Skip to content

Social justice advocate examines how to change ‘a broken system’

Northeastern University hosted Bryan Stevenson, one of the country's most visionary legal thinkers and social justice advocates at the John D. O'Bryant African American Institute on June 15, 2017. A MacArthur fellow and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson is a founding leader of the movement against mass incarceration in the U.S. He recently served on President Obama's task force on 21st-century policing. Photo by Casey Bayer for Northeastern University

To change the world, there are four actions people must take, according to lawyer and social justice advocate Bryan Stevenson.

“Those of us who are willing to position ourselves in proximity to the poor, who understand how we’re creating new narratives, who are willing to do uncomfortable things, who will endure some challenges and hardships—these are the ones, you are the ones, who will honor what it means to create a truly just community,” he explained at a lecture on social justice Thursday evening.

Those who had seats in the standing-room-only crowd at the John D. O’Bryant African American Institute rose to their feet with applause as Stevenson, who is also the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, concluded his talk.

A standing-room-only crowd in the John D. O’Bryant African American Institute listens to lawyer and social justice advocate Bryan Stevenson on June 15. Photo by Casey Bayer for Northeastern University

Stevenson’s decades of work as a social justice and human rights lawyer earned him a prestigious MacArthur Foundation “Genius” grant and the National Medal of Liberty from the American Civil Liberties Union—an award for which he was nominated by U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Stevens. He recently served on former President Barack Obama’s task force on 21st-century policing. In his introduction, Richard O’Bryant, director of Northeastern’s John D. O’Bryant African American Institute, called Stevenson “one of the most visionary leaders of our time.”

“There are some things we need to do to change the world,” Stevenson said, “and there’s a great need for it. This country is in a challenging place, and a lot of people have become indifferent to the plight of this crisis.”

Get proximate

“I believe if we’re going to create more justice, if we’re going to change the world, if we’re going to make a difference in the face of these problems, we’ve got to commit ourselves to getting proximate to the problems themselves,” Stevenson said. “We cannot isolate ourselves on college campuses, we cannot isolate ourselves in spaces that are safe and comfortable; we’ve got to get close to the places where inequality can be found, where injustice is seen, where oppression is being felt.”

Stevenson said the mistake good-intentioned people so often make is to “wait until they have insight, until they have answers.” Those won’t come to us, though, he said. We have to go to them.

Stevenson then described an interaction that set the course for his career. Early on in his law school education, when he was doing work for a human rights organization, he was instructed to go to death row and explain to an inmate that he wouldn’t be at risk for execution in the coming year. Feeling unqualified as a law student to do so, Stevenson apologized to the man for not knowing more about criminal or constitutional law, but delivered the message.

“I believe if we’re going to create more justice, if we’re going to change the world, if we’re going to make a difference in the face of these problems, we’ve got to commit ourselves to getting proximate to the problems themselves.”

Bryan Stevenson Lawyer, social justice advocate

“The man grabbed my hands and said, ‘Thank you. You’re the first person I’ve met who’s not a prisoner or a guard,’” Stevenson recalled. And, unburdened by the knowledge that he had a year without risk of execution, the man told Stevenson he could schedule visits with his wife and children—visits he’d been putting off because he didn’t know when his sentence would be carried out.

“I couldn’t believe how, even in my ignorance, just being proximate could make a difference in someone’s life,” Stevenson said.

Understand, then change the narratives

“We need to really understand the problems that sustain inequality and social injustice, and in order to do that, we need to understand the narratives that sustain those,” Stevenson said.

To do this, Stevenson said, Americans will “have to talk about things we haven’t talked about before,” including the colonists’ treatment of Native Americans and the narrative of racial injustice that fueled race-based slavery in the U.S.

“There is a narrative of racial difference in this country that we’re not really talking about,” Stevenson said. “If you go to South Africa, they will make you understand the history of apartheid. If you go to Rwanda, people will insist you hear the story of the genocide. But in this country, we don’t talk about lynching or slavery like that. It’s only when you’ve understood the truth that you can start to understand all the injustice that stems from it in America.”

Stay hopeful

Acknowledging the daunting burdens placed on black people in America, as well as, to a different extent, those fighting for social justice, Stevenson said, “You have to stay hopeful, and I say that sincerely. Hope is our most important weapon against injustice. Justice prevails where hopefulness persists.”

The lawyer described a specific occasion when he was visiting a client in a courthouse in Alabama. He was demeaned and mistreated by the guard at the entrance to the courthouse, forcing him to jump through several demoralizing hoops before he was allowed entry.

Photos by Casey Bayer for Northeastern University

Stevenson persisted, though, arguing in defense of a client whose background included being bounced around from foster home to foster home far too often during his youth.

Later that week, Stevenson thought twice about going to meet with his client again. He prepared to be confronted by the guard again. This time, however, the guard went out of his way to be helpful.

“That guard told me he’d come up in the foster care system, too; in a way that had made him an angry person. But then he said something to me that I would never have guessed he’d say. He said, ‘I hope you keep fighting for justice.’

“Justice is a transformative force, equality is a powerful force, and hope has to animate what we do,” Stevenson said.

Be willing to do uncomfortable things

“As humans, we are biologically programmed to do what’s comfortable,” Stevenson said, “but to change the world, to create justice, we have to do uncomfortable things.”

He experienced this firsthand, representing a client on death row. Stevenson explained how he argued for this client’s release on legal grounds—an argument that went all the way up to the Supreme Court while the clock was ticking on the man’s execution date.

About an hour before the execution, Stevenson said he got a call that his motion had been denied—the man would not be released. “I had to call this client and tell him this terrible thing; that I was so sorry, but I couldn’t stop his execution.”

The man sobbed, and then thanked Stevenson for trying, for caring.

“Justice is a transformative force, equality is a powerful force, and hope has to animate what we do.”

Bryan Stevenson

“I realized that night, while I was sitting in my office, that I represent broken people. But then I realized that I work in a broken system,” Stevenson said.

“I sat there and started thinking that this was too hard, that I wasn’t going to do it anymore,” he added. “But as I thought about it, I realized something I’d never realized before: I do what I do because I’m broken, too.

“The truth is that if you get proximate, if you change narratives, if you stay hopeful, if you do uncomfortable things, it’ll break you a little bit. You’ll get in places where you feel overwhelmed, where you have to cry, where you feel burdened. But I’m also here to tell you that it is the broken that understand the power of redemption; it’s the broken that can teach us the way compassion is supposed to work; it’s the broken that can truly understand the way mercy can change lives; it’s the broken that can appreciate what justice can do. It’s in these broken neighborhoods and broken communities that we can really, truly understand what it means to create hope and justice. And it’s only in our brokenness that we understand the power—the true power—that humanity can bring to any kind of situation.”