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Col Owens writes memoir about his life, Bending the Arc Toward Justice, and his passion for social justice

By Judy Clabes
NKyTribune editor

Col Owens could write a book called “All I learned in Sunday school, I put to work for the rest of my life.” Instead, Col Owens wrote a book, a memoir, and he called it, Bending the Arc Toward Justice.

Make no mistake about it, though, Owens has pursued a life of purpose and passion seeking social justice for those who couldn’t find it for themselves. And that, indeed, took root in Sunday School with all the feed-the-hungry, clothe-the-poor, heal-the-sick, do-unto-others and love-thy-neighbor teachings. . .the things that become part of an earnest child’s very core.

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His book tells the story of his life and his career, a rich mixture of different pieces leading to a sense of balance and worth.

Owens grew up in the Barrington Woods neighborhood of Fort Wright. His dad was an accountant. His mom was a school teacher. There were two sisters and a younger brother. He was steeped in solid, middle-class values, including serious study and hard work.

A teacher at Dixie High School got him interested in Harvard and, though certain he’d never get accepted, he did – with a full scholarship.

“It was a provocative time at Harvard,” he says in retrospect. And it wasn’t just the Vietnam War, it was also about being exposed to worlds he could never have imagined. Working – because he always worked – with tough young boys in Cambridge, he saw a side of life he had never encountered before.

“I began to ask myself ‘why’?”

As part of the Glee Club at Harvard, he toured Asia, the Middle East and Europe, staying in the homes of rich people along the way – but witnessing abject poverty that was overwhelming. “The pervasive poverty was like nothing I’d seen before,” he said.

The “why?” question persisted. And continues throughout his life.

Col Owens

Back on campus, he roomed with a Black student from Brooklyn and got a real taste of cultural diversity – and conscience, as well as the rich experience of a good friend. He graduated from Harvard in 1969, chose to go to Divinity School there for two years and then to Boston University School of Law School from which he graduated in 1977. Along the way, he became deeply interested in politics, thanks to an admiration for Robert Kennedy, profoundly anti-war, and incredibly idealistic.

He received conscientious objector status and did his alternative service in the church.

Back in Northern Kentucky, he found Legal Aid and that’s where he decided his law degree would take him. He was a lobbyist for Legal Aid in the legislature, worked with statewide coalitions in Ohio on legal aid issues, took on insurance redlining and race equity issues.

He served on the Covington Housing Authority and the Covington public school board. He sang in the May Festival Chorus because it was good for his “soul.” Everything else he did for his conscience – constantly searching for the answer to “Why?”

Always interested in politics, he ran for legislative office and became a political, social and legislative advocate. He has been a leader in the Democratic Party. These days – “because there hasn’t been a lot of silence in my life” – he takes off to Thomas Merton’s Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown for reflection and contemplation.

He teaches poverty law today at Northern Kentucky University’s Salmon Chase Law School and for many years before that at the UC Law School. And he has accumulated a wealth of recognitions and awards for his service and accomplishments.

In his book, he explores – and celebrates – the “different arenas” of his life.

Through all his varied experiences, he has been committed to social justice and improving the lives of the poor.

“I am an ordinary person,” Owens says. “I have had some unusual opportunities and experiences.”

But he believes strongly that we can all learn from others’ stories, and that’s why he decided to share his.

“I want people to be encouraged to be civic-minded and to care about other people . . .There is no end to the things people can do,” he said.

He is motivated by the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Thus, the name of his memoir.

Owens hopes the stories he tells in the book will inspire others as he has been inspired.

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Order Col Owens’ Bending the Arc Toward Justice, published by Cincinnati Book Publishing, 2020, here.

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