UCSB Arts and Lectures featured author, activist and Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson on Monday, April 18, just a few months following the annual UCSB Reads book giveaway. Stevenson wrote Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, this year’s UCSB Reads book pick. Although humble, Stevenson has no shortage of in successes: he currently spends his days in Montgomery, Alabama defending inmates on death row.
During his lecture, Stevenson prescribed four things that are necessary to change the world, which he described with intermittent vignettes about his successes, failures and learning experiences in defending inmates on death row.
His first rule is that we must get close to the issues, and he supported this rule by giving examples from his personal life. His parents were unable to go to high school due to the lack of availability of Black high schools in their area. Once lawyers familiarized themselves and got close to the issue, they were able to fight to win and allow Black adolescents the ability to finally attend school.
However, Stevenson readily pointed out that if the lawyers never got close, the issue might not have ever been resolved. Similarly, if he had never personally visited Montgomery, Ala., Stevenson might not have ever had the opportunity to fight against racial injustice, poverty and the cruel and unusual punishments that plague the mentally ill. Being close allowed him to form relationships with the people who are products of the larger institutional issues, which only energized him to continue.
Stevenson also said that we need to change the narratives that sustain these problems. We are conditioned to be angry and fearful of others, he argued, and a manifestation of this is the new laws — laws which refer to children and minors as “superpredators,” — that lowered the minimum age that minors could be tried as adults.
This corrupting ideology has allowed a narrative to emerge that says some children do not deserve love, protection and the ability to grow, which is just not true. The ideology that is sustaining racial injustice is white supremacy, which made whites feel okay enslaving others, ultimately leading to decades of terrorism, lynching and violence. To change this paradigm, he argued, we must be able to commit ourselves to truth and reconciliation to heal these ideologies.
Third, Stevenson insisted that hope is a vital component in changing the world. He described instances in which he had moments of self-doubt or doubt imposed by others. His advice for overcoming these doubts is to remind yourself of why you started in the first place, and channel that motivation and passion once again.
Finally, Stevenson stated that we must be able to commit ourselves to uncomfortable things, despite the fact that they may break you. His own brokenness has taught him about mercy and compassion, which are necessary in his polarizing work.
Stevenson presented a moving guide to change the world, making it seem easy and attainable with hard work, passion and commitment. Ultimately, at the root of racial injustice, mass incarceration, poverty and cruel punishments for minors and the mentally ill, we can find toxic ideologies and the injustices that arise from them. He implores us to all find the brokenness inside each one of us, to find the mercy and compassion to change the world.