As the author of the critically acclaimed book Just Mercy and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, Bryan Stevenson is one of America’s leading advocates for social justice and legal reform. Just Mercy is Stevenson’s account of his days as a young lawyer defending the rights of poor and wrongly condemned inmates, including Walter McMillan, a young man sentenced to death for a crime he didn’t commit. The book has been widely praised by publications like the New York Times and Washington Post. Stevenson has been recognized for his work as an author and activist with a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant.
Just Mercy has been selected as this year’s CEHD Reads book. CEHD Reads is part of the college’s First Year Experience Program, which uses a single book read by all first-year students to foster community and conversation. On November 6th, we will be honored to welcome Mr. Stevenson as a speaker at a special CEHD Reads event. We recently spoke to Mr. Stevenson about his work as a social justice advocate, Just Mercy and the message he will be bringing to our students and staff during his presentation.
CEHD has been using Just Mercy as part of the CEHD Reads program as a way of starting conversations between their staff, professors and students. What kinds of questions and conversations do you hope the book will prompt them to have?
Well, I wrote Just Mercy because I think that our criminal justice system, and what happens to millions of people in this country is largely unknown. We literally have walls blocking people from seeing what happens inside jails and prisons, and these trials take place in largely empty courtrooms. I don’t think that we have a good perspective on what’s happened over the last century.
The data – how we’ve gone from 300,000 people in jails and prisons to 2.3 million people – has a certain kind of resonance, but it doesn’t actually tell you what you need to know about what happens when you put thousands of children in adult jails and prisons. Or, what happens when you put severely mentally ill people in jails and prisons? What happens when you take away discretion and you create mandatory sentences? What happens when you don’t fund indigent defense systems?
What happens is that you get a lot of inequality, a lot of injustice and a lot of tragedy that we, as a collective society, are largely responsible for. I appreciate people who want to question how that happens, and what we need to do to make sure that’s not our future. My hope in writing the book is that we might create a new consciousness about our system that motivates us and inspires us to do something different, something better.
Your work in social justice is centered around the criminal justice system, the prison industry and the fact that minorities, particularly African Americans, are incarcerated at much higher rates. How does the educational system in America contribute to this? For many kids, school is the beginning of their interaction with the justice system.
I think that the education system is a prime contributor to much of the social distress that we see in our communities. Unfortunately, we have thousands of children born into violent families living in violent neighborhoods, showing up to schools with trauma disorders that go untreated. And in fact, I think we aggravate these conditions because we have a lot of schools where teachers talk to students as if the teachers were correctional officers and the students were inmates. Schools where principals interact with students as if the principals were wardens and the students were in prison. We threaten, we menace and we intimidate; we don’t necessarily meet kids where they are.
When schools engage with students, you see remarkable things happen. You see kids turn their lives around. You see hope. You see opportunity. You see change. You see transformation. When schools don’t do that, you see a pipeline that brings people from the schoolhouse to the jailhouse. You see police arresting children every day, you see suspensions and expulsions happening to most kids.
So, yes, I think the educational system has played a critical role. There are resource problems that we have to solve, there are skills and training questions that we have to address, but I do think that education can play a central role in how we respond to this crisis for kids that live in the margins of our society. We’re living at a time when the Bureau of Justice predicts one in three black males born in this country are expected to go to jail or prison. And we don’t talk about that statistic as if it’s a crisis, as if it’s an epidemic worthy of all our attention. We just hear it and we say “okay.” Our indifference is tragic and part of the problem that I’m hoping we can respond to more effectively.
What are some things that you suggest individual teachers can do in their classroom to help combat these problems?
Ultimately, I think teachers are effective when they get close enough to their students to understand what the problems are. I don’t think that there’s a single diagnosis for what impacts every community or for what impacts every student. But I do think that there is a single prescription for how we address whatever the challenges are. And I think that prescription includes getting close enough to kids that we can hear them. Getting close enough that we can wrap our arms around when they need to be supported and embraced, so that we can listen to them and truly hear what they are saying. It all begins with a willingness to get past whatever barriers keep us from truly knowing who are kids are and what their needs are.
I also think that teachers need to think about how we change the narratives behind many of the policies and subjects we study and discuss. I’m interested in understanding history: the Civil War, the Reconstruction, World War II, the Vietnam War, etc. However, there are narratives behind that history that I’m also interested in talking about. We have mass incarceration because we chose to deal with drug addiction and drug dependency as a crime issue rather than a health issue. The reason we made that choice has to do with what I call the politics of fear and anger. When teachers talk about what being governed by fear and anger can do, they’re opening the minds of students to things that otherwise might be ignored.
Working to change the narrative is critical. For example, in our work, we don’t just want to change the narrative about race; we want to talk about the legacy of our history of racial inequality. That means talking about the genocide of native people, about slavery, about lynching and about segregation. Typically, we don’t explore these subjects with an interest and understanding of the consequences and legacies of these events. Teaching that is conscious of this yields very different outcomes for people than teaching that’s just checking off boxes on a checklist.
Teachers need to inspire hope among students. It’s very tempting to present information to students, expect them to get it and hope for the best. But I believe every teacher owes every student a path that allows that student to leave more hopeful about what they can do then when they entered that classroom. If we’re not focusing on hope for the students we teach, we’re not really going to advance education. Hope is the superpower that allows us to do the things that others think can’t be done. I don’t think it’s folly for teachers to think critically about how they raise the hope index among their students.
Finally, I think that effective teaching means being willing to do things that make you uncomfortable and inconvenience you. I don’t think there’s a comfortable and convenient way to educate a generation of children who have been marginalized and excluded. Being open doing what is uncomfortable and inconvenient is going to be key for educators trying to respond to critical issues.
You mentioned hope. Right now, many people kind of look around and see that – not only have we stopped making progress – people in power seem to be trying to turn back the clock. What message do you have for the future educators and social workers at CEHD on how to continue to have hope?
I agree that these are challenging times. My message is that we have always faced adversity in this country; it’s come from different places at different times. But there’s always been a community of people who are willing to fight and respond to these challenges. People who have been willing to stand when others say, “sit down,” to speak when others say, “be quiet.” We can stand on the shoulders of those folks and believe that – even when we’re hearing a lot of things that are ignorant, divisive and destructive – we can be witnesses to something better, something transformative, something that moves us to a better place.
That conviction is critical. I don’t think you change the world with the ideas in your mind. You need great ideas, you need the education that wonderful schools like yours provide. You need strategic and tactical thinking. But, ultimately, you change the world when the ideas in your mind are fueled by the convictions in your heart. So, I hope the community of people I interact with at CEHD leave our time together with some ideas – but also with a sense that our convictions can change the world.
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