Be the Change CEO Kevin Jennings Does More Than Inspire

Nancy Roane, Staff Writer

On Tuesday night in West Lecture Hall, CEO Kevin Jennings, of nonprofit political organizing group Be The Change did not just inspire students to become activists — he analyzed what makes a good activist. Using experience and stories from his long career in activism — 18 years ago, he founded the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, the parent organization of the Gay-Straight Alliance, and from 2009 to 2011 he served as assistant deputy secretary for the Department of Education — Jennings outlined the history of grassroots change in this country and what still needs to be done today.

College sophomore Elliot Sakach hosted the event with co-sponsors Oberlin College Democrats and Oberlin Young Educators. Sakach described Jennings as “the epitome of an Oberlin student. He does a lot of different things to improve a lot of different people’s lives. I’m hoping that he can enlighten students who hope to pursue similar paths.”

Jennings’s lecture began as a brief history lesson, in which he compared his mother’s life and the civil rights changes during her lifetime to his life and the progress he witnessed for LGBTQ rights. He continued by delivering facts and figures on the number of presidents who owned slaves, served during segregation or served when homosexuality was still believed to be a mental disability. He stressed the importance of understanding history and recognizing how much change can take place over a single lifetime. Jennings offered his insight on the risks and rewards associated with activism and outlined for the audience what a “good activist” has: passion, stamina, facts, strategy and a sense of history.

“Social justice is a very long fight … and we need students at Oberlin to be leaders not just now while they are in college — we need them to be leaders in the next 40 to 50 years,” said Jennings.

Be The Change currently has two major campaigns: ServiceNation and OpportunityNation. ServiceNation promotes public service in America and in 2009 helped pass the Serve America Act, the biggest stimulator and expander of national service programs in the U.S. in 60 years. OpportunityNation promotes more economic opportunity and mobility in American society. On Nov. 3 and 4 in New York City, Be The Change will host an OpportunityNation summit to start a dialogue on opportunity issues and resolutions in America.

“My hope for Be The Change and particularly the OpportunityNation Campaign is that we can make this an urgent issue in American life again and really get the country to rally around making sure that everybody gets an opportunity,” Jennings said.

College first-year Nick Schrier appreciated that Jennings’ talk went past inspiration and into the topic of action. “I think it was helpful to hear ways beyond just being inspired to make change — about how it takes endurance and facts and knowing your history,” Schrier said.

Sakach had a connection with Jennings before inviting him to Oberlin, as Jennings’s partner is Sakach’s mother’s cousin. He said that his relationship with Jennings has motivated him in college: “He’s a big reason why I work so hard at Oberlin. He [inspires people to] really live the change you wish to see throughout your life.”