Professor of Practice Alan Jenkins ’89 was at a recent comic book convention promoting “1/6: The Graphic Novel,” the work he created with author Gan Golan and illustrator Will Rosado that imagines an alternate ending to the events of Jan. 6, when a man approached eager to talk.

The man had gone to the Capitol that day in 2021 at the urging of former President Donald Trump, he told Jenkins, but had stopped short of entering the building when someone reminded him he had “a kid at home.” The law school professor and his new fan chatted for about 20 minutes, then the man, who loved the idea of a comic book based on the uprising, bought a copy and left. (Jenkins remembered thinking at the time: “I hope he doesn’t read this thing before I get out of here.”) But soon he was back, and Jenkins prepared for what might come next.

The man held out the copy of his comic book and said, “‘Can you sign this for me?,’” Jenkins recalled. “And I signed it, and he was off.”

During their discussion, Jenkins said he had gently tried to convince the man “that maybe the effort he was engaged in was not well founded; and he talked to me about QAnon … I don’t know if I persuaded him. He persuaded me of his humanity, and hopefully I persuaded him of the same, because the opposite of empathy is demonization, and no one ever convinced anyone who they did not first try to understand, or who they demonized.”

Their unlikely exchange had been possible “only through this [comic book] vehicle, and through an empathetic approach that both of us took,” Jenkins told a crowd of soon-to-be Harvard Law School graduates in an Ames classroom on March 26. Empathy was one the many “superpowers” they already possess, Jenkins said, and he urged them to nurture their inherent abilities in the days, months, and years ahead.

His remarks came during the opening Last Lecture, a four-part series in which Harvard Law faculty offer members of the 3L and LL.M. classes parting words of wisdom and advice.

Jenkins was well-positioned to deliver both. Before coming to teach at Harvard, he served as assistant to the solicitor general at the U.S. Department of Justice, the director of human rights at the Ford Foundation, associate counsel to the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund and was the co-founder and president of the social justice nonprofit The Opportunity Agenda. In addition to offering courses on race and the law, communication, and Supreme Court jurisprudence, he is also a graphic novelist, and opted to use the comics platform, he told students, “to share with you some of my experience.”

Early in his talk Jenkins showed the students an image of Spider-Man and referenced the webbed-crusader’s tag line, “With great power comes great responsibility.” The motto is the “key value statement” behind the Bill of Rights and other human rights systems around the world, Jenkins said, and it should be a guiding force for the students moving forward.

“It’s the idea that when you are endowed with great power, you have not the right to oppress, not the right to overcome others because of your power — but to the contrary — [it’s] a responsibility that you have to do the right thing, to uphold justice, to protect the vulnerable.”

The ability to connect through shared values will also be critical in their personal and professional lives, Jenkins told the students, whether speaking with a close connection or high-ranking judge. In talking with a family member you may disagree with, he said, leading with your values can help open an effective dialogue. The same applies at work. “Every Supreme Court argument that I’ve ever done, I’ve led with the values that I believed that I shared with at least five members,” of the Court.

“[W]hen you are endowed with great power, you have not the right to oppress, not the right to overcome others because of your power — but to the contrary — [it’s] a responsibility that you have to do the right thing, to uphold justice, to protect the vulnerable.”

Jenkins urged the students to develop their values early on, and to identify when they will be willing to “engage in principled compromise” and when they will “have to avoid compromising.” “Because if you wait until those principles come into sharp relief … you may not be prepared to make a choice that you will later look back on and be proud of.”

Jenkins also praised the power of story, telling the students that “understanding the structure, the talent, the skill, the art of storytelling is going to be crucial to you in all kinds of contexts.” He noted that everything from Trump’s eagerness to make America great again, to Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream for the nation, were based on a compelling narrative arc, one that moved from balance, to imbalance, to a new balance.

Likewise, many of today’s current legal debates around affirmative action, marriage equality, and voting rights “are battles about the story of reconstruction, and the 13th 14th and 15th amendments,” said Jenkins, “and whether the steady state is full equality and the federal government as guarantor of that equality, or whether the steady state that we’re seeking to return to is state’s rights. And if one doesn’t see that story, you’re going to miss a lot of what is being debated that goes far beyond the law and the facts of any one case.”

Fostering a sense of community, the idea “that we share responsibility for each other as part of a common society and we have an obligation to seek the common good” is another superpower they need to develop, Jenkins told his listeners, including seeking community with people “with whom we vehemently disagree.” He also encouraged them to create their own supportive community of friends and family, and to nurture their superpower of solutions. As lawyers they have been trained to “find problems,” and seek out and challenge “what’s wrong” Jenkins said. But he encouraged them to also “be about solutions.”

In his closing remarks, Jenkins labeled his final special ability “the power of you,” and circled back to Spider-Man’s credo.

“In every job I’ve ever had,” said Jenkins, I’ve been faced with a choice of how to wield [power], whether great power representing the United States government before the U.S. Supreme Court, or small power in how I treat my kids, or how I engage with colleagues at work, or what kind of boss I am going to be. So, I want you to carry that value with you, to think of Spider-Man as you go forward and go get ’em.”

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