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The Michigan Daily sat down with 2021 Commencement speaker Bryan Stevenson over the phone on Thursday. Stevenson is an acclaimed public interest lawyer, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a professor of criminal justice at New York University Law and the author of bestselling autobiography “Just Mercy.” He discussed his experience and perspective regarding college education, societal changes since his 2012 TED Talk, the history of social justice and necessary changes going forward. Stevenson will formally address the Spring graduating class at commencement Sunday, May 1. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
The Michigan Daily: Do you have any personal connection to the University of Michigan?
Bryan Stevenson: Yes, I taught at the law school at the University of Michigan. I taught a class on race in the law, I think I did it for two years … in both ‘95 and ‘96. I would fly to Detroit and head out to Ann Arbor, and I had a really good experience in the classroom but I also just enjoyed the energy around Ann Arbor.
TMD: How important was your education to your experience in law school and then your postgraduate career? Did your institutional learning sufficiently prepare you for the challenges you faced in the “real world”?
BS: College in particular was really formative for me. I grew up in a racially segregated community and started my education in a colored school. There were no high schools for black kids when my dad was a teenager in our county. So it was never assumed that college was going to be an option (for me). Then of course lawyers came in and enforced the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. As a result of that, I got to go to high school and then went to college. I was very active in music, I was very active in sports, but the community and the opportunity to talk about things with peers was just so stimulating that it made the possibility of postgraduate education very, very exciting. My initial months in (Harvard’s) law school weren’t as encouraging as I had expected — it didn’t seem like people were talking about things that I cared about, which related to poverty and social justice, etc. So I ended up pursuing another degree at (Harvard’s John F. Kennedy) School of Government and getting a public policy degree along with the law degree. It’s during those years that I learned that there were things that really mattered to me and that I wanted to use the skills and knowledge and training that I received to help people who were vulnerable. It was working with the poor and meeting people on death row that inspired me to pursue the career I’ve had. The time we have in graduate school and undergraduate (programs), if used as a journey, as a time of discovery and exploration, can really lay a foundation that supports the work you’ll do for the rest of your life.
TMD: In a year that has been challenging for many people in countless ways, how do you hope to advise and inspire such a unique graduating class as they embark into a yet uncertain future?
BS: It’s a difficult time, and what I hope to do is to not gloss over the challenges that we face, but to really think about what it will take to meet these challenges. Despite the pandemic and the disruption to the social and cultural life of a university campus, we have these bigger issues about the world and the justice deficits that we see in the inequality and the unfairness and division. Those challenges have to be met, too. So, I’m hoping I can speak to solutions to some of these problems, and ways of positioning ourselves to make a difference in the world.
TMD: In your 2012 TED Talk, you open with a conversation on the power of identity. College is said to be a pivotal period of time during which young people really develop their personal identity, so how would you encourage the graduating class to further reflect upon and build their identity from here?
BS: I do think identity is important. It’s not the labels we give ourselves, not the things we say about ourselves — it’s what we do. It’s how we do it. I think I said in the talk that you can be a teacher or nurse, but it’s committed teachers, caring teachers, compassionate nurses, those other descriptors that ultimately become the most important part of the identity that we create. What I would encourage people to understand is that the ideas in your mind are only part of who you are. What ultimately makes a difference, what ultimately defines you is the convictions in your heart. It’s the connection between heart and mind that creates the kind of identity that I think can contribute to a healthier community.
TMD: How did seeing yourself and your story portrayed by others in the 2019 ‘Just Mercy’ film affect your perception of your identity?
BS: It didn’t really, (although) it was surreal. Hearing your name, and seeing someone pretend to be you, is a very odd thing. But I felt really fortunate that the cast and the crew were so committed to trying to be as honest and authentic as possible. It helps when Michael B. Jordan is playing you obviously, but they were all committed to it being as authentic as possible and I was really pleased with the film. I was grateful to be a producer on the film and to be able to contribute to the script and the content. I think the biggest challenge for me was just spending time with these celebrities who have just lived such different lives than my life, but I feel like I’ve made a lot of great friends as a result of that process. It’s been wonderful to see people who might not read a book, but will watch a movie get exposed to these issues.
TMD: How has your work changed in light of COVID, and have you discovered anything new about your identity as a result?
BS: It’s been mostly challenging to not be able to spend time with clients. (The Equal Justice Initiative) is a client-centered organization, so we are at the prison all the time and building relationships and building trust, helping people navigate the challenges that incarceration creates. Fortunately our staff has been so committed to doing what they can that we’ve just pushed through like a lot of other people.
TMD: In that same TED Talk you lament the deafening silence concerning race, poverty, incarceration, cruel and unusual punishment. Do you think the recent Black Lives Matter activity, abolition and police reform conversations, and social media use, especially among young people, have begun to break this silence in the last nine years?
BS: I do, and I think that even before the last few years we’ve made a lot of progress in getting people to recognize that over-incarceration and excessive punishment is unsustainable. A decade ago when you had people from both political parties acknowledging that there were too many people in jails and prisons, that was an important step forward. Since (the TED Talk), we’ve seen a lot of states repeal the death penalty, and there’s absolutely a more vibrant and purposeful and hopeful conversation happening about race. I’m very encouraged by what we see, I just think it’s not a given. What a lot of us are talking about is really trying to turn this into concrete changes — policies, solutions. That means that another generation won’t have to live through some of what we’ve lived through in the last couple of years.
TMD: Why do you think our instinct is to be silent or deny these problems?
BS: I think all humans are biologically and psychologically programmed to like ‘comfortable’. I study this and whenever liberty has triumphed, whenever equality has prevailed, whenever justice has been achieved, somebody had to do something uncomfortable and inconvenient. I think what we all have to do is to recognize that part of what’s required when you want to make a difference is that you do things that are hard; that you stand even when people say “sit down” and that you speak even when people say “be quiet.” That’s the legacy of activism I feel like I’ve inherited from the people who came before me, and it’s a challenge that I want to give to the people who come after them.
TMD: In Just Mercy, you write about your own experiences with police brutality and discrimination. How would you advise members of marginalized communities to reconcile the fear of police violence with the desire to stand up to those in positions of authority when they are wrong?
BS: With regard to policing and police encounters, the first obligation is to survive and to get to a place where you are sufficiently safe that you can then document in detail your account. As I described in the book, I couldn’t do much that night, when they were threatening me and pulled (out) the gun. But the next day, I got active. I documented what happened and I wanted to push and challenge and I think we have to do the same thing. We have to organize and challenge the conditions, policies, practices, procedures that create unfair targeting and abuse of marginalized people.
TMD: Some view the changes you desire to make to the U.S. legal and justice systems as ideas that would take a long time to be accepted or adopted. What can the graduating class do to move this process forward even if they are not going into politics or law?
BS: I don’t think we should accept the argument that this will take a long time. Just during the course of my career, I’ve seen amazing things happen in a relatively short period of time. (The EJI) started challenging life without parole sentences for children in 2006, and within six years we had won two major cases banning those kinds of sentences. The world changed when we discovered that there was a coronavirus that threatened us — it seemed like overnight. We had to create radically different patterns of behavior. And we did it because we had to. But we can have that same mindset when it comes to climate change, when it comes to public safety, when it comes to policing, when it comes to inequality. You don’t have to be a sociologist or historian or a journalist or a lawyer, you just have to care about the issue and find ways to contribute.
TMD: What were the best words of encouragement or advice you received along your journey? From whom?
BS: I mentioned this I think in that (TED) Talk but I would say Rosa Parks and Johnnie Carr. They encouraged me to be brave, to believe things I haven’t seen in pursuit of justice. And that has shaped my career.
Summer News Editor Roni Kane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org