Fighting For What’s Right: Alan Jennings On Fairness In An Unjust World

We all look to champions to inspire us. The long, challenging and too-often frustrating work of making a better world can benefit tremendously from understanding the ground-level experiences of our colleagues. 

A photo of the cover of Alan Jennings' new book, "The Pursuit of Fairness: Fighting for What's Right in a World that's so Wrong

It is therefore easy to recommend “The Pursuit of Fairness: Fighting for What’s Right in a World that’s so Wrong,” Alan Jennings’ autobiographical and philosophical chronicle of his decades fighting for a more just local economy in eastern Pennsylvania.

Jennings, a former NCRC board member and executive director of the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley (CACLV), demonstrates how advocates can become successful change agents by committing to bring a persistent, dogged and heartfelt manner to their work empowering the poor and cajoling the powerful.

Alan Jennings depicted himself as an irreverent and practical radical in his new book. He starts off his book with a window into his childhood as a serious boy moved by his faith to make the world fairer. He explains:

Here is where you might think I’m more than a little looney. I was in my parents’ bedroom, maybe 7 or 8 years old. I remember standing in front of their full-length mirror. As I stood there, I became overwhelmed by a feeling that God had expectations of me. I mean, serious expectations. I would understand if you think I was one crazy-assed kid. But I went through the next 35 years carrying the burden of trying to have the kind of impact my heroes had. 

Right out of college, Jennings applied for a position at the CACLV, starting just 40 days after the 1980 election victory of President Ronald Reagan. Jennings’ career was therefore forged in the Reagan movement’s regressive ideology that government was the problem and its best-intentioned policies actually hurt poor people. 

Over the next 34 years, Jennings sought to prove Reagan wrong. 

Some federal seed money combined with hard work enabled the Jennings-led CACLV to do the following:

  • Establish the Lehigh Valley Food Bank, which feeds 60,000 people per month
  • Operate the Sixth Street Shelter, which has lifted 4,000 families out of homelessness
  • Weatherize more than 25,000 homes
  • Loan $7 million to 200 businesses
  • Green dozens of neighborhoods by planting 700 trees and replacing 150 sidewalks 

Jennings centered his strategy on empowering the disenfranchised. CACLV is one of thousands of Community Action Agencies (CAAs) born during President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s (LBJs) war on poverty. Under the CAA model, the federal government provided funding directly to CAAs, thus bypassing local governments that were often racist, corrupt and unsympathetic to poor people. This funding structure allowed Jennings to pursue an approach that empowers poor people by making them change agents independent of local government. 

He reminded CAAs to focus on empowerment and advocacy, stating:

If your nonprofit isn’t a change agent, you simply aren’t doing your job. I could run the best food bank around. But Congress could wipe out these gains and more in just a few minutes by how they vote on eligibility for school lunches or appropriations for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). 

Jennings offers several examples of how advocacy increases resources for CAA work. For instance, CACLV spearheaded a coalition to convince local counties to establish an affordable housing fund that used increases in mortgage and deed recording fees to generate $10 million for housing development and a downpayment cost assistance program to support 1,000 first-time home purchases.

Jennings expounds upon his community empowerment beliefs throughout the book. “Jesus said, ‘The meek shall inherit the earth,’” he writes in one such passage. “That would be nice. The problem is that the powerful like their power and they aren’t giving it up without a fight.” Jennings insists that nonprofit leaders must promote the goals of community empowerment when they design the management structure of their organizations including operating the board of directors, fundraising, administering programs and engaging the media.

In various advocacy campaigns, CACLV asked community residents to assume significant roles and lead from the front – whether by meeting with legislators, testifying at town hall meetings or documenting unmet needs and unfairness on the ground. In one major campaign, CACLV canvassed neighborhoods to provide details on the extent of slumlords and the lenders that financed them. With the help of renters of single-family homes, CACLV organized a “Slum Tour” for media and local stakeholders that revealed decaying and unsuitable homes and living conditions. This mobilization was key to passing a referendum that increased funding for code inspectors.  

The power of the community helped CACLV beat the odds and achieve justice, though the officials in power did not respond adequately in some cases. In the heyday of subprime and predatory lending leading up to the financial crisis of 2007-2008, CACLV-led community organizing detected and stopped a mortgage fraud scheme that had exploited 200 lower-income homebuyers of color. Three criminals from the financial industry went to jail. 

This campaign uncovered a vast conspiracy ring of fraudulent appraisers, property flipping investors and brokers who duped the poor and people of color by fraudulently misrepresenting loan terms and conditions on mortgage documents. During this extensive campaign, Jennings and CACLV encountered a wall of indifference from local agencies all the way to Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve Chairman, who said, “I’m a libertarian when it comes to access to credit. Why would someone take out a loan on such abusive terms in the first place?” 

While locking up three criminals was a victory, Jennings was seeking more far-reaching reform. Although reform did not occur immediately after this campaign, evidence from community organizing around the country propelled Congress to adopt anti-predatory lending protections in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010. 

Jennings’ community empowerment model does not involve coddling clients but rather tough love. “Bleeding hearts tend to be enablers, enablers tend to disempower people, disempowered people tend to accept their lot,” he writes.” When you accept your lot, you give up.” This belief motivated the CACLV homeless shelter to establish strict rules including requiring clients to agree to term-limited stays and developing an action plan for self-sufficiency. To Jennings, part of destroying the myth of the poor as loafers dependent on welfare was to ask them to lift themselves up and to engage in direct community advocacy themselves – not just to have their interests represented by professionals like himself. 

Towards the end of the book, Jennings introduces several aphorisms. These “Jenningsisms” further debunk stereotypes of the poor by showing how all of us rely upon governmental and societal help. 

Jennings asks us to channel our better angels, resisting the temptation of partisanship and bitterness. If we continue to live in a house divided, he warns, we all suffer through increases in polarization, extremism, gun violence, drug use and other symptoms of dysfunction. Instead, we can focus on making neighborhoods vibrant and invest in systems that give struggling people skills rather than jail time.

Jennings took care to temper his hard-hitting advocacy with reflection and magnanimity. Because “our ideology is useless without practical application.” he notes, we must be guided by our vision and world view but be flexible enough to strike compromises when necessary and to engage in a dignified manner with powerful stakeholders holding contrary views. For community town hall meetings, he recommends all legislators, not just Democrats and allies. An irreverent and practical radical must avoid burning bridges and commit to backing up emotional appeals with facts.

I have had the honor and privilege of working with and knowing Alan Jennings for the better part of two decades. I enjoyed his zeal, irreverence, but also the sense of fairness he extended not only to the people he sought to empower but to those who already had power. 

I did not fully appreciate the depths of his wisdom, doggedness and heart-driven work until I read this book, rich with both polemics and reflections. The world would indeed be a fairer place if we had more Alan Jennings. If I could sum him up in one word, it would be “mensch” – or what Jews like me aspire to be. This book will pull your heartstrings, activate your imagination, challenge your thinking and leave you stunned with its stirring surprise ending.

Josh Silver is a Senior Fellow at NCRC.

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