March 10, 2016

Bryan Stevenson is the Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. He is the author of the acclaimed searing indictment of our criminal justice system, "Justice Mercy".

He delivered a mesmerizing talk at the YWCA breakfast in Cincinnati, Ohio on March 8th.

Here is how I summarized what I had experienced. I am only sorry you could not experience in its entirety and in person.


This is one of the finest talks that I can ever recall hearing.  Bryan took some time in disclosing the terrible inequalities and predicament we find ourselves in as a nation in terms of racial trauma.  He observed that statistically, one in three young black boys born today will be in jail at some point in their life, and the depressing statistics went on.  However, he quickly turned to the subject of the future and how to make change.  He built his talk around a very personalized portrayal of four principles:
1.     Proximity – Get close to the spaces where the challenge is.  Close to the people who are suffering.  How relevant this is to our recently commissioned Poverty Task Force which confronts the reality that about 40% of all children in Cincinnati are growing up poor.  Bryan found in his discussions that children 11-12 years old “don’t believe they will be free when they get to be 20.”  It takes me back to the importance of being intimate with the issues, with the consumer, with fellow employees. (at P&G).   I loved the way he tells his own history.  “There is power in proximity.”
2.     We need to change the narrative.  For example, as we deal with drugs, we have to stop dealing with it so much as a crime but as a health issue.  He made the fascinating contrast in how we treat alcoholics; we don’t criminalize them, throw them in jail.  
Our narrative today is too often rooted in fear and anger.  Everyone is vetting how tough they are on crime.  Life sentences are being given out for using marijuana or writing a bad check. 
Fear and anger lead to injustice.
We have to stop putting children in adult jails.  They are being hurt by others.
We need to recognize that “all children are children.”  The “great society is the one that deals and supports the most disadvantaged, not the most wealthy.” 
He offered the extraordinary insight that the “great evil of slavery was not as much the fact that it resulted in bonded labor as that it created the ideology of white supremacy which is continuing to live.”
Slavery didn’t end in 1865.  It just evolved.  It led to terrorism, not different than the terrorism that exists today in many ways.  KKK, lynchings, burning of blacks.  Blacks grew up amidst racial terrorism.
He made the interesting observation that blacks came up from the South not just to get jobs but to escape terror.  Of course, the North didn’t really welcome them; they were tolerated.  He feels we have been much too “celebratory” about civil rights.  We have really never faced up to the issue of the legacy of slavery.  That is certainly our task at the Freedom Center.
3.     We need to protect hopefulness.  We can’t correct injustice without hope.
His comments here again showed the importance of telling stories. 
4.     In the end, “We have to be willing to do the uncomfortable.”  Difficult things.  This certainly applies to making preschool for all happen and for confronting poverty.  We will have to do uncomfortable things.
He cited the opposite of poverty as not being wealth but “justice.”  In a later conversation with Shannon Isaacs, I loved how she described the opposite of poverty being:  “empowerment and dignity.”

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