Bryan Stevenson, an Eastern alum and author of Just Mercy, spoke at Villanova University on September 14th and discussed the ways people can help improve the justice system in America. Stevenson shared that one way people can help the system was through proximity. He believed that people needed to find ways to get close to the poor, the excluded, the incarcerated, the abused, etc.. He told the audience how most people stay away from bad neighborhoods but he challenged people to get involved with them. The more people the world meets in these circumstances, the better they can understand them and the more they are able to see the hope of their future.
Stevenson explained how proximity helped shape his career. When he attended Harvard Law School, he did an internship at a prison where he visited a man to tell him that he did not have an execution date within the next year. The man was thankful for this news and told Stevenson that he would let his family know that they could come visit him.
“I could have never been familiar with these circumstances of life in prison without visiting the man that day” Stevenson said.
He believes proximity with the people on death row or who are struggling is what made him succeed in his career. Stevenson brought up that America needs to change the narratives in the world. People cannot accept inequalities, but must understand them and change the ones that are making them comfortable with the idea of inequality. An example that he used was how people view alcohol versus drug use. In reference to someone being an alcoholic, Stevenson said how society describes it as a disease and they encourage relatives and close friends of the person in need to get that person some help. However, in reference to being on drugs, Stevenson said how society calls it an addiction and always gets the criminal justice system involved. He suggested that people begin to think of drug use as a health problem and something that can be changed without the police or prison system.
“This narrative is a problem due to our fear and anger in the world and we need to change this idea. We are creating the problems that our country faces in America” Stevenson said.
He shared with the audience some statistics that included the fact that thirteen states in America do not have a minimum age for life imprisonment/death row. That means, a child under the age of eighteen can be sentenced to death. However, despite these alarming statistics, Stevenson explained the importance of staying hopeful. No person can let someone or something take away their hope because “hopelessness is the enemy of justice.” He believed that when a person lacks hope, they are creating the problem within the world.
“Hope is your superpower” and it is the thing that makes you “stand up when someone says to sit down or speak up when someone says to be quiet” Stevenson said.
Hope reminds us that each person can reach something and should not be looked at as someone who can never do that or be this.
“The world cannot be changed unless we do things that are uncomfortable and inconvenient” Stevenson said.
He challenged the audience to position themselves in difficult situations because it will help them see more of the problems that are in the world. He believes that people cannot change the world in a painless way, because they have to be involved in the pain. He explained that doing these things will break a person but being broken teaches a person how to live, how compassion works and how to have mercy.
“I do what I do because I am broken too” and “ if we are a witness to the brokenness, we can change the world” Stevenson said.