We live in a dark, confusing and turbulent time. Many of my friends and I frequently struggle to maintain hope that this country can figure itself out with a president who won’t distance himself from white supremacists, with a climate change denier as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency and with a man who described slaves as immigrants leading the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

But on Tuesday, March 7, while listening to the remarks of the Wallenberg Medal winner, Bryan Stevenson, a civil rights lawyer and activist, I felt a bit more hopeful. Stevenson actually described hopelessness as the enemy of justice. We have no choice beside remaining hopeful, beside believing that change can happen. If we cannot find ways to change surrounding circumstances, why are we here?

I want to think about Stevenson’s ideas in the context of our campus, and try to imagine the possible outcomes if we collectively decided to take the steps he described. How might we imagine the ways acting out Stevenson’s positions would alter the campus experience, both inside and outside the classroom?

Stevenson began his lecture by discussing the need to get “proximate” to people and stories that are not familiar to us. He articulated that we must work directly with the poor, neglected, abused and incarcerated among us. And we ought to do this not because we, the more privileged members of society, have answers to bestow upon the marginalized; instead, we ought to approach these people with an open mind and an open heart, ready to learn from them.

Immediately, this aspect of Stevenson’s talk reminded me of a kind of community service. I think one way to imagine how this idea might impact the University of Michigan would be if students were required to engage with the larger Ann Arbor community in some collaborative effort. As students entering a novel situation, we could not adopt a position of superiority. We would be learning from and with people we would never otherwise encounter.

Imagine if this sort of community service became a pillar of the educational experience on this campus. It would force us to consider our standing in the world, to understand our privilege as college students, to work across difference with people in this community.

Another vital point Stevenson hit on was the idea that we, as Americans, need to increase the shame index in the United States. By this, Stevenson meant that we must willingly confront our past — Stevenson’s organization, the Equal Justice Initiative, is working on an ongoing project to post markers at every lynching site in the country. Stevenson pointed out that we are living in a post-genocidal state; this country was “founded” and cultivated through that cruel, massive genocide. In order to move forward, we must look back. 

Here, we can imagine the impact of the University fully reckoning with its past — instead of a slogan like “forever valiant” (which appears across campus on advertisements for the University’s bicentennial), which denies the fact, for example, that University President James Angell made integral contributions to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, or the fact that there is currently a significant swath of students who feel silenced and ignored on this campus. We are not always valiant. Nobody is. That is a ludicrous idea to even propose, nevertheless to identify with. It is not only meaningless; the act of willed ignorance, of not confronting a prejudiced past and a prejudiced present, is an act of extremely destructive violence. 

As Stevenson also noted, we must change the narratives that keep us from getting proximate, that keep us from engaging with people across difference. But the University, in fact, loves to promote certain narratives that have this precise effect: How are we, the students, meant to believe the administration is actually working to change itself and change this campus culture if it creates slogans like “forever valiant” to describe our school? That slogan promotes stasis, it promotes ignorance and it promotes a sense that we here at the University are — and have always been — egalitarian.

At one point in his lecture, Stevenson asked why we as a society have collectively agreed to silence, to jail and to kill the most broken among us. And I think this relates integrally to an unwillingness to confront our past. The mere fact that people in our society today can be made broken is a sign that our present moment maintains antecedents within the very outwardly and publicly evil past of slavery and segregation. Consequently, we silence them to keep them in their place, to assure they cannot remind a critical mass about the past from which we have all emerged.

Stevenson remarked that throughout his 30-year career defending people on death row, he has been made to feel “a little bit broken as well.” But, crucially, he noted that it is in a state of brokenness that we can recognize the power of what it means to be human. By confronting our broken past and working collaboratively with people made broken by our present, we will intrinsically become broken, ourselves.

And it is only once we do this, once we accept that collectively, we are and always have been broken, only then can we legitimately begin to heal and to move forward.  

Isaiah Zeavin-Moss can be reached at izeavinm@umich.edu.

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