‘Just Mercy’ author Bryan Stevenson delivers book opening speech one northwest ‘Just Mercy’ author Bryan Stevenson delivers book opening speech one northwest
Author and attorney Bryan Stevenson spoke about the criminal justice system and racial equity in the One Book One Northwestern keynote on Tuesday.
His speech was followed by a conversation with the Director of NU’s Prison Education Program and Professor of Philosophy Jennifer Lackey.
“I don’t want to spend time talking about problems, I really want to use the time I have to talk about solutions,” Stevenson said. “There is a justice deficit in America. I want to talk about how we increase the justice quotient.
Stevenson is the founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based nonprofit organization that aims to provide legal representation to people who have been wrongfully convicted, wrongfully convicted, or otherwise harmed by the criminal justice system. He has argued and won landmark cases before the Supreme Court on matters such as mandatory life sentences for minors.
Stevenson’s 2014 memoir “Just Mercy,” which focused on her life and work with the initiative, was a best-seller and inspired an eponymous film adaptation in 2019.
The University has chosen Stevenson’s memoir as One Book 2020-21, offering programming throughout the academic year related to the book and its themes. However, his keynote speech was postponed for a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In every generation there are one or two people who provide a moral vision of such clarity and strength that they lead an entire people to a world that more fully realizes our aspirations for justice, truth and hope,” Lackey said. “In our time, we are honored to have Bryan Stevenson among us.”
Book director Nancy Cunniff, who opened the event, said the program has held more than 90 virtual events — including panel discussions, plays and intergenerational storytelling — despite the challenges of the pandemic. Still, she said, she was excited about the return to an in-person format.
The opening speech for this year’s One Book selection, “The Story of More” by Hope Jahren, happened virtually because Jahren lives in Norway and said she didn’t want to increase her carbon footprint by flying to Evanston.
“It was just amazing, the amount of programming that took place (in 2020-21), but none of us enjoyed using Zoom,” Cunniff said. “We are truly grateful that Mr. Stevenson is here today to continue this conversation that we started last year.”
Stevenson said he was initially disappointed as a student at Harvard Law School and transferred. He returned to law, he said, after spending a month with a Georgian organization that provided legal services to those on death row.
“If I’ve helped anyone, it’s because I’ve connected with doomed people and learned to hear the power of humanity speak in places where others doubted it,” said Stevenson. “And that’s what I want to urge you to do. I want to urge you to find ways to get closer.
Elected officials who enact overly punitive laws, Stevenson said, are often alienated from the realities of the criminal justice system. He said one of the reasons the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world is that politicians promote narratives of fear and anger – which ultimately criminalize, rather than help, people struggling with issues such as substance abuse or childhood trauma.
Stevenson stressed the importance of hoping for justice, even in difficult times. He said hopeful people, from former incarcerated clients to his mother, have surrounded him his entire life.
“Your hope is your superpower. Hope will make some of you stand up when others say, “Sit down. Hope will get someone talking when others say, “Shut up,” Stevenson said. “It will be the thing that allows you to do things that other people don’t think possible.”
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