“I have been through a lot in my life, so I have a lot to say and remember.“
Student. Activist. Organizer. Philanthropist. NYT op-ed writer. NYT op-ed subject matter. One-time hip-hop producer. One-time subject of would-be hip-hop producers. Campus personality. Pine street resident.
Kennedy Odede ’12 is a composite of all these things, on top of everything else that he is. But you probably already know this, if you’ve been keeping your eyes peeled and ears open, and most importantly, if you’ve been following this blog to any capacity. If not from us, then probably from the Argus, the university’s website, Idealist.org, or even your mother. An exemplary representation of why Wesleyan possesses the granola hopey-changey do-good public persona it does, Mr. Odede as a tale and a legacy has consistently been surging upwards in the public sphere. Continuing this trend is the recent addition of two more items to his ever-increasing list of descriptors: book author and book subject. Bouncing off a strong reception to Nick Kristof’s op-ed in the New York Times, he has decided to start working on a book about his life.
No surprise, really. After all, Mr. Odede is, in and of himself, a living embodiment of the rags-to-friggin’-awesome story (a popular variant of the rags-to-riches story). Born into toughness in the slums of Kenya, he fought for social justice all the way into his early 20s, which is when a college girl from Colorado – Jessica Posner ’09 – suddenly shows up, joins him in the fight for social justice, and then transplants him to Connecticut, USA, where he continues to fight more for social justice. The narrative also has a layer of romance; to put it in Nick Kristof’s words: “And one more thing to make the story perfect: In June, after Kennedy graduates, he and Jessica plan to marry.”
That’s a book waiting to happen right there, with some crazy-ass neo-noir film adaptation – written and directed by Charlie Kaufman (or more realistically, Sean Penn as financed by Bill Clinton) – surely to follow.
On Zach’s supreme command, we here at Wesleying got in contact with him to talk about it – and he was nice enough to send a detailed email back (including the picture up there). Read on?
“Ever since I came to Wesleyan I have heard people say that I should write a book of my story,” writes Odede. “And from my freshman year I began writing events in my life so that I would not forget. I was touched when I went back to Kenya for winter break and one of my staff members at the clinic told me that she has been reading many books for inspiration, but none with stories that she can connect with—stories like her own.” Odede, already a pedestrian blogger, well understands the need for inspiration. According to the aforementioned piece by Mr. Kristof, Odede himself was inspired by books – biographies, specifically, of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr.
The book Odede intends to write follows through on the origins of his inspirations; an autobiography, he hopes it will resonate with others as Mandela’s and King’s did with him. “Jessica (Posner) and I are writing the book together,” he explains. “As we write it we will iron out the specifics, but it will be the untold and told story of my life and struggle, and the story of the life Jessica and I are building together, both personally and through the work of Shining Hope. Ultimately it is a story about a fight against poverty and hopelessness, the transformation made possible by a true love, and the power of young people to deeply impact the world.”
As big as his vision is, there is still a lot of work left to be done on the project. An actual proposal has yet to be put together, though they have managed to sign with a literary agent. Odede hopes to complete it within 2 or 3 years, but then again, he’s well aware that these things can spiral way beyond imposed time frames. But he and Ms. Posner are well stocked with help; Professors Anne Greene (of the English department), Alice Hadler (English adjunct instructor and associate dean for International Student affairs), and Jonathan Cutler (of the Sociology department and beard-stroking fame) have been pitching in.
And how it has grown. “It is really something that has naturally evolved… although I have been writing to process my life for a long time, and so the plan has become more concrete recently. I have been writing with Professors Anne Greene, Alice Hadler, and Jonathan Cutler for several semesters now, but it is a story that has been following both Jessica and myself and an idea we shared. We want to share our story with the world so that it might give hope to more people with our belief that any obstacle is surmountable, and young people really can change the world.”
When asked about the state of his NGO, Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO), which will surely play a major role in the book, Odede expressed great optimism for the next phase of the operation. “SHOFCO is expanding rapidly. Right now we are focusing on serving more people in Kibera— this year we plan to reach over 25,000 people. At the same time we are developing an innovative model to combat extreme poverty that we plan to expand to other urban slums, working with local leadership to create true grassroots action. Shining Hope’s model will spread, and will bring hope and possibilities to thousands living in conditions like those that I grew up in. Shining Hope is a movement that is spreading and will continue to spread. ”
The confident look forward is perhaps well-founded; SHOFCO has been quite successful in garnering publicity and funding (which is probably due to Ms. Posner’s stellar organizational abilities), winning a medley of social justice prizes that includes but is not limited to the Do Something Award and the Dell Social Innovation Competition (both in 2010).
When asked to comment on the fact that he will be graduating come May, Odede – who is one of the many, many souls writing a thesis – has nothing but gleaming praise and fondness for the Harvard of Central Connecticut. “Wesleyan has been my home for the past four years and I will be so sad to leave it. Wes was the first place that I ever felt accepted. In Kenya, coming from Kibera, I felt ashamed of my humble background. Here at Wes I have grown to feel supported and I have learned so much. However, my relationship to Wesleyan is unique, and I feel that I will never truly leave this place as Wes allowed me to pursue dreams and opportunities that I never knew existed. It was here at Wes that SHOFCO was born, nurtured, and supported— and I know that my leaving Wes will not be the end of this relationship.”
… and that’s that. Congratulations, big guy; here’s to the top of bestsellers lists.
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