By Ellen McGirt
November 15, 2016

If you’re looking for a dose of inspiration today, then spending some time with Bryan Stevenson might be just the thing.

Stevenson is a lawyer, professor and the founder of the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative, which works to end inequities in the criminal justice system and beyond. But, he began his own education with a degree in philosophy. It clearly informs everything he does. “Since no one was going to pay me to philosophize, I started looking around for something meaningful to do with my time,” he said of his decision to go to law school.

His work has been extraordinary, from freeing wrongly convicted death row inmates, to persuading the Supreme Court to end life-without-parole for children. “We have a system that treats you better if you are rich and guilty, then if you’re poor and innocent,” he says.

His TED talk, We need to talk about an injustice, has more than 3.2 million views, and his memoir, Just Mercy, is a #1 New York Times Bestseller.

As his influence has grown, Stevenson has been sharing a four-step path, designed to help people sharpen their thinking on race, inequity, and justice.

But for anyone who is interested in inclusion – specifically, designing systems to help people work effectively together, they offer a powerful philosophical underpinning that can make sure you’re always doing something meaningful with your time.

Here is my synopsis:

  • Proximity. Strive to see the lives of others through your own eyes, and understand their lived experiences. “If you are willing to get closer to people who are suffering, you will find the power to change the world.”
  • Change the narrative. There are always unspoken stories that shape the status quo; the narratives around race are particularly wrenching. His best examples are the “no tolerance” education policies in schools that promote the view that students of color are criminals to be punished, not children to be nurtured and educated.
  • Keep hopeful. Yes, this is a tough one, because it requires us to take a tough inventory of our own resignation. But, he says,“injustice prevails when hopelessness persists.”
  • Do uncomfortable things. Fighting for others, for justice, being the only one who raises our hands to point out an issue can be uncomfortable, for everyone involved. He points to two things. First, there is a restorative power in working for others. And two, “I see my own brokenness in the brokenness of those I serve.”

Stevenson is asking those of us who operate in big systems, all of them, to become more courageous. “We love innovation. We love technology. We love creativity. We love entertainment. But ultimately, those realities are shadowed by suffering, abuse, degradation, marginalization. And for me, it becomes necessary to integrate the two. Because ultimately we are talking about a need to be more hopeful, more committed, more dedicated to the basic challenges of living in a complex world.”


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