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Aaron Jenkins is the Executive Director of Operation Understanding DC, a nonprofit whose mission is to build a generation of African American and Jewish community leaders who promote respect, understanding and cooperation while working to eradicate racism, anti-Semitism and all forms of discrimination. Collected Young Minds sat down with Aaron to discuss what inspires and drives him, as well as his thoughts about OUDC’s work, millennials, and the world they live in. This is part two of two of the interview.
Part II: – Speaking Out – On Millennials, On Social Justice, and the Future
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
CYM: Tell me more about what you do now. What’s Operation Understanding DC?
AJ: Operation Understanding DC is a nonprofit that helps young people discover their leadership ability and educate their community through shared experiences. OUDC addresses issues of racism, anti-Semitism, or prejudice with a cohort of high school juniors. OUDC believes that through a strong educational component and relationship development, people can modify behavior, biases, and beliefs to respect opinions they hold but also opinions different than their own.
Participants complete a three-part program. Students spend six months becoming grounded in Black and Jewish culture through historical, religious, and experiential programming. Students attend synagogue, church, and mosques together to help students see beyond their own, often segregated, experiences. Students travel a great deal with our program, including a three-week Freedom Ride to New York and the deep South. This gives them the opportunity to see where key moments in Civil Rights history took place, from Atlanta where Dr. King was born to Mississippi where Fannie Lou Hamer took a stand and Freedom Summer took place. Students are then trained to give speeches and lead diversity workshops for their community focused on prejudice reduction and privilege awareness.
We fundraise all year so that students can participate in the program without being limited by their finances, which shows the students they are in the program for what they bring and not what they possess.
CYM: What has been your most gratifying experience and your most challenging one while working at OUDC?
AJ: A challenging moment would have to be the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin verdict last summer, because it happened during the OUDC Summer Journey, our three-week learning experience. I don’t think I took the time to think of the impact it would have on our young people. So creating a space that allowed young people to be transparent and share their emotions and navigating the difference of opinion in the room while keeping it a safe space was both challenging and necessary. A gratifying result was a video that our students made where they answered two questions:
- How did the verdict make you feel?
- What does it a program like OUDC mean to you?
Also, what is challenging in general is being present during conversations and giving of yourself emotionally as well. Celebrate when your students celebrate; mourn when your students mourn. The last couple of years, we have had students lose family members, which was a challenge because I didn’t realize how much I had connected with our young people until they lost someone.
Watching the growth of my students and learning from them gratifies me. I respect classroom teachers so much more after doing this work. Over the years, they get better in their craft learning from last year’s group. With this being my sixth class in the 20th program cohort, one my goals as executive director will be to bring our conversations to a larger group of people and continuing the investment in the young people we work with.
I will have my first group of OUDC students graduate from college this Spring. Watching the development of these young people into more mindful, passionate, intentional, and aware adults is gratifying, especially knowing our program was in some part impactful in their lives.
“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” – Mahatma Gandhi
CYM: Congratulations! So think about OUDC a year from now. What does a successful year look like?
AJ: At a basic level, success is having the students we start with graduate. Success is having staff and students look back and see that their learning curve changed. Success is being able to have open and honest conversations about race and culture and creating that space for the community. Success is having young people proactive in learning, in taking action and building friendships. Inspired by Gandhi’s words, seeing them “be the change they want to see in the world” I think, is success.
As an organization, I think success is building partnerships to get the word out to larger audiences, nationally and internationally, through outreach programs, social media, and technology. I think success is having our students in colleges and in the working world leading these conversations and doing something with all they’ve learned, and that the impression of a program like this is apparent.
Success is also continuing the engagement with the families of the students as well – that parents that just went through the program remain engaged with each other and parents meeting at the end of the year continue engaging in the New Year.
CYM: Picking up on your focus on young people, complete the statement: Millennials are _____
AJ: Blessed not to be burdened by some of the social pressures that existed generations before us. I think prior generations worked hard so that life would be better for those coming after them, and I believe millennials have gained a blessed and fruitful legacy from the folks behind us.
I am optimistic because millennials see the world wide-open versus closed. I was reading an article on “Washington DC’s Top 30 Women” under a certain age, and the Grio’s “Top 100 List” looking to see who in my peer group is there – something that meant little to me while growing up. It’s not motivated by bravado, but recognizing I’m fortunate to interact with people doing amazing things and to celebrate them.
CYM: Let’s do some word associations. What is the first word that comes to mind when I say…
AJ: Tangible change.
CYM: Interesting. Why realization when thinking of the word “justice”?
AJ: So, I am on the board for a nonprofit called ScholarCHIPS that provide scholarships to children whose parents are incarcerated, and apparently 2.3 million children have a parent incarcerated. The amazing part is that it was created by a talented college student and mentee named Yasmine Arrington when she was in high school. She started it through her participation in a program called Learn Serve International that encourages social entrepreneurship. And I became her mentor through a program called the Abramson Scholarship Foundation that provides scholarships to first generation college students. I share all of this because the world is extremely interconnected and I am fortunate to serve. Service has made me more aware of the pressing issues of our society as well as encouraged.
When I think of justice, I think, “What kind of society allows mass incarceration, which separate families for long periods of time?” My thinking on justice has recently been impacted by several incidents – Jordan Davis, Renisha McBride in Detroit, Jonathan Ferrell in North Carolina, Oscar Grant – incidents that I almost stopped following because the news stopped talking about it.
When I think of justice, I think, “When will it come along?” But justice isn’t immediate. It takes time, and reminds me of a quote from Dr. King, who said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
CYM: And did you say change for courage?
AJ: When I think of courage you normally think of an immediate action and display of something. But courage is not just one act but can be a lifestyle and decisions that happen over time. My mom is courageous; she raised my sister and I as a single parent. My sister is courageous; had special needs growing up and is graduating from college this Spring. Courage is about what you do when no one is watching. When people tell me I’m courageous, I never feel courageous. But the Cowardly Lion in the movie “The Wiz” was a coward up until the moment he stopped being one. Being courageous means not beating ourselves up for what we don’t do, but also being brave enough to know that the next opportunity to present itself you can change.
We want to thank Aaron for sitting down with CYM to share about his motivations, passions, inspirations, and his work and views on millennials. If you did not catch the first part of this interview, you can check it out here: Part I: Looking Inward – Motivation, Passion, Inspiration