I had the privilege to hear an extraordinary activist and speaker last week. Bryan Stevenson is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative and one of the most acclaimed and respected attorneys in the country. His memoir, Just Mercy, is his story of fighting on the front lines in a country prone to extreme punishments and careless justice. Time Magazine recognized him as one of its 100 Most Influential People of 2015. The New Yorker cited Stevenson’s TED Talk on the subject of injustice as one of the five most essential TED Talks. Oh yes, one additional point: Stevenson is also a resonant voice for the poor and disenfranchised.
I attended his presentation expecting to learn about dramatic examples of injustices which have occurred in this country, and he provided many of those. I hoped that he might even offer some insights about both the reasons for and the solutions to some of these miscarriages, and he offered clear views on these. What I had not expected was his perspective about change and the elements which are critical to bringing about a more uniform and reasonable justice. As it turns out, he might just as well have been speaking about the poor in Nicaragua as the wrongly-incarcerated in the U.S. In either case, justice missed its call.
As Stevenson spoke of what would be required of us to mitigate at least some of the miscarriages of justice he has encountered, I was struck by his “blueprint.” For as he iterated the four important elements of his thinking, he proposed nearly the same set of needs as those which WPF has experienced and amplified over its 30 years of work in Nicaragua. Consider his priorities for a changed context of justice:
Get Proximate. Stevenson suggests that in order to truly understand and know the immense cost of injustice (both financial and human), one has to get closer to its reality. There is an uncomfortable heat generated by institutional unfairness that can bring any of us to a cold sweat, because we are all susceptible, in the same unsuspecting ways as many of Stevenson’s clients once were.
If we wish to truly know the stories of the poor, we face the same call for proximity. Reading about it in the comfort of a living room is safe, even if sad. But standing among those for whom $2 a day represents total income is an exposure to virulent indignity. Being invited to a meal by such a family is an exercise in damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t, as you understand that sharing such food is taking it away from where it is desperately needed, but refusing it is a rude dishonor. Effective development work requires being in the middle of the reality, accompanying those who struggle with not only material assistance but also emotional and social support. Worse than being destitute is being destitute and alone.
Change the Narrative. Stevenson advocates for a change in our understanding and beliefs about people. For him, this means addressing the fears and angers that fuel inequities, violence and conditions for injustices to metastasize. Ignorance about cultures and ethnicities and histories are the breeding grounds for prejudiced thinking and the virus of irrational belief. Sometimes the storyline is just plain wrong.
Without a change in the narrative- by living first-hand experiences that shape our basic knowledge and feelings about others- we stand little chance of repairing the systems which pave the way for poverty and injustice. Our notions that people in impoverished countries don’t really want to be independent are patently false, just as our belief that U.S. jurisprudence is free from factors of class and race is a myth. Our stories color a great deal of our beliefs; it’s imperative that our stories are therefore factual.
Embrace Hopefulness. In his talk full of poignant stories, Stevenson might have been forgiven if he had allowed the audience to become depressed at hearing case after case of wrongful incarceration and lost lives. But his outlook is one that is decidedly upbeat, because he believes in the power of the human mind and spirit.
Likewise, the cause for hope in a land like Nicaragua stems from the resilience of its people and the multitude of people- both inside and from outside of the country, including WPF- who are working hard to convert their good intentions for assistance into actual development results. The degree to which we succeed in such “good change” may well be determined by the degree to which we heed Stevenson’s blueprint for justice, as outlined here.
Be Willing to Do Uncomfortable Things. Getting out of our comfort zones. It’s clear that Stevenson’s work takes him into some of the most uncomfortable circumstances imaginable, working with death row inmates, confronting the harsh realities of lifelong imprisonment, consoling the families of victims and perpetrators alike. Sharing a last meal. Stevenson confesses to his continued emotional discomfort of such circumstances, even to this day, but also recognizes the importance of it. He has heard the entreaty, “please come back again,” countless times from voices who have little other source of hopefulness. The work is not comfortable, but necessary.
Just like in Nicaragua. The breadth and intensity of poverty there- economic, educational, developmental- makes for environments that are difficult to understand and to accept. The rural sectors of the country reflect limited opportunities for its people despite their collective determination and the presence of well-intentioned aid organizations. But if poverty results are to change, then our collective and individual responses to the disease must change, as well, and that will take us out of our comfort zones.
We’ll do with less. We’ll speak up publicly more. We’ll have allowed ourselves to get proximate enough to feel the discomforts. We’ll become intimate with the truths obscured by myth and manipulation. And we’ll retain our sense of foolishness to believe that each of us can make a difference within our own niches of life, that we will do the things that others say cannot be done.
Without ever likely having been to Nicaragua, Bryan Stevenson seems to know it with clarity….