Aaron Jenkins is the program director of Operation Understanding DC (OUDC), a Washington D.C.-based youth leadership organization. Before working at OUDC, A.J. worked as a legislative aide on Capitol Hill.
What is the mission of OUDC?
Our mission is to build a group of community leaders, with the idea that a small group of dedicated people can make a huge impact. We combat issues of prejudice, privilege, racism, and anti-Semitism—issues that go undiscussed, unchecked, unfocused upon by a large part of society, not because we don’t know it’s an issue, but because it’s difficult work.
How do you implement that mission?
We work with Black and Jewish high school students who say “we identify with our ethnic backgrounds, we’re interested in this subject, and we want to be a part of this work.”
Each year, we select six African-American girls, six African-American boys, six Jewish girls, and six Jewish boys, and we get together every other Sunday for five hours. We engage the students in three ways—education, travel, and action. They spend two-thirds of the program taking in information; then they go out and engage other people in peer-to-peer dialogue. The goal is that there’s a ripple effect as they reach out to others with what they have learned.
What does your role as program director encompass?
I handle recruitment, programming, curriculum development, and summer travel. I’m a planner, administrator and facilitator. This job actually reminds me of Williams in that it’s multi?disciplinary.
What’s the best thing about your job?
The reaction I get when I tell people what I do. Today I met an 87-year-old woman in the post office and she asked, “How can I make the world a better place?” and I said, “Here’s my card; here’s one thing we do to make the world a better place,” and she lit up.
How were you introduced to OUDC?
Actually, I participated in the program years ago. That’s a picture of me (points to a picture of himself as a teenager).
When you were 17, did you think this is where you would end up?
Never. Although my friends in the program used to call me Mr. OUDC (laughs).
How did Williams affect your career path?
Williams is a special place. I had to be present there—I had to be fully engaged. My work-study program was at Baxter Cafeteria, so I interacted not only with my fellow students, but also with townspeople. It was an opportunity to be a part of the community.
When I was trying to figure out what to do with my life, I reached out to Cheryl Hicks, a history professor, who I had heard speak at an event; I wasn’t even in her class. She invited me to sit down for coffee. She said, “Talk to me about things you enjoy.” So I talked about government and service and she asked, “Have you heard of this program called Public Policy International Affairs (PPIA)?” She gave me great advice and I did the program.
Dean Laura McKeon also helped me. She said, “Whatever you do, you have to go abroad.” So I went to Brazil, South Africa and India in one semester, with a program called the International Honors Program. That experience completely changed how I look at the world.
Sandra Burton, Ernest Brown, Kwe Yao Ageypon and Holly Silva, who were in charge of the dance program at Williams, were instrumental in helping me see my creative side—and that this creative side did not take away from my academic side, but enhanced it.
What is the value of a liberal arts education?
A liberal arts education brings together ideas from different disciplines. You have to process all this information at different levels, in multiple areas, and at some point all of your courses, no matter how divergent, have common linkages, and all the pieces fit together.
Also, Williams exposed me not only to areas that interest me, but others as well. My freshman entry roommate was a hockey player. I was an African drummer. I would go to the hockey rink, never having seen hockey before. And he knew nothing about djembes (West African Drum), but he came to a Kusika (African Dance and Drumming) show.
Math Professor Ed Burger now teaches a winter study course about failure. Have you learned from any failures or setbacks?
Oh, there were all types of failures. I don’t think you can be a successful person without experiencing failure.
If you go to Williams, chances are you don’t see yourself as someone who fails. But setbacks simply make you sit back and evaluate. Just because you try something doesn’t mean it’s going to work. What sets you apart is that you try again.
How has being part of the Williams community benefited you since graduating?
I formed some timeless friendships through Williams. Washington D.C. has a very active alumni group. I’m also part of The Alumni Executive Committee, which allows me to sit in a room of Williams grads from all over and discuss how we can make this school a better place and how we can better facilitate interactions between students, the college and alumni.
What advice do you have for young graduates?
Howard Thurman said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” If more people were in-tune with what made them come alive, then change would happen.