Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer, author, and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala., spoke at Conte Forum on Wednesday about his work fighting for the poor and incarcerated.
Stevenson’s talk, which was sponsored by Boston College’s Winston Center for Leadership and Ethics, the Lowell Humanities Series, and the PULSE Program for Service Learning, focused on how students can make an impact by getting “proximate” to the suffering and marginalized.
Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative, which provides legal representation to those who cannot afford a lawyer, especially for prisoners facing the death penalty, after the federal goverment stopped funding such programs in 1994. Time named his memoir, Just Mercy, one of the 10 best nonfiction books of 2014.
He started the night with an individual challenge: change the world, which he said everyone in attendance could achieve. His speech began with a condemnation of the United States’ criminal justice system.
The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, with 2.3 million people in prison, Stevenson said. One in three black men are expected to go to jail in their lifetime, as well as one in six Latino men, and one in 16 of all male Americans, according to Stevenson.
To properly address this issue, he says, the audience must become “proximate.”
“We cannot change global injustice today if we isolate ourselves on BC’s campus, if we isolate ourselves in places that are safe and removed and disconnected,” he said. “To change the world, we are each going to have to find ways to get closer to people who … are living on the margins of society.”
Politicians make the grave mistake of trying to solve problems of poverty and mass incarceration from a distance, he argues.
“It’s actually in proximity to the poor that we hear things that we won’t otherwise hear, that we’ll see things we won’t otherwise see,” Stevenson said. “The things we hear and see are critical to our knowledge and our capacity to problem solve.”
This emphasis on proximity, Stevenson says, was taught to him by his grandmother, who was diagnosed with cancer late in her life. Stevenson recalled a moment of proximity, in which he went to visit her in the hospital for the last time.
“I stood up to leave and I was about to take a step away and that’s when my grandmother opened her eyes and then she squeezed my hand. And the last thing my grandmother said to me, she looked at me and said, ‘Brian do you still feel me hugging you?’ And then she said, ‘I want you to know that I will always be hugging you.’”
He called on the audience to get proximate to the marginalized in society—so proximate that someone could wrap their arms around them as his grandmother did to him.
Stevenson talked about how his own life had changed as a result of someone’s choice to be proximate. In his small town in rural Delaware, black kids still attended segregated high schools until lawyers eventually flooded the community with legal challenges, he explained, making it possible for him to get an education.
Following his graduation from Eastern University in Pennsylvania, Stevenson attended Harvard Law School and eventually found himself working for Stephen Bright’s Southern Center for Human Rights, an organization that represented death row inmates in the South.
After a week in Atlanta, Ga., Stevenson was asked to meet with a death row inmate to tell him that he wasn’t at risk of execution any time within the next year.
“What I remember about this man is that he was burdened with chains and handcuffs on his wrists and a chain on his waist and shackles on his ankles, and it took the guards 10 minutes to unchain him,” he said.
When Stevenson broke the good news, the man grabbed his hand, Stevenson recalled, and thanked him. They spoke for another three hours, angering the prison guards, and learned that they shared a birthday. Eventually, the guards seized the inmate and shoved him against a wall, chaining him up once again.
At that very moment, Stevenson knew that he wanted to spend his life helping the incarcerated, he said.
In addition to proximity, Stevenson said that the audience needs to change the narratives governing poverty and mass incarceration.
“We have mass incarceration because we declared a misguided war on drugs,” Stevenson said. “We said that people who are drug addicted are criminals. We’re going to use our criminal justice system to put hundreds of thousands of those people in jails.”
Stevenson proposed that the nation approach addiction and dependency as a healthcare problem. Instead, politicians numbed the nation to the injustice of mass incarceration through a fear of drug use, according to Stevenson.
“When we allow ourselves to be governed by fear and anger we actually start to tolerate things we should never tolerate, we accept things that are unacceptable,” he said.
He also pointed to the creation of the term “superpredator,” which was invented by criminologists and subsequently used to demonize a generation of children of color. Over time, states began lowering the minimum age for trying children as adults, or even getting rid of the the minimum altogether.
All of these ugly parts of our nation’s history—from slavery, to the Great Migration, to the War on Drugs—are parts that the audience needs to face, according to Stevenson.
“In South Africa, there was a commitment after Apartheid to truth and reconciliation,” Stevenson said. “You can’t spend two days in Rwanda without the Rwandans insisting that you understand what happened in their country. In Berlin, you can’t go 200 meters without markers of stone that were placed next to the homes of Jewish families that lived there during the Holocaust.”
Stevenson also insisted on the necessity of hope, and how BC students in particular must remain hopeful despite the problems our nation faces.
“The amazing faculty at Boston College … they are going to complicate the world for you,” he said. “Make sure you stay hopeful. You cannot give up your dreams and aspirations just because things are complicated.”
Featured Image by Maggie DiPatri / Heights Editor