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Author and Activist Bryan Stevenson Speaks to Packed Crowd Thursday

A MacArthur fellow, Bryan Stevenson, J.D., is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and a member of President Barack Obama’s task force on 21st-century policing. He’s also the author of this year’s first-year reading book, Just Mercy.

Bryan Stevenson, roundtable

Bryan Stevenson, J.D., leads a roundtable discussion with SLU students during a dinner before his talk Thursday evening. Photo by Michelle Peltier

While on campus, Stevenson met with groups of students for dinner and discussions and offered a book-signing after his talk, titled “American Justice, Mercy, Humanity and Making a Difference.”

Drawing on his professional experiences as a lawyer, as well as his childhood and education, Stevenson’s talk offered a glimpse into his personal history as it relates to the work he does with “the poor, the incarcerated and the condemned.”

“If we are going to be agents for change,” he said, “we have to get into the margins of society.”

He related his first encounter with a death row inmate as a law student, and how it shaped his views of the law and his future. In that meeting Stevenson said he realized that “it is in proximity that we discover our power.”

He went on to explain that he himself had benefitted from other lawyers’ commitment to school desegregation.

 “I’m the product of getting proximity,” he said. Because of desegregation, Stevenson said he was able to attend his public high school, which led him to college and law school.

He reminded us that we do not have to be experts. We just have to say yes, roll up our sleeves and go.”

Mark Timmerman, third-year student in the School of Law

The concept of proximity resonated with law student Mark Timmerman.

“Mr. Stevenson challenged all of us to place ourselves in close proximity to the poor, oppressed and marginalized,” Timmerman said. “When we place ourselves in proximity to people in struggle, we begin to humanize and relate, and we see more clearly how we can provide help and support.”

Stevenson said presence does not require specialized knowledge.

“He reminded us that we do not have to be experts in a field or hold specific knowledge in order to help, either,” Timmerman said. “Even in our ignorance, simply our proximity and presence can bring transformative change and hope in people's lives.  We just have to say yes, roll up our sleeves and go.”

Along with proximity, Stevenson addressed the ideological underpinnings of inequity in society.

He pointed to political rhetoric and campaigns that have reinforced the racial divide. He spoke of the 50 years’ impact of the “war on drugs,” begun in the 1970s, which has led to a school-to-prison pipeline and is based in misinformation. Specifically, he pointed out that society deems drug addiction as a crime, yet alcoholism as a disease.

“We have to change the narratives of injustice,” he said. He went on to explain how the politics of fear and anger has labeled some children as “super predators” and given society permission to “throw away” people through systemic programs that limit opportunities and punish the poor through suspension, incarceration and condemnation.

“I don’t believe we are free,” he said. “We are burdened by ongoing racial inequity, and we simply avoid or ignore the issues, the poverty, the inequality, the injustice.”

Instead of measuring children and schools by test scores, Stevenson advocated another method.

“Measure schools by suspension rates,” he said “Schools with high suspension rates are not good schools – they throw people away.”

Stevenson with law students

Stevenson visits with law students and faculty, who brought their copies of his book Just Mercy. From left to right: Lisa Taylor, J.D., Ilana Friedman, Bryan Stevenson, Shannon Orbe, Ericka Simpson Conner, Mark Timmerman and Raven Faavae. Submitted photo

Stevenson also pointed to misconception that that terrorism did not occur in the United States before the Oklahoma City bombing and 9/11. Rather, he said, lynching, burning people alive, bombing homes, white supremacy, internment camps, registries and racial profiling are forms of terrorism.

Stevenson, who has spent his career defending people society has neglected, noted that the work can be disheartening. He spoke of a condemned man with limited mental capacities who lost his appeal because that appeal was made too late in the process. He called the man just before he was to be executed to tell him that the appeal had been denied and wept as he listened to the man struggling to get his words out to thank him for his efforts.

It would be enough for anyone to stop trying. However, in spite of these losses, Stevenson urged students to remain hopeful, to be willing to be uncomfortable to bear witness, to acknowledge the brokenness in our society and in ourselves.

“There is power in brokenness,” Stevenson said, for through brokenness comes redemption – the strength to carry on.

It was a message Stevenson shared with law student Ilana Friedman directly, speaking with her about her thesis and about biases in the law.

“One of the things that will remain with me is his guidance regarding criminal justice reform in that it is like a stream with a constantly flowing current, and if we stop peddling, if we stop advocating, if we stop educating, if we stop challenging inequality, we will only move backwards,” Friedman said. “He highlighted the importance of facilitating diverse narratives with an acute focus on acknowledging the evils within our nation's history and getting close to those who need our help most within our diverse communities.”

Friedman said she was thrilled to have the opportunity to speak with Stevenson, for it offered greater truths.

He told her “that we do not need to so much focus on the manifestations of bias in regards to our methods of incarceration, but we need to include narratives of harm, pain and punishment that ruin us all in the process. If we understand and truly acknowledge and account for these evils, this can lead to collective processes of reparation."

As part of the First-Year Reading Program, freshman and transfer students were asked to share their own stories of mercy, forgiveness and redemption using any medium that best captured the impact of the first-year reading selection, Just Mercy.

The winner of the Just Mercy multimedia contest was freshman Mirna Lopez, whose original drawing was titled “Forgive, Forget, and Show Mercy.” Lopez will receive free textbook rentals for spring 2017 classes. View her drawing