Alan Jenkins reflects on social change and reframing conversations on race

Lecturer on Law Alan Jenkins ’89 shared ideas for reframing conversations on race and social justice at a talk at Harvard Law School on Jan. 12. The talk was moderated by Clinical Professor Dan Nagin, vice dean for experiential and clinical education at HLS.

Alan Jenkins

Photo courtesy of The Opportunity Agenda

Jenkins is the executive director and co-founder of The Opportunity Agenda, a communications, research, and policy organization. He said he founded his organization as a social justice communications lab, using communications and culture for transformative change.

Before joining The Opportunity Agenda, Jenkins was director of human rights at the Ford Foundation; he served as assistant to the solicitor general at the U.S. Department of Justice, where he represented the government in constitutional and other litigation before the U.S. Supreme Court; and he was associate counsel to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., where he defended the rights of low-income communities suffering from exploitation and discrimination.

Jenkins said that his previous work focused on the pursuit of greater and more equal opportunity and human rights protections, but there were some things missing. They related to “culture, communication, and connection when it comes to social change efforts.”

On the communication front, he said, “we would win law suits or public policy efforts, for example on criminal justice and race in California, and they would be wiped away by a ballot initiative like ‘Three Strikes,’ because we hadn’t explained to voters in that instance why those reforms mattered, why they were the right thing and the thing to do for safety.”

Jenkins answered questions from the audience on topics, including the applicability of a human rights framework, social justice issues in the U.S., strategies for effectively talking about racial justice in more conservative areas of the U.S., and the experience of HLS student activists in conversations with the administration.

During the winter term at HLS, Jenkins is teaching Communications, Law and Social Change, a course designed to introduce students to the role that written, oral, and visual communications play in the development of American law and policy, with a focus on social issues and movements.

In addition to his J.D. from HLS, Jenkins hold an M.A. in media studies from the New School University, and a B.A. in psychology and social relations from Harvard College. He also served as law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun and to U.S. District Court Judge Robert L. Carter, and coordinator of the Access to Justice Project of the American Civil Liberties Union.