Given that June is both Gay Pride and Immigrant Heritage Month, it’s fitting that the Tenement Museum last week announced the appointment of Kevin Jennings—a former history teacher who became a nationally recognized advocate for LGBT youth—as its new president.
Jennings, 54, will lead the Lower East Side museum as it undergoes an expansion and seeks to widen its audience through new technology. Founded in 1988 by Ruth Abram, the museum fields 250,000 visitors per year and brings to life the stories of working class immigrants who lived in the tenement at 97 Orchard St.
“The biggest challenge we face is that these are tenements, which means they’re small, and we’re at max capacity,” said Jennings. “We’re going to look at the emerging technologies of virtual reality to find ways for people sitting in their living rooms in Bozeman, Montana, to visit the museum.”
This fall, the museum will open a second exhibit next door at 103 Orchard St., which will feature the stories of three families—one Jewish, one Chinese, and one Puerto Rican—who occupied the original tenement. Jennings’s immediate predecessor, Morris Vogel, completed a $20 million capital campaign to create the exhibit, “Under One Roof,” and make repairs to the museum’s existing structure.
Raised in the rural south by a single mother with a sixth-grade education, Jennings began his career as a history teacher at Concord Academy in Massachusetts. During his tenure at the progressive prep school, where I was one of his students, Jennings co-founded the country’s first Gay/Straight Alliance. Prior to that, he majored in history at Harvard, and, he noted, worked his first professional job as a tour guide at Paul Revere House. “It’s coming full circle from where I started,” Jennings said of his new position.
While the fit may not seem immediately obvious to those who know Jennings for his work running the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), which he co-founded in 1990 with a small group of New England independent school teachers and built into a national advocacy organization, it makes perfect sense to the new museum president.
“I think there’s a link between the work I do in the LGBTQ community and the work of the museum,” said Jennings, who is openly gay. “I believe that stories change people’s hearts, and when we did GLSEN, we used the stories of real life people to help educators understand the issues. And that’s what the museum does: We take stories of real life immigrants and humanize them.”
In 2009, Jennings was appointed Assistant Deputy Secretary at the office of Safe & Drug-Free Schools in President Obama’s administration, where he led an anti-bullying initiative. In that role, Jennings said he took the same tack of humanizing the issue: He would bring the parents of children who had died from bullying to meet the president and Michelle Obama. “I knew if they met them,” he said. “They would want to do something.”
A self-described “history nerd” who spent his childhood visiting historical sites and museums with his mother, Jennings went on to run the Arcus Foundation, which focuses on conservation and LGBT rights, before accepting the Tenement Museum job. Now, as he takes the helm there, Jennings is once again tackling a heated social issue. “Immigration is probably the single hottest topic in America right now, and it’s very polarizing,” said Jennings. “What history can do really beautifully is to help people understand issues as human issues, and I hope the museum can help people understand that immigrants are not evil, they’re just ordinary people.”
Rebecca Spence is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. She is currently at work on her first novel.