American Injustice: Mercy, Humanity, and Making a Difference

Waking up early on a Sunday morning for me is brutal.  Somehow, my brain is ingrained with the idea that if I must wake up early on Sunday, there better be a good reason for it, a reason more sacred than going to church.  The Sunday morning keynote session on “American Injustice: Mercy, Humanity, and Making a Difference” turned out to be a very good reason not only for me but for many of the attendees of the American Association of Law Libraries 2017 Conference held in Austin, Texas. The keynote speaker was Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama and New York Times bestselling author of “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.” Stevenson delivered a keynote speech that was so inspiring and impactful that most people in the audience found themselves still talking about it after the session ended, feeling inspired and compelled to do something and make a difference. I was deeply moved and even after several days have passed since that Sunday morning, I feel compelled to share the following from his keynote speech:

Stevenson cited some astounding statistics on the number of incarcerations in this country in the last half century: “In 1972, there were 300,00 incarcerated people. Today, that number is 2.3 million. The United States has the highest rate of incarcerations in the world. There are 6 million people on probation, 70 million with criminal arrests, and 646% increase in the number of women incarcerated in the last 20 years. 70% of these women are single parents with minor children and this means that the chances that these children will go to jail dramatically increase. The Bureau of Justice predicts that 1 in 3 black babies born in the United States are expected to go to jail during their lifetime. The statistics for Latino boys is 1 in 6.”

The goal of his keynote, Stevenson offered, is to create more justice, more equality, and more opportunities. He laid out his four proposals, as follows:

  • Get proximate (as in close to). Find ways to get proximate to the people experiencing injustice because it is only in proximity to them that we gain a deep understanding of the problems facing the poor and the incarcerated.
  • Change the narrative.  Those of us who work as custodians to opening legal information and education understand the power of narratives.  Librarians have the critical role of changing the narrative that sustains equality and justice.  One example Stevenson talked about is the decision to wage a misguided war against drugs. Instead of saying drug dependency and drug addiction is a health care issue, we have, instead sent thousands of drug addicted persons to jail out of a narrative based on fear and anger. Stevenson believes “When we allow ourselves to be governed by fear and anger, we become vulnerable to be indifferent to injustice and inequality. Fear and anger is an essential ingredient of oppression and abusive power. And unless the narrative of fear and anger is changed, we cannot create the kind of opportunities we want and the kind of society that protects being governed by the rule of law.”
  • To stay hopeful about what we can do to create a just society. “Hopelessness is the enemy of justice.” Being hopeful make you stand up and speak out.
  • Be willing to do uncomfortable things, to make difficult decisions and not be afraid to be inconvenienced.  We must say things that need to be said and be willing to fight for the broken people. Stevenson offered his audience with these words of encouragement and wisdom: “Our character, our commitment to the rule of law, and our qualities that are going to define us cannot be measured by how we treat the powerful, the rich, and the privileged. It will be reflected by how we treat the poor, the condemned, the disfavored, and the excluded…”

Stevenson summed his keynote speech and proposed that the key to finding ways to create more justice and more opportunities lies in our willingness to be close to the neglected, the disfavored, and the excluded. “We can use the law to do the things that motivated us to want to be near the law in the first place which is to create justice. But to do so, it requires us to be proximate, it requires us to work on the narratives, it requires us to stay hopeful, and it requires us to do uncomfortable things.”


By Victoria

August 07, 2017

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