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Literary Scene: Jennings books confrontation

Alan Jennings is always ready for a confrontation. As long as it is for justice.

Jennings retired in May as Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley (CACLV) Executive Director, a position he held for more than 30 years.

Jennings’ book, “The Pursuit of Fairness: Fighting for What’s Right in a World That’s So Wrong.” (Rocky Rapids Press, 2019, 205 pp., $17.95) is a manual about how to run a social services nonprofit. It also is autobiographical. It covers the struggles Jennings faced working for Lehigh Valley residents in need and why he began this type of work.

“He’s Only Happy When He’s Fighting Mad” is one of the chapters of the book, which was also the title of a features article written about him in 2002. But Jennings is not one to needlessly explode in anger. He is just relentless, or as he says, “obsessed with fairness” when he is faced with things that need to be changed.

In a phone conversation from his home in Allentown, he says, “I am cynical enough to know what I am up against but optimistic enough to overcome it.” His optimism has been tempered by social conditions, however. “I feel like I have failed despite 40 years of trying. The poverty rate has gone up. It is frustrating.” The Lehigh Valley reflects national trends.

“Income is not rising for too many of our neighbors. Many people have a fixed income or skills that have minimal value in the marketplace. They are eating the dust of people who are more blessed.” Areas that appear to be thriving economically are not necessarily better for the poor, as real estate and rent costs go up while wages remain stagnant.

“The economy becomes more cruel everyday. The well-off ignore the servant who waits on them, the person that empties bedpans in nursing homes, and the checkout clerk in the grocery store.”

“The Pursuit of Fairness” lets nonprofits “understand their ability to do what they can do, and the tools to do it. It is a how-to manual on community problem- solving.” And, he adds, “You have an obligation to raise hell.”

Jennings says many leaders think that “controversy loses funding. My experience has been the complete opposite.” Jennings has won respect and funding from politicians and business leaders throughout the Lehigh Valley.

“Nonprofits do what the profit or public sectors can’t or won’t do,” says Jennings.

CACLV is an umbrella organization with many units.

“CACLV is a whole variety of programs, from providing shelter to small business lending. There are fourteen or so different programs, depending on what you call a program. Four of them are incorporated,” Jennings says.

Much of the social spending at the federal and state level is for discretionary programs, meaning that their budgets can be cut from year to year. “Agencies have to be smart to survive, using creativity, determination, and wisdom,” Jennings says. Government funding is now 30 percent of CACLV’s budget, making the nonprofit less vulnerable to funding cuts.

Jennings was born in Maryland. His family moved to Macungie when he was two-years-old. He has lived in Allentown for 35 years.

Although the first part of the book explains how his early life motivated his work and he describes many personal stories, he originally hesitated to write about himself.

“It seemed like bragging, and I was uncomfortable with that. But when I asked people about the book while I was writing it, they said, ‘You should write more about yourself.’”

It is not all about triumph. One chapter, “Lest You Think It Has Been All Successes and No Failures ... ,” lists what Jennings says that he failed to accomplish.

Information: www.caclv.org

“Literary Scene” is a column about authors, books and publishing. To request coverage, email: Paul Willistein, Focus editor, pwillistein@tnonline.com

Alan Jennings