Chelsea Mellin

Opinions Editor


When the audience was asked what they thought Azekah Jennings’s favorite type of music was, their responses included hip-hop, reggae, calypso, and jazz. However, Jennings’s favorite genre of music surprised many in the audience: country.

Jennings, who grew up on the U.S. Virgin Islands, used to work as a federal prosecutor in that region. After spending time as a federal prosecutor, he started to notice a trend. “The more I prosecuted cases, the more I saw young people going into the system and that bothered me.” Jennings took this and moved toward a new career with the U.S. Department of Justice, in a department known as the Community Relations Service, where Jennings works as a senior conciliation specialist.

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A recent talk at Keene State College helped to explain what exactly the Community Relations Service does within communities. Jennings began the presentation by having students interview each other, asking them how they identify themselves and if that identification has ever caused them to encounter and prejudice. Students spoke out to the group, describing instances where they had experienced prejudice. Dottie Morris, chief officer of Diversity and Multiculturalism, thought that the presentation seemed to be doing its job. “It’s getting people talking, getting people involved,” she said.

Jennings used this opportunity to describe the importance of communication when there is conflict or prejudices. “In order to understand folks, you have to have communication,” Jennings said. Without the lines of communication open, Jennings said this is where prejudices and conflict began. “You can’t make assumptions about each other until you have communication.”

The presentation also stressed the importance of reaction when it came to judgments made against other people. “Everyone alive has some sort of baggage…” Jennings said, “so long as we’re living and breathing, we all have stuff we need to work on.”

Following the presentation about personal conflicts and prejudices, Jennings began a presentation more focused on hate crimes and what are known as bias incidents. While hate crimes are a criminal offence committed against a person motivated by the offender’s bias based on a prejudice, a bias incident is a non-criminal act that is also based on prejudices. “A hate crime is when a crime is actually committed…it’s a bias incident if he refuses to give me a pen or tells me ‘I don’t like you,’” Jennings said. Jennings said that not all crimes are obviously hate crimes. “You have to prove the person’s intent.”

The real danger or hate crimes are not necessarily the crimes themselves, but instead the danger lies in the emotions and reactions the community experiences following a hate crime. Jennings believes the act of the crime creates a terror within the community. “That’s what hate crimes do. It terrorizes an entire community,” Jennings said.

Using the First Amendment as a guide, Jennings also explained the importance of protecting instances of freedom of expression that may contain prejudices or hate. “The beautiful thing about this is that everyone has a First Amendment right to express their opinion,” Jennings said. Unfortunately, protecting the rights of groups such as the Klu Klux Klan and the Westboro Baptist Church cost taxpayers real money. “It costs tax payers hundreds of thousands of dollars when one preacher said he wanted to burn the Koran…there is a price to pay on expressing our First Amendment right,” Jennings said.

Jennings closed the session by describing the role and responsibility of the Community Relations Service. Unlike the FBI and the Department of Justice itself, the Community Relations Service doesn’t investigate or punish those communities it goes to help, instead it’s sole responsibility is to facilitate communications and mediate during conflicts within a community. They provide guidance and strategies for communities facing conflicts, without using publicity or choosing sides.  Senior Brad Agostino thought the Community Relations Service was an interesting agency. “I wasn’t aware of that agency, it was cool to see the government sending it to try and help,” he said.

Keene’s own instances of racial tensions have been publicized in recent weeks, but according to Jennings, his own appearance was not related. “This was planned way in advance of recent incidents but I am aware of them,” he said. “If the university asked us to assist with that we’d be more than happy to.”


Chelsea Mellin can be contacted at

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