Activist lawyer Bryan Stevenson has some advice for making the world more just.
Bryan Stevenson, an attorney, activist and author, spoke in Seattle at the Plymouth Housing Group’s annual luncheon, where he brought a message relevant to anyone who wants a more just and equitable society.
Stevenson, who grew up poor in Delaware, has dedicated himself to that struggle, using his Harvard law degree to work on behalf of impoverished clients and people who’ve been unjustly treated by the criminal-justice system. He’s the founder and executive of the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative, which has won numerous victories, including freeing people who’ve been wrongly convicted.
Stevenson has become a leading voice for equality. He wrote the best-seller, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” about his life and work. Starbucks featured the book in its shops this summer.
He spoke last Friday about his efforts against rampant incarceration and on behalf of people caught up in poverty and injustice, and about the work Plymouth does to give shelter to people who are homeless in this booming community.
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The Plymouth Housing Group provides not just a home but an array of supportive services that helps its tenants leave homelessness behind. It’s a national model for effectively reducing homelessness and improving people’s lives.
Stevenson said Plymouth does four things that anyone trying to create a community we can all be proud of should do. They’re things that characterize his work, too.
First, Stevenson said, the group’s work is strengthened by the power of proximity. It’s hard to fix problems without an up-close understanding of them. He said Plymouth’s effectiveness is tied to its willingness to get to know people and their individual paths to homelessness.
And he talked about visiting Death Row inmates as a legal intern and seeing inmates and the prison system up-close. Seeing detail and nuances, he said, not only helps you be more effective at solving difficult problems, but it will change you. His experience made the law mean something concrete and gave him an urgent mission.
Second, both Stevenson and Plymouth use the power of narrative to bring about change. Plymouth has grown support for its work by changing the narrative that puts all the blame on homeless people for their situation, he said. The organization helps community members see how a complex web of factors contribute to homelessness.
Stevenson tries to do the same in his work. Other countries have great success dealing with drug abuse as a health problem, he said, but because it’s a crime issue in our narrative, we fill prisons, damaging families, neighborhoods and whole communities.
Some in the audience gasped when he recited statistics on the growth of incarceration. The U.S. prison population has increased from 300,000 people in the early-1970s to 2.3 million today.
The fear of crime that drove that increase has been especially devastating to black and brown people, he said, because of narratives about race that need to be changed.
The American version of slavery, “Created a narrative that somehow these people are not like the rest of us,” he said. Unlike other societies that had slavery, Americans created a permanent, heredity status based on race.
We can’t recover from this history without dealing with it fully and honestly. There are markers all over Germany testifying to atrocities against Jewish people, he said, but the U.S. hasn’t owned up to its sins in that way. His organization, the Equal Justice Initiative, is working to create markers at lynching sites around the country.
Stevenson’s third requirement for successful social-justice work is holding on to hope while confronting mountainous problems. Hope is what gets Plymouth to commit to difficult goals, such as ending homelessness, and motivates Stevenson to spend years on cases that others avoid.
“If we are not protective of our hope, we will let bad things happen,” he said.
And, fourth, Stevenson said working for justice requires a person to be uncomfortable sometimes. He met an old man once who showed him scars he’d gotten when he was registering black people to vote in the 1960s in the South. The man said he thinks of the scars from those beatings as his medals of honor.
Before Stevenson spoke, Plymouth’s Executive Director Paul Lambros talked about the challenges his staff face working with people who’ve been living on the streets. Many times those new tenants are living with mental illness or substance abuse and other problems. Stevenson represents people who sometimes have done bad things, but who still are due a fair hearing.
Stevenson said his grandmother got him alone once and told him something she said he should keep to himself. You are a special person, she said. He felt he needed to live up to that. Eventually, he learned she told all her grandchildren they were special, but he’d already internalized that narrative about himself.
He tells his audiences that everyone is more than the worst thing they’ve done or the worst thing that’s happened to them. Everyone is special and deserving of justice. That’s the big understanding Stevenson and Plymouth share.