On Sunday, Wilkes University welcomed Bryan Stevenson for the 38th annual Max Rosenn Lecture in Law and Humanities.
The Max Rosenn Lecture dates back to 1982 when the university first held Anthony Lewis, a columnist from the New York Times. The lecture has since brought other speakers including. U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, former Senator Paul Simon and then mayor now Senator Cory Booker.
A group of Rosenn’s former law clerks worked together to honor and remember his legacy through this lecture series. Some of his law clerks were in attendance at the lecture including James Sandman introduced Stevenson.
Stevenson, is an attorney, human rights activist, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative and an author. His lecture was titled “American Injustice: Mercy, Humanity and Making a Difference.”
President Patrick F. Leahy and Sandman introduced Stevenson to the audience of the Dorothy Dickson Darte Center.
Leahy opened the lecture by welcoming the audience and talking about Stevenson.
“I can’t think of anyone else I have ever met who embodies his feeling of hope more than Bryan Stevenson. That is why I am so proud to have him here at Wilkes University,” said Leahy.
Sandman then gave a more emotional and touching introduction by incorporating his strong feelings for Stevenson and Rosenn’s work in law.
“I believe that Bryan Stevenson is the finest lawyer in America today. Bryan Stevenson’s work has saved scores of lives and changed the course of American law,” said Sandman.
“If you were to ask me today what living lawyer I most admire, what lawyer most inspires me, what lawyer I wish I were like, I would answer in a heartbeat Bryan Stevenson.”
Stevenson started by thanking the audience, Sandman and Leahy for their kind words and their applause. He then moved to praise Rosenn and stated that he wishes he could have met the man that represented the want and initiative to change justice and make the world a better place.
He focused his lecture on what it takes to advance justice, create a healthy community, and to change the world. To accomplish these, he came up with four ways that America needs to change to make these solutions a reality.
Stevenson provided statistics to show the growing incarceration rate in the United States, specifically how populations of women, black and Latino Americans are being affected by incarceration. He explained that these issues create an absence of hope in communities that have dramatic implications for the lives of these individuals. He said this despair needs to be changed.
“I am persuaded that things do need to change. We are not where we are supposed to be. We are not where we need to be in this country. We are still struggling,” said Stevenson.
The first thing Stevenson said we need to do is get proximate to the people who are excluded and suffering. He said effective change will come from getting personal with the communities that people normally stay away from.
“There is power in proximity and we all have the power to share with one another. I am a product of someone’s choice to get proximate,” said Stevenson. “I grew up in a community where black kids could not go to the public schools. Because lawyers got proximate to poor black kids like me, I got to go to high school, I got to go to college.”
He talked about when he first got proximate with an individual he was ordered to tell that he would not be executed for another year. During this interaction, Stevenson got to know the man and got close with him which helped shape his future and work as a whole.
Stevenson then suggested a second action for America to take to make a more just society, that we change the narratives that are discussed every day.
He talked about the politics of fear and anger which push us to tolerate things that we should not, for instance, when criminologists demonized children by calling them “superpredators” and the issue with racial narratives.
“Whether we are talking about children or we are talking about race, mental illness or poverty, we have to change the narrative.”
A third thing Stevenson said America has to do is to stay hopeful.
“I don’t think we can change the world, I don’t think we can create more justice, I don’t think we can be a healthy community if we allow ourselves to become hopeless about the things that must be done,” said Stevenson. “I actually believe that hopelessness is the enemy of justice. Justice prevails where hopelessness persists.”
The fourth thing that America has to be willing to do, according to Stevenson, is to do things that are uncomfortable and inconvenient.
“We cannot change the world if we are unwilling to do the uncomfortable. Sometimes you have to position yourself in difficult places and you have to be a witness. You have to do something hard, something unpopular, something challenging,” he added.
He then talked about a more painful and uncomfortable story regarding a man that suffered from intellectual disabilities that he was unable to save from death row after working and appealing all the way to the Supreme Court. He had to call the man and apologize for not being able to stop the execution. This affected him deeply and made him reconsider his career.
He ended the talk by talking about the broken individuals that he works with and the broken system he works in.
“I do what I do because I am broken too,” he said. “The truth is you cannot get proximate or change narratives or stay hopeful or do uncomfortable things without sometimes being pushed down.”