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Bryan Stevenson and the Gift of Inspiration

Bryan Stevenson at Temple Law School

Many days, we do our best to work hard, be of service to our friends and family, and, if we are fortunate, have some experience that nurtures and sustains us, giving us energy for our next day.

Guests of Temple Law School were treated to such a gift when Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, recently visited The Law School. Those who attended this event were fortunate, indeed. Over the course of the evening, Bryan celebrated the best parts of humanity, encouraged us to re-commit to be our best selves, and reminded us why lawyers matter. Because lawyers do matter.

First, it is important to note that Bryan is an extraordinary speaker. At Temple, we pride ourselves in recognizing and educating accomplished speechmakers. So we recognize a Stratavarius in the world of violins. Bryan is a Stratavarius. The content of his message is compelling and important, made all the more remarkable because of its delivery. He is a gifted speaker, both in content and delivery.

But let me turn to his content. I have had the good fortune of hearing Bryan before. He is, in 2015, better than ever. On this occasion, he made four points, which I was proud and pleased for our audience to hear.

First, he encouraged us to be proximate to life. Situated in the experience of those who are incarcerated, Bryan’s message encouraged us to familiarize ourselves with the plight of the incarcerated. Those of us on the outside are sadly excluded from almost any sense of life behind bars. We don’t know the inmates, their stories, and, most importantly, the lives they are living. They are not one characteristic; they are thousands of people – often very different than what we might think.

“I have had the good fortune of hearing Bryan before. He is, in 2015, better than ever.”

I read recently that there is a move to reduce the cost of inmate telephone calls and make available to inmates and their families the equivalent of Skype or Facetime. This is a good thing, as studies validate the fact that contact with friends and family contributes to positive inmate outcomes. But this move does not come without a catch. Some of the phone providers are insisting that in return for these technological improvements, institutions forbid – forbid – all personal visits.

If we view inmates as throwaway human beings, unworthy of salvaging, maybe this would make sense – and even then it strikes me as unnecessarily cruel. Such a broad-brush view of the humans who are incarcerated is shortsighted and wrong. But until we familiarize ourselves with the issues, by becoming proximate with the issue, we can’t participate in the dialogue, let alone contribute to solutions.

This is related to Bryan’s second point, which was to change the narrative behind the problem. Bryan incorporated telling and touching personal stories into his presentation, reminding us that sometimes good people do bad things. He talked about a teenager who avenged the brutal and unjustified beating of his mother by shooting and killing his mother’s boyfriend. Clearly, killing another person is not good. But the teenager was 15 at the time and was immediately incarcerated in an adult facility, where he was sexually assaulted so many times he could not count. The assaults nearly broke his heart and his spirit – and as we listened to Bryan – ours, too.

“At Temple, we pride ourselves in recognizing and educating accomplished speechmakers. So we recognize a Stratavarius in the world of violins. Bryan is a Stratavarius.”

For those who have never heard Bryan, I won’t spoil the chocolate milkshake story. But I can tell you that when he started this story, having heard it before, I reached for a tissue. I knew I could not hear it without tears. It is, in many regards, one of my favorite stories ever, because it tells the tale of the migration of a racist, angry, bully prison guard to a respectful, admiring, appreciative supporter. The story reflects for me the most profound challenges that our nation faces – that of not knowing who others really are, and the very real possibility that those we denigrate know and cheer for us more than we realize.

Having introduced to us a world many do not know, and having challenged us to become more knowledgeable, Bryan also encouraged us to be hopeful and optimistic. In his words, “hopelessness is the enemy of justice.” He encouraged us to remember that we can change the world one step at a time. Our prison system may be broken, but at least now there is much wider recognition of this fact – including bi-partisan Congressional recognition that changes are needed.

Finally, Bryan challenged us to get uncomfortable and do uncomfortable things. He correctly pointed out that change doesn’t happen if we stay complacent. We must dig deep within ourselves and speak out against injustice and for fairness, even if there is personal cost.

At the end of Bryan’s talk, I had the opportunity to talk with many of the event attendees. I want to share two observations: First, I was, and remain, truly appreciative of those who chose to come and listen. As I said, I have had the privilege of hearing Bryan before. His message is more pointed, more challenging, and more race-contextualized than the last time I heard him. His is not a message simply about – or for – people of color. But it reflects some of the reality of non-majoritarian people. I was grateful to those who allowed themselves to be informed.

I also want to applaud him for reminding us that we all have the power to be an instrument of change. Nearly to a person people felt inspired and encouraged to recommit themselves to working towards an improved system of justice. He reminds us that if we believe in something, we can make it happen. And that’s not a bad thing to be reminded of – by someone who does believe, and is living a life committed to bringing justice to places where it has been absent.

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