Have you ever met someone who was such a subtle force of nature?
Someone who was very soft-spoken and modest in the way he conducted himself but, at the same time, captured all the attention in the room?
I had the wonderful opportunity to interact with just this kind of person on October 6 when I spent the day with Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of this year’s First-Year Reading selection, Just Mercy. From 3 in the afternoon to 9 in the evening, I clung to his every word as he spoke to us in a small group discussion, at dinner, and then at the larger special event for the campus, “An Evening With Bryan Stevenson,” about criminal justice and prison reform, his book, and his life.
Starting with the small group discussion, Dr. Amy Widestrom, one of my favorite poli-sci professors and my academic advisor, for whom I peer-mentor, had gathered a long list of questions from students in attendance. We all sat together cozily in the Castle’s cigar room for the Q&A with Stevenson, discussing the themes of the book, aspects of his professional life, and the interaction of his professional and personal life. He entertained a number of questions from students from the Historical and Political Science, International Peace and Conflict Masters’ program, and Sociology, Anthropology and Criminal Justice departments. One that I found particularly interesting was: “How do you manage the mental strain of being a lawyer who represents people condemned to die, those who have been locked away for decades?” Stevenson told us, in an even-toned voice, that despite the grim nature of what he does – sometimes losing cases and having his clients die by the hands of the state – he fully believes that “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” His driving goal is to help people who have been condemned to achieve just mercy in a society that would rather kill them for what they’ve done.
Moving from the group discussion, I entered the dinner room and took my seat. After pre-dinner mingling with Dr. John Noakes, Dr. Widestrom, Brittany Ambrose ’17 and Melissa Walker ’20 (the only students invited to the dinner), Mr. Stevenson was brought over to our table by Arcadia President Nicolette DeVille Christensen for an introduction and handshake. The entire table became engaged in a discussion over the prospects for reforming society and moving forward as a country. Stevenson, a gifted orator, talked much about the constant battle of narratives. Drawing on the Civil War, he said that the North and South were fighting just as much a narrative war as a physical one. While the North may have won the battle, the South still kept its narrative strong. To move society forward, he said, the narrative needs to change. Living in Alabama, he told us that people to this day believe that “the South will rise again.” There isn’t Martin Luther King Day; it’s MLK/Robert E. Lee Day. He recounted the bumper sticker he saw with an image of President Obama with crosshairs over his picture and a caption that read, “I’m a coon hunter.” Without addressing our past in a clear and deliberate fashion, he said, we will never be able to move past this type of ugly racism that lingers in our country today.
The last part of the day was the large event, where the campus would be able to hear him speak. On stage, Mr. Stevenson gave us his take on what we, as citizens, need to do to change the world for the better: 1) Get proximate. You won’t be able to do anything about neighborhoods with lots of crime unless you are among the people, listening to them and understanding why things are the way they are; 2) Change the narrative. American society has for too long been governed by fear and anger, Stevenson believes. Poverty, inequality, and violence are all bred out of fear and anger. To really address them, we must stop adhering to the ideas of societal fear and anger toward people; 3) Stay hopeful. Sharing stories of people he’s represented, Stevenson acknowledged that it is at times hard to do what he does. But, to use his words from the earlier discussion, Stevenson truly “enjoys helping people” achieve their potential and overcome their troubles. Helping them to reach that “higher ground” is what keeps him hopeful; 4) Do things that make you uncomfortable. These big tasks our country has – racism, poverty, mass incarceration – are difficult topics for many, but to really get at the heart of the problem, we have to talk about them.
In some parts of his speech, Stevenson really took the crowd to church, for lack of a better term. He brought up a question one of my classmates, Octavia Geiger ’17, had asked in the earlier group discussion: “How do we move forward as a society when symbols of our racist past live on to this day?” The calm tone he had all evening turned excited, a sense of concern in his voice. He doesn’t want to see Confederate flags, he doesn’t want Robert E. Lee Day in the state of Alabama where he works, he doesn’t want this symbolic and systematic racism.
“I represent the broken because
so am I.”
He talked about police violence and racial bias, addressing the black and brown people like me in the room: “When you go somewhere, you are seen as a threat.” That threat perception comes from decades, centuries even, of societal racism, which is the basis of laws and institutions we live in. We are seen as threats, but historically, we are the ones who have been on the receiving end of violence. Lynch mobs, cross-burning, enslavement. One of the strongest moments of the speech was when Stevenson said, clear as day, “9/11 was not the first domestic act of terrorism in the the United States.” As he rounded out his speech, bringing his four points back together, he told us why he does what he does: “I represent the broken because so am I.”
At the end of the night, after waiting to have my copy of Just Mercy signed, Stevenson smiled at me and said “Hello again!” and I smiled back. “My momma would be mad at me if I didn’t tell you she saw you on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday,” I blurted out. He smiled again. “Did she now? Well you better tell her I said ‘thank you’ for watching and for the support!”
It’s hard not to get swept up in Bryan Stevenson’s reserved-yet-charismatic energy and the message he has. There is so much to be done to achieve criminal justice reform and overcome issues of racial justice, mass incarceration, children in prison, the death penalty. With Stevenson’s four suggestions of how to change the world, I believe we can all make an effort – whether by speaking with your Congressional representative, voting, or protesting. It’s going to take any and all of it to end injustice in this country.