Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer and social justice activist, gave one of the most heartrending, inspiring speeches I have ever heard. Period. Everyone I spoke to afterward felt exactly the same way. Here’s why.
“I don’t want to put the bar too low. I want to talk about what we need to do to change the world,” said Bryan Stevenson as he kicked off Day 2 of the Annual Conference, known as Teacher Day. Bryan is the author of Just Mercy, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, and a professor at New York University.
The Justice System’s Sobering Statistics
Bryan began by painting a bleak picture of the judicial landscape. In 1972, the U.S. had 370,000 people in prison. Today, 3.2 million are in prison. If ex-prisoners try to get a loan or job, they’re disfavored. An increasing number of women are going to prison, 70 percent of whom are single mothers. Many children don’t expect to be free at age 21; they think they’ll be in prison, Bryan said. In fact, 1 in 3 black males are expected to go to jail or prison.
How to Change Our Relationship to Vulnerable Children
To change this picture, we need to create a different relationship to those children living at the margins, Bryan said. Here are four things we must do to get there:
1. Be proximate.
First, he said, we’ve got to get proximate to the people who are poor, disabled, and vulnerable. “When you try to make policy from a distance, you get it wrong. You don’t see nuances. Proximity empowers to you to do things,” Bryan said.
He pointed to his own past of growing up when black kids couldn’t go to same school as white kids. Because people choose to be proximate, he was able to go to high school and then college. Being proximate eventually led him to finding his life's work — and worth.
A philosophy major and an active musician, he loved college and remembered telling his mother that he wanted to stay there for the rest of his life.
When he was a senior trying to figure out what to pursue after graduation, he realized that to do graduate work in history, English, or political science, he needed to know something about those subjects. “If I’m honest, that’s what led me to law school. It was very clear to me that you don’t need to know anything to go to law school,” he said as the audience roared. So it was that, and his concern about issues of race and social injustice that propelled him onward to law school.
He described classes that taught him how to maximize benefits and minimize costs. “I was trying to rationalize a career in the law that I knew was not going to be satisfying,” Bryan said.
All of that changed when he took a human rights course that involved helping inmates who were on death row in Georgia. He was sent to tell a man that he wasn’t at risk of execution any time in the next year. “I didn’t think the man would just want to talk to law student.” But Bryan found the man so happy to see him. It was because Bryan was the first person the man had seen in a year that wasn’t associated with his prison experience. He hadn’t wanted his wife and kids to see him if he was going to die imminently. “Now because of you, I’m going to see my wife and kids,” the man told Bryan.
Bryan then realized: “Even in my ignorance, just being proximate could make a difference.”
One hour together turned into two, and then three. In their conversation, the two men learned that they were born the same day. The guard, who was growing impatient while they were talking, came back and re-shackled the man. “This condemned man said don’t worry; you just come back,” Bryan remembered.
As the guard shoved him toward the door so hard that he almost fell down, the man did something so unexpected. Bryan watched in awe as the man closed his eyes, threw his head back, and started to sing: “I’m pressing on the upward way, new heights I’m gaining every day… Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.”
For Bryan, it was a defining moment. “I knew that my journey to higher ground was tied to his journey,” Bryan said. “You couldn’t get me out of the law school library. I wanted to help condemned people get to higher ground,” he said.
Bryan’s experience is also a vivid example of how much proximity matters. “Proximity will change you…. We need to get closer to the parts of our community that are filled with despair and fear,” Bryan said. “We can’t change the world from a distance.”
2. Change the narratives that underlie the problems.
Bryan delved into the two main narratives we need to change: the way we view children and the way we see race.
Years ago, he explained, criminologists said some children weren’t children, but super-predators. This nefarious label spurred the zero-tolerance movement in schools and the push to lower the age at which a person could be tried as an adult in American courts.
Bryan shared the example of a man who had punched a little boy’s mother in the face. She was lying unconscious and after 10 minutes, her young son thought she was dead. He went into the bedroom where the man was sleeping, and opened the drawer where a gun was stashed. Pointing the gun at the man’s head, the boy tragically shot the man. “He was very small for his age and a decent kid,” Bryan said.
But the man the boy shot was a deputy sheriff so the boy was certified to be tried as an adult. Bryan was heartbroken when he saw the little boy in jail. When they met, the boy could not speak. Bryan was flummoxed, thinking, “You’ve got to talk to me. I can’t help you unless you talk to me.” Then, Bryan just leaned on the boy. “I felt the boy lean back.”
The boy began to cry and talk about what happened — not the shooting but what happened to him in prison. He had been raped by several people. For almost an hour, the boy sobbed hysterically, and then said to Bryan, “Please, please, please don’t go.”
“Who is responsible for this?” Bryan asked the audience to consider. “We are,” he answered. “We have allowed a narrative to emerge that some children are not children.” It’s false. We must look after the ones that fall down, that commit crimes. There are 10,000 children unprotected and at risk, Bryan noted.
We must also change the narrative about race in America. “Racial history haunts us, shadows us. We are a post-genocidal society; we haven’t acknowledged that,” he said as he noted the indigenous people in America who were slaughtered.
America’s demographics grew around racial terror, Bryan said. “The legacy of slavery is burdening us. The great evil of American slavery is the great evil of American society…. I don’t think slavery ended in 1865; it just evolved. “
To underscore the point, Bryan believes that the civil rights era is viewed through a lens too celebratory and without all the shades of struggle. As a nation, we focus on three events:
- Rosa Parks didn’t give up her seat on the bus.
- Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.
- We changed all the laws.
This simple arc ignores the fact that our nation humiliated people of color for decades, injuring, assaulting, and hurting them deeply, he said. “We haven’t done anything to address these injuries. We will not get there until we change the narrative,” Bryan added.
3. Commit to staying hopeful to change the world.
“Hopelessness is the enemy of justice. I see hopeless teachers, principals, and kids. Protect your hope. That will get you to stand up when others say sit down. It will get you to speak when others say shut up…. Children need to see [hope] in you to see it for themselves,” Bryan said.
Then, he shared a time when one guard would not let him into an Alabama prison to see a client until Bryan showed him his bar card, underwent a strip search, and signed the prison book.
The young man Bryan was scheduled to see had been in and out of 29 foster homes by age 10. At 15, he started using heroin. He was having psychotic episodes, and was sentenced to death after stabbing a man he thought was a demon. The first question the client asked when he saw Bryan: "Did you bring me a chocolate milkshake?" Bryan promised he would.
After three days of testimony, Bryan felt the case was headed in the right direction.
A month later, when Byran returned to the prison, the guard informed him that he didn’t need to be strip searched and that he signed him in when he saw him coming. The man’s face was beet red, his hands shaking, as he said to Bryan, “I was in the courtroom and I was listening. I came up in the foster care system. I’m a really angry person, but I learned some things in that courtroom. I hope you keep fighting for justice. Can I shake your hand? … I was listening and I hope you keep fighting. Wait, I got to tell you something else….I took your client to a Wendy’s and bought him a milkshake.”
Embedded in this story is the transformative effect of hope. “We’ve got to have hope. We cannot save our children without believing things we cannot see,” Bryan said.
4. Do uncomfortable things so justice can prevail.
“The story of education is when teachers and administrators pick up the children who are struggling and comfort families and intervene in the places where there’s despair…. It’s our obligation if we’re going to change the world,” Bryan said.
Bryan relayed to us the time he represented a man who was on death row for 30 years, and his final motion for a stay had been denied. When Bryan delivered the news, this man was devastated. “Mr. Stevenson, there’s something I want to say to you,” Bryan recalled. “But he couldn’t get his words out.” (When this man was overwhelmed, he would begin to stutter, Bryan said.) “The harder he tried to talk, the more he was ripping my heart apart.”
Suddenly, Bryan flashed back to his own boyhood when his mom took him to church. Bryan had asked a boy a question and the boy started to stutter. “I did something ignorant and I laughed,” Bryan said. His mother pulled him aside and scolded him for laughing. She told Bryan to tell the little boy you’re sorry, then hug the boy, and then tell him you love him.
Bryan said, “I lunged at him and gave him a man hug. Then I said insincerely ‘I love you.’”
The boy said sincerely, “I love you, too.”
At this point, the man on death row regained his composure and thanked Bryan for representing him. “I love you for trying to save me,” he finished as the guards led him away.
Bryan was heartbroken and considered giving up the work.
The Power of Being Broken
Then he asked the educators in the audience: “Why do we want to kill all the broken people in this country?”
“I represent the broken…. I work in a broken system….” he said.
Bryan said he had the kind of conversation with himself that you typically have when you have an important decision to make. As he wrestled with himself, he realized why he does the work he does: “I don’t do what I do because of human rights … or justice, or to talk to wonderful people like you, or because no one else will. I do what I do because I’m broken, too,” he said.
Wedged within brokenness is hope. “I’m not worried about brokenness. In brokenness we understand the power of mercy, forgiveness. It is the broken that will teach us how to get to justice,” Bryan said.
Justice is the true opposite of poverty, he said. To that end, we must look at how we treat the disabled, the poor, and children. We need a different metric for people trying to change the world — not applause or money.
Bryan then spoke of a man who was staring at him in church one day. “Do you know what you’re doing?" the man asked pointedly. Bryan was bewildered and a little worried.
“I’m going to tell you what you’re doing. You’re beating the drum for justice. Keep beating the drum for justice,” Bryan recalled the man in church saying to him. Bryan was so moved and relieved.
“There is enough talent and passion in this room that we can change the world,” Bryan said, and ended by sharing how privileged he felt to speak to our group.
He earned a long standing ovation from the audience. I left empowered and transformed by his message, his faith, and his life’s work.