Author, lawyer, and civil rights leader Bryan Stevenson spoke to the St. Andrew's School community on Friday, January 27. Stevenson is the founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based nonprofit that provides legal assistance to prisoners on Alabama's Death Row; works to end mass incarceration, excessive sentencing, and inequitable juvenile justice standards; and advocates against racial and economic injustice. Stevenson is also the author of the bestselling Just Mercy, an account of Stevenson's career as a death row appeals attorney and a meditation on the role of mercy within the American justice system. Just Mercy was St. Andrew's all-School read during the summer of 2016.
In his talk, Stevenson shared the four things he has identified as the necessary components for creating a more just world. He asked us to make ourselves proximate to communities and people under the thumb of injustice, inequality, suffering, or despair; to work to challenge and change the narratives that sustain inequality; to stay hopeful about each of us can do; and to be willing to be uncomfortable and to prepare to be somewhat broken by the fight for justice and equity.
"I've looked and looked, and I just can't find a time in which someone was able to overcome injustice from the comfort of their own home," Stevenson said. "I'm sorry, but there's just isn't a single instance of this in history."
"If you make yourselves proximate to suffering," he continued, "if you challenge narratives of inequality; if you speak up when someone tells you to be quiet; if you stand up when someone tells you to sit down, this will break you, a little bit. But it is through our brokenness that we become able to offer compassion and healing to others."
Stevenson shared a number of moving anecdotes from his work in the criminal justice system, and also spoke from a historical and personal perspective America's culture of racial inequality. "I think sometimes we're a little too celebratory about our civil rights movement," he said. "We are not free. We will not be free until we confront the burden of our history of racial inequality. We don't talk about how were are a post-genocide nation. We don't really talk about the great evil of American slavery: that it established this narrative of racial inequality, this ideology of white supremacy, that still exists today."
After his talk, Stevenson took student questions (What's the best way for a high school student to "get proximal"? Can wardens change prisons from the inside? How do you secure funding for non-profit social justice work? What keeps you hopeful?) and then signed students' books for more than an hour in Engelhard Hall.
In preparation for Stevenson's address this morning, students and faculty watched the documentary13th on Thursday evening, then broke out into discussion groups. Directed by Ava DuVernay, 13th explores the relationship of race and criminal justice in the United States, and makes the argument that, since the passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery more than 150 years ago, slavery has been perpetuated through the mass incarceration of African-Americans.
After assigning Just Mercy as the summer read, Headmaster Tad Roach went on an all-out campaign this fall to get Stevenson, who has curtailed his public speaking schedule in recent years, to come to St. Andrew's—including asking every single student at St. Andrew's to write a letter to Stevenson containing their thoughts on Just Mercy and a polite request for a visit.
"This is the proudest moment of my 38 years at St. Andrew's," said Headmaster Tad Roach in his introduction. "Rosa Parks once asked Bryan Stevenson, 'Tell me who you are and what you're doing.' My hope is that Bryan will help us to begin asking, and answering, those same questions of ourselves."