Bryan Stevenson: “You Can Change the World”

Are there people who rock your world and inspire you to do something? Who touch some kind of nerve, challenging your thinking? Who tug at your heart or soul, stirring up a new kind of compassion? For me, it’s Bryan Stevenson: lawyer, human rights advocate, and holder of hope in the most dire of circumstances.

I’ve read, reread, highlighted, and pondered his award-winning book, Just Mercy (and recommend it to everyone I meet), listened to his TED Talk, watched his story on 60 Minutes, and recently traveled to Frederick to hear him speak. If he were a rock star, I would be a groupie. I keep going back to read his story and traveling to listen to him speak because he strikes a chord. He is calling me – and us – to a new way to treat each other as human beings.

So, who is this man? Archbishop Desmond Tutu calls him “America’s young Nelson Mandela.” His work and message are changing the landscape of compassion, justice, and mercy. Mr. Stevenson has spent much of his career in prisons, jails, and courtrooms fighting for the most vulnerable: the poor, the mentally ill, children, and those unjustly accused and convicted. He is working to transform our world, and invites us into that work.

He often begins communicating his message with some grim and startling facts:

• The prison population has increased from 300,000 people in the early 1970s to 2.3 million people today. We have the highest incarceration rate in the world.
• The U.S. comprises only five percent of the world’s population, yet it has 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated.
• One in every 15 people born in the United States in 2001 is expected to go to jail or prison. One in every three black male babies born in the century is expected to be incarcerated.
• Failed drug policies and the incarceration of low-level drug offenders are the primary causes of mass incarceration in the United States. While we treat alcohol addiction as a health issue, we treat non-violent drug offenders through the criminal justice system.

Please reread those facts. They are unbelievable. He invites and challenges us to be part of the changes that are desperately needed.

His best-selling book reads like a John Grisham novel. Tragically, they are true stories. He shares the stories of men, women, and children who are experiencing incarceration due to the most unfair, corrupt, and unjust circumstances. Remarkably, he is able to maintain hope, even when he is unable to save some of his clients.

I am in awe of Mr. Stevenson’s humility and gentle spirit that shine through his fierce advocacy for mercy and justice. In telling a story about a racist prison guard whom he encountered in the Deep South, he is able to look below the surface behavior and recognize him as a human being, rather than a racist. Reminding us that “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” he challenges all of us to treat one another as human beings.

At his speech in Frederick on April 21, he framed his speech with the message: We can change the world. He set out four main ways that I now pass along to you:

1. Get Proximate. You cannot help others from a distance. He observed that many people offer opinions and solutions without getting close to the problems and the people impacted. You must get into proximity with those who are suffering.

2. Change the narrative. Our narratives must change. We buy into narratives of fear and anger that lead to harsh, unjust policies of all kinds. Also, we must change our narratives regarding race and look honestly at the effects of slavery on our country, our history, and our humanity. Our warped narrative has caused slavery to evolve into more subtle forms of oppression, humiliation, and injustice.

3. Be Hopeful. Hopelessness is the enemy of justice. We need hope in order fight for a better humanity. In his book he explains that hope is not a pie in the sky type of optimism. Rather, it is an orientation of the spirit “that creates a willingness to position oneself in a hopeless place and be a witness, that allows one to believe in a better future, even in the face of abusive power.” (Just Mercy, p. 219)

4. You have to be willing to do uncomfortable things. You cannot confront oppression and injustice while you are sitting comfortably on the sofa. Boom.

I’ll be going to hear him speak again on May 11 in Baltimore when he speaks to lawyers at an event benefitting the Public Justice Center. Yes, a groupie, I suppose, who desires to tap into his remarkable hope and vision for humanity.

If you are at all curious, please read Just Mercy. Perhaps we can be part of changing the world.

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