Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2008

Jennings said ‘unwavering faith' pulled him out of poverty, into the Ivy League

Subject of book tells others not to emulate him, but to do better

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Brian Lewis/The Gazette
Cedric Jennings speaks to an audience of 200 at Montgomery College's Rockville campus on Tuesday evening as part of the "One Maryland One Book" program, designed to get millions of Marylanders to read and discuss the same book.

During a speech Tuesday night at Montgomery College's Rockville campus, the subject of the book being used as the focal point of the "One Maryland One Book" program announced that he would leave his job as a social worker to accept a directorial position with the District of Columbia City Council for a pre-professional development program.

Cedric Jennings, 31, who now lives in northern Virginia, told a crowd of about 200 people gathered to hear him speak about his rise from a struggling school in a poor neighborhood of the District to the Ivy Leagues that he will soon take on the new challenge.

"I'm looking to take all the good work that I've done to a higher level," he said. "[Chairman of the D.C. City Council] Vincent Gray doesn't know yet. He doesn't know I've accepted. You all are the first to know."

A lot of Jennings' life is about challenges.

Jennings is the subject of "A Hope in the Unseen: An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League," a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind published in 1998 by Broadway Books. He graduated from Ballou High School in Washington, D.C., and then attended college at Brown University. He went on to earn master's degrees from Harvard and the University of Michigan before returning to the D.C. area as a social worker at the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency.

Jennings said the unwavering faith that pulled him through some of his toughest moments is the key to helping other children who feel trapped in their circumstances. But he encouraged those who are inspired by his story to not emulate him.

"We're supposed to propel the next generation to be better," he said. "You don't want to be Cedric Jennings. You want to be better than Cedric Jennings."

Audience members had the opportunity to ask him questions about his journey from poverty and the crime-ridden streets of his childhood neighborhood to the marble halls of the Ivy League.

One questioner asked what the leadership of the D.C. public schools could do to produce more Cedric Jennings.

Jennings replied, "Listen to the students."

Jennings signed copies of "A Hope in the Unseen" after his speech.

Audience members reacted positively to the emotional story.

"I think his story rings true," said Kyle Harris of Gaithersburg. "He's a young black man, plus he's working in the system. We need more people like him willing to open their lives up to mentoring."

Nancy McIntire of Rockville had not read the book before hearing Jennings speak, but was so inspired by him that she now plans to read his story.

"I was pleasantly surprised," she said. "He described his background very well without wallowing in it."

She said she agreed with his overall message, which she summed up as: "You've got to do what you've got to do."

"One Maryland One Book" was established this year by the Maryland Humanities Council. The idea is to encourage residents throughout the state to read the same book as a way of opening dialogue that would not normally take place without the book as common ground.

‘‘The idea is not just about reading," said Andrea Lewis, project manager for the program, ‘‘it is about a common experience."

Jennings' speech was the kick-off event for the program in Montgomery County. Coordinating the county's participation in the initiative is Carol Legarreta, public service coordinator for community engagement and development for Montgomery County Public Libraries.

‘‘There are three types of events we are going to have in Montgomery County," Legarreta said. "Besides the kickoff event there will be many book discussion groups going on in libraries and there will be civic reflections following a nationwide model that uses literature as a springboard to discuss social issues."