Choosing to Do the Uncomfortable Thing
Kathryn Lee conducts a Q&A with Bryan Stevenson
Bryan Stevenson was Whitworth's spring 2015 President's Leadership Forum speaker. He is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, based in Montgomery, Ala., the organization that recently won a case in the U.S. Supreme Court to free Anthony Ray Hinton, who had spent nearly 30 years on Alabama's Death Row. Stevenson is also a professor of law at New York University School of Law, and he is the author of the New York Times bestseller Just Mercy (Random House, 2014). In April 2015 he was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Timemagazine.
Q. College students often wonder what the next step should be after graduation. Many feel pressured by paying off student loans and contributing to society. What advice would you offer new college graduates in 2015?
A. Students invest years of their lives to obtain a degree that is intended to give them options and shape a career path that excites and affirms them. I don't think that should change when you graduate. There will be economic and other pressures, but my own view is that those concerns shouldn't control the choices you make. There is no way to move forward with a meaningful career without some kind of debt. It will always cost you something to pursue your dreams, but if you're really committed it will be worth the price.
Q. Would you describe your life in the law as your calling? If so, how did you know that this was what you wanted to do?
A.I do feel called to serve the poor and the condemned. It didn't have to be as a lawyer, but I feel blessed that the opportunity to represent people has been given to me. When I couldn't wait to get back to death row and fight for people as a law student or live in places that were not comfortable or otherwise attractive to me, I knew that something was compelling me to do what I wanted to do, and it wasn't shaped by the forces that often shape my desires. I kept reading about Saul before he became the Apostle Paul and I knew that his story could be the story of many of my clients. It felt right and affirming to stand with incarcerated men and women, and I feel blessed to have done it now for close to 30 years.
Q.The students in my Law and Society class are reading your book Just Mercy. One of the more moving stories for me was your encounter with the black woman whose 16-year-old grandson had been murdered. She regularly went to the courthouse to comfort people. She said, "I decided that I was supposed to be here to catch some of the stones people cast at each other," referring to the story in John 8. At a church meeting, you said, "[W]e have to be stonecatchers." What does it mean to be a stonecatcher in America in 2015?
A.I think the admonition of Jesus against casting stones is especially powerful in a society that has become defined by over-incarceration and excessive punishment. We have become a very punitive and harsh country; we throw a lot of stones at people who have fallen and failed. I believe that the followers of Jesus need to catch some of these cast stones, not only to provide aid to those who are being judged and condemned, but to temper the violence of those who judge and condemn. Jesus didn't just save the woman caught in adultery in the Bible: He created the possibility for redemption for everyone there. I think Christians today have to do the same, which means that we have to be stonecatchers.
What are the most pressing issues facing the American criminal justice system in 2015? How can they be addressed?
A. We have to create more resources for the poor to avoid a system that treats you better if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent. We have to confront the presumption of guilt and dangerousness that gets assigned to people of color and leaves them vulnerable to unfair convictions and sentences. We need to stop treating drug dependency as a crime issue and treat it rather as a health issue. We need to prohibit profit-making on incarceration by private business and industry. We should eliminate mandatory sentencing laws and increase protections for children, the mentally disabled, and the victims of violent crime who then react violently. We need more leadership from elected officials, church leaders and ordinary citizens who see the threat posed by throwing away so many lives in America.
Q.The Equal Justice Initiative recently released a report on the history of lynchings in the U.S. Between 1877 and 1950, there were 3,959 victims in 12 southern states. Why is it important for us to know more about this history?
A. The legacy of racial inequality in America remains this country's great shame. It continues to haunt and compromise our ability to do justice in almost every sphere of society. We won't make progress in dealing with this condition until we talk more honestly about the history of racial injustice. Slavery, lynching and segregation are critical issues we've never honestly confronted. Our reports are part of an effort to address these issues in a new way. We have to change the narrative of our indifference to the history of racial injustice.
Q.What words of encouragement or warning would you give to law students of faith?
A. I believe you can change the world. I'm persuaded that people of faith can move mountains, but we have to get close to inequality and injustice, be hopeful about what we can do, and choose to do uncomfortable things on behalf of the disfavored.