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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.
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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.
“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…
- Stevenson told us…
“How do we move forward as a society when symbols of our racist past live on to this day?” — Octavia Geiger ’17
- Octavia Geiger ’17
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.
…He told us why he does what he does:
“I represent the broken because
so am I.”
“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.