Acclaimed criminal justice attorney Bryan Stevenson received the University of Michigan Wallenberg Medal Tuesday evening at a packed Rackham Auditorium filled with more than 1,000 attendees. Stevenson, the head of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of best-selling memoir “Just Mercy,” delivered a keynote address narrating his experiences in criminal justice reform and urging attendees to craft hopeful narratives.
According to John Godfrey, the assistant dean for international education at the Rackham Graduate School and member of the medal selection committee, the Wallenberg Medal is an annual award given to a person who demonstrates a commitment to human rights.
“We look for someone who has upheld the values of Raoul Wallenberg,” Godfrey said. “Someone who is outspoken in the defense of human rights, who has put himself or herself in the front lines for justice protecting those who are oppressed and who have really sought to make a difference in the world.”
Previous winners of the Wallenberg Medal include Russian journalist Masha Gessen, an outspoken Putin critic; U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D–Ga.), a civil rights leader; the Dalai Lama; and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a South African anti-apartheid activist.
Stevenson began by detailing his journey as a Harvard Law graduate through the Southern criminal justice system, defending inmates on death row in an era of unprecedented growth in the country’s incarceration rate. Stevenson stressed the racial disparities present in the system — specifically the high rates of incarceration in Black and Latino populations — and pushed for more frank discussions of the United States’s history of racism.
“The United States is the most punitive society in the world … we have a criminal justice system that treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent,” he said. “We have to talk about the fact that we are living in a post-genocide society. I don’t think (the United States) is shameful enough for what we have done wrong.”
Stevenson at times connected the themes of racial and class equality and social justice to the current political climate in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. During his talk, he noted the high support for President Donald Trump in his home state of Alabama.
“When people say, ‘Make America great again,’ I want to know what decade we’re talking about,” Stevenson said, drawing exuberant applause from the crowd.
A major theme of his acceptance speech was his commitment to personalizing complex policy failures that often create inequity between minority and white communities. According to Stevenson, cultural attitudes of anxiety and fear toward those of different races and socioeconomic statuses create the conditions that lead to cyclical poverty and high rates of incarceration among minority communities.
“We as a society need to change the narrative that sustain poverty and inequality,” Stevenson said. “Behind all those narratives are policy choices that is a consequence of that narrative. … All children are children, and we show our love for them not just with gifted children, but those in gangs and those at-risk.”
He emphasized the need for those committed to social justice to remain “proximate” to the community they aim to serve. In his own life, Stevenson and his parents struggled to overcome the damaging effects of segregation policies in schools. Stevenson cites the efforts of civil rights lawyers as the reason for his ability to receive a good education.
“I am doing the things that I am doing, and I am standing here today because lawyers got proximate to me,” Stevenson said.
However, he also noted his experiences being proximate to situations also forced him to confront uncomfortable realities — like his organization’s inability to secure stays of executions for people suffering from disabilities.
After recalling a client he was unable to save from execution on Alabama’s death row who had a history with foster-care abuse, mental-health illness, addiction and homelessness, Stevenson said his confidence in his work was shaken, but not broken.
“I don’t do what I do because I am a lawyer,” he said. “I do what I do because I’m broken too. The truth is that when you stay proximate you get broken, bruised and nicked.”
Regent Katherine White (D) — in attendance along with Regent Mark Bernstein (D) — said the evening was “the best speech or presentation” she’s attended in her time at the University.
“I think what we learned tonight is that we all want the same things,” she said. “It’s things like this, tough conversations in an environment where people are intellectually curious and eager to contribute to something greater than themselves, we need to take full advantage of that.”
Stevenson acknowledged the University’s legacy of strong student activism, but pointed out the state of Michigan still struggles with overcrowded prisons and a burgeoning incarceration rate. He reminded minority members of the campus community to be wary of lingering institutional racism.
“There’s work to be done in Michigan,” he said. “To the students of color on this campus, to the faculty of color on this campus — it breaks my heart to say this — but it doesn’t matter how smart you are, how talented you are, how hardworking you are,” he said. “You will go places in this country when you leave this university and even while you’re at this university where you will be burdened with a presumption of dangerousness and guilt. It’s exhausting … and it starts to weigh on you.”
Ultimately, Stevenson advocated for more compassionate conversations between people hailing from all backgrounds.
“It’s a dynamic of hope,” he said. “Your character and commitment to change in the world will not be measured by how you treat the rich, powerful and privileged. It’ll be measured by how you treat the poor, incarcerated and condemned.”
LSA junior Yara Gayar attended the lecture and said Stevenson’s sentiments made an impression in terms of his dynamic speaking and central goals.
“Stevenson’s spoke eloquently as he inspired the audience to make change in their populations through the 4 essentials he mentioned: proximity to the problems, changing our narrative to a completely truthful one, hopefulness, and pushing oneself beyond levels of comfort,” Gayar said.