

KJ: That’s a great, great question. Well, first of all, you have the power of the Harvard brand behind you. That’s a very useful tool. I think remembering where you came from is really important to reach back to communities, as the place you’re going to be impacts the community you came from. And if people in that community see someone coming back and saying —particularly an LGBT person — “I’m from here; I had these struggles, I’d like to know how you’re making it better for people today,” I think that’s very, very powerful. We did a campaign about 15 years ago when I was at GLSEN and we observed how rare it was that high school principals knew any of their LGBT students. We certainly have people write their favorite teacher or write their principal of their high school and saying ‘Hey, I am LGBT and this is what it was like for me,’ and that kind of really… I can’t tell you, how many principals and teachers contacted counselors…for information and said “Wow, I’ve really never thought about this issue before but having my former student reach out to me really impacted me.” I think every student at Harvard has the power to do that.

Indy: …Going off of that, what progress do you see has been made for LGBTQ youth and what still needs to be accomplished?

KJ: Well, I really think one of the things we have to face is that the experience of LGBT youth is not uniform. It is dictated often by geography, by gender, by class, and by race, and therefore it’s very hard to say this is what we need to do for LGBT youth. I think if you’re going to an affluent suburban public school in greater Boston, that’s very different than going to a private Christian academy in Mississippi, so I don’t want to make generalizations. I think in way too many places they’re still struggling with basic safety. The rates of harassment for LGBT youth remain very high, so basic safety is still a concern. After all, in 38 states you can still bully and harass people based on their sexual orientation or their gender identity, and you have no legal protection against that. So in 38 states we still haven’t put in place basic legal rights, and in other places we’ve got in place basic legal rights but we probably haven’t done as much as we should to make sure the curriculum is inclusive. So I really think it depends on where you are and who you are. I think the range of concerns ranges from making schools safe to making them affirming. I think you’re probably at different spots along that spectrum.

Indy: To return to that curriculum aspect, what steps are still necessary for the queer experience, if one can say there is a unified queer experience, to be adequately integrated into public school curricula?

KJ: Well frankly schools haven’t done anything at the start. The reality is most schools have not integrated LGBT issues in any concrete or significant way into their curriculum, so, I think that it’s not a question of what more schools could do, it’s just that schools need to get off their butts and do something. The average LGBT student or average straight student graduating believes the gay movement began when Ellen came out, so there are few threads we can go on. We could go on number one — to make sure that LGBT content, where appropriate, is added to the curriculum. Secondly, we could recognize that the LGBT content is already in our curriculum, when we teach people like Walt Whitman or Tennessee Williams or Langston Hughes and realize how their sexual orientation or gender identity shaped their experiences and their perceptions. So I think it’s both to integrate material that’s not in the curriculum and to recognize material that’s in the curriculum as LGBT material.

Indy: Very interesting. Do you have time for one last question?

KJ: Yes.

Indy: Alright. This is a personal one for me, because I’m very involved in youth development and I’m also an Art History major. I’m wondering how you feel the arts can be mobilized in the pursuit of positive social change for LGBT youth?

KJ: I served as the board chair of the Tectonic Theater Project, which created a piece of theater called The Laramie Project. It has had a tremendous impact on schools that have done it. I think that the arts often provide a really important mode of expression for students who are maybe being denied a voice, and therefore to participate in the arts give students a voice who might not otherwise have one. And secondly, the impact of arts on people is very different; to hear people and to experience a film or a piece of dramatic literature staged can put a human face on it for you. So I think that the arts do have a unique role to play as both as something for people to actually do to express themselves and also for the people in the audience who can maybe connect on a human level that they would not have been able to connect on with drier material.

Indy: That’s wonderful. Well, we’ll let you go, because we know you’ve got a million things to do, but thank you so much.

KJ: Thank you so much.

William Simmons ’14 (wsimmons@college.harvard.edu) and Christine Wolfe ’14 (cwolfe@college.harvard.edu) are very grateful to Kevin Jennings and Tim Pappalardo for their time, patience, and kindness. There is a wealth of information at Harvard for queer students and allies alike, such as the Queer Resource Center in Thayer basement. The Office of Student Life also maintains a listing of resources on their website for LGBTQ students and their allies. You can also get involved with the Harvard chapter of Students for Education Reform; more information is available online at http://www.studentsforedreform.org/. Equality is within our reach; let us end our year together with this promising fact fueling our journey.

Biography 

Kevin Jennings graduated magna cum laude in history from Harvard University in 1985. Since that time, he has made such an incredible impact that his classmates elected him the Chief Marshal of the 2010 Harvard Commencement, an honor given to a member of the class who has contributed positively to the world since graduation. He was the first member of his family to graduate college.

After serving as a high school history teacher, Mr. Jennings went on to found the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), a volunteer-based organization that has had an incredible impact on young people across the country by working to make schools safe and welcoming for LGBTQ youth. Under Jennings’ leadership, the advocacy work of GLSEN helped bring anti-LGBTQ discrimination to an end for millions of students. Additionally, while serving as the Assistant Deputy Secretary of Education, Mr. Jennings led the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools; in that time, he spearheaded the Obama Administration’s anti-bullying initiative.

Currently, Mr. Jennings is the CEO of Be the Change, a national nonprofit that administers ServiceNation and OpportunityNation, initiatives that seek to expand community service and address socioeconomic mobility.

Mr. Jennings is also the author of six books, including Mama’s Boy, Preacher’s Son: A Memoir of Growing Up, Coming Out, and Changing America’s Schools. He and his partner, Jeff Davis, live with their dogs, Ben, Amber, and Jackson.

For more information on Mr. Jennings and Be the Change, please see http://www.bethechangeinc.org and http://www.kevinjennings.com.

Interview By Will Simmons and Christine Wolfe; Commentary By Will Simmons