I remember lying down in the backseat of the family minivan, book propped open on my chest. We were driving back from Washington, D.C., and I was trying to finish a book recommended to me that I had begun earlier in the road trip. I like books, and this book felt good to read. The physical nature of the book, however, could not compare to the transformative words on the pages inside it and the inspiring man who wrote them. The book was titled Just Mercy, and it was written by a man I’d never heard of. His name is Bryan Stevenson.
Stevenson grew up in a small rural town in Delaware. He spent his early classroom years at a “colored” elementary school where even after the school was desegregated students continued to follow the social norms: white students entered through the front door, and black students through the back. This segregation and prejudice did not stop him from pursuing education, however, and he went on to earn his J.D and M.A at Harvard. After graduation, he moved to Montgomery, Alabama and founded the “Equal Justice Initiative (EJI)” that focused on representing folks who had been sentenced to death row and had no legal representation. Since then, Stevenson’s work at EJI has been massively successful- he has argued cases before the supreme court, leading to precedent that ruled “life-without-parole” sentences for minors unconstitutional. The staff at EJI have saved 125 men from the death penalty, and have fought cases that have affected thousands nationwide and sought to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system.
These biographical details were impressive to me as I read the book, but ultimately they are not what led me to admire Stevenson’s life or consider him a hero. It is Bryan Stevenson’s message of compassionate justice that has changed my life and outlook on the world around me. Stevenson operates from the philosophy that “each of us is better than the worst thing we’ve done.” I was shocked when I read this. This idea certainly has profound implications for the legal system, but even more powerfully affects how I treat others daily. How often do I break a relationship with a friend because of hurt that has occurred? Why do I refuse to forgive and seek conciliation with others when I myself had hurt people? Stevenson pursues justice for wrongs committed but ultimately believes that we should be merciful and compassionate towards others in light of our own brokenness. When I finished the book, I couldn’t help but put it down and stare out the window at the passing landscape. Stevenson’s life has transformed how I live and see others. His speeches and writings have been featured several times in my education courses, and I have been greatly influenced by his thinking in my own ideas about how to run my classroom. I want to teach for human flourishing: seeking to build relationships, inspire confidence, and operate from a mode of Just Mercy.