One Book Lecture: Bryan Stevenson


Courtesy of Kaitlin O’Sullivan

Emily Cox

On Friday, Sept. 14, 2018, the Villanova Room required overflow seating to host Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” this year’s selected work for the One Book Program. His work stresses the redeeming power of mercy for the vulnerable and oppressed. He chronicles his evolution from a young lawyer who founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to fighting for justice on behalf of society’s marginalized, to a prominent standard bearer for equal justice.

“‘Just Mercy’” is one of the most important books the One Book Villanova committee has ever selected,” Teresa A. Nance, PhD, Associate Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion, Chief Diversity Officer, and One Book Villanova committee co-chair, said. “Bryan Stevenson tells us he is just an ordinary person confronted with extraordinary injustice and that he was compelled to take action. We live in a time where inaction in the face of horrific wrongs done at home or abroad constitutes a tacit support of the wrongdoing.”  

University President Rev. Peter M. Donohue, O.S.A., Ph.D. stressed how important it was to have Stevenson speak at the St. Thomas of Villanova Lecture, which kicked off the weekend of the University’s St. Thomas of Villanova’s celebration. A timely event preceding the University’s  Day of Service, Stevenson’s book highlights the importance of honest dialogue in the face of deep-seeded injustice and changing ourselves in order to create change in our community.  

“Bryan Stevenson embodies the very essence of the Adela Dwyer-St. Thomas of Villanova Peace Award and we are thrilled to be able to honor him. His work for criminal justice reform is also calling our nation to a deeply honest conversation about history, race, and justice,” Kathryn Getek-Soltis, Director of the Center for Peace and Justice Education and Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics said. “In keeping with Augustine’s ethos and passion for equity and peace, Stevenson invites us to recognize the humanity in us and others, as there is no possibility of peace without this.”

Stevenson began his talk with a message for the Villanova community, “There is a profound need in the world for justice and opportunity to change the world.” He insisted that we must “take the time to find the ways to change the world” and affirmed that we, as listeners, have “the ability and power to change the world.”  

Much of the perspective from Stevenson comes from his work in the criminal justice system as a lawyer and is “deeply troubled” by the 2.3 million people in jails and prisons. He told the crowd about his deep concern for the United States having the highest rate of incarceration in the world. 

“We have become indifferent to this epidemic – this phenomenon – of over incarceration,” Stevenson said. As he spoke of his analysis of incarceration, he highlighted what he noted as a “profound absence of hope.” This absence of hope is why he feels there is a dire need to change the world. He presented a recipe for how he thinks this fix can be accomplished. 

Throughout his talk, Stevenson urged the crowd to “find ways to get proximate.” Stevenson’s encouraged the audience to get closer to the struggle and the suffering. Consequently, one can realize their impact and adjust it in order to change the community. As Stevenson emphasized, “There is power in proximity.”

Stevenson also spoke about his love and lessons learned from his grandmother. He shared moments from his childhood, growing up in a community divided by the color of skin. Stevenson shared his journey of education and how his education impacted him. He spoke about his conversations with the people he has represented in the past. He shared how he grew as a person from his relationships with others. These personal anecdotes left the crowd laughing with him, sighing with him, and connecting with his call to action. 

He “got proximate” by spending a month in Georgia as a Harvard law student. Not knowing too much about law, he saw the lives of those he worked alongside. He commented on the way their lives were animated by the work they were doing. Then, one day he was given the task of letting a condemned prisoner on death row know that he would not be executed in the next year. 

Stevenson was struck by the shackles and chains on the man he was speaking to. The words he said to this man would forever change both the prisoner and Stevenson himself: “They sent me down here to tell you that you are not at risk of execution any time in the next year.” The man grabbed Stevenson and stressed the importance of Stevenson’s message in his life. Stevenson told the Villanova crowd, “I could not believe the power and impact my proximity had on this man and on me.”

Furthermore, Stevenson shared a message on the topic of changing narratives. He related this back to the classroom and discussions of politics and study issue, however, underneath these exist narratives of stories and people. 

“We have to change the narratives that make us comfortable with inequality,” Stevenson said. “We must find ways to create narrative ways of change if we really want this world to change.”

Adding on to his topic of politics regarding fear within American society, Stevenson spoke about racial injustice.

 He took us back in time through a history lesson beginning with European settlers killing Native Americans. Referring to America as a “post-genocidal nation,” he emphasized, “the narrative of racial difference was the true evil in American slavery.” He believes racism didn’t end in 1865 it only evolved into issues of domestic terrorism. 

He touched on racist ideologies still present in communities today and how certain towns and areas are product of narratives of the difference in skin color. “We have created [this] racial difference.” Stevenson calls upon us to change this story. 

Stevenson brought a message of change to Villanova. He urged students and faculty alike to change narratives of injustice in America. “Our commitment to doing justice can be evident in all the great things we accomplish,” Stevenson said. “It must be evident in how we treat the poor, the marginalized, the incarcerated, and the condemned.” 

Stevenson shed light on the abilities of the ordinary person to change the world. “You’re gonna have to get proximate. You’re gonna have to change narratives,” Stevenson said. “You’re gonna have to stay hopeful. You’re gonna have to do these uncomfortable things. But you can do it.” 

Stevenson left students with the message: “Don’t ever thing that your grades are a measure of your capacity to change the world because they’re not.” Grades do not define the capacity of human connection. No grade can define the measure of a student’s worth in the world. 

In his final moments on the stage, his message was simple: “Create more justice.”

This was Stevenson’s second One Book Lecture.