Bryan Stephenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, won a Supreme Court case banning mandatory life sentencing without parole for anyone age 17 or younger. Based in Birmingham, Alabama, a hinterland that officially celebrates Robert E. Lee alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., the Harvard-trained lawyer dedicated his life to serving the poor, the incarcerated, and children prosecuted as adults.
Stephenson keynoted the 2016 Adverse Childhood Experiences conference held October 21 in San Francisco and hosted by the Center for Youth Wellness, based in Bayview/Hunter’s Point, a part of San Francisco as far removed from the thriving high-tech scene as is Birmingham.
The founder of the Center for Youth Wellness, Nadine Burke-Harris, a dynamic pediatrician turned social activist, introduced Stephenson, whom she met at a dinner hosted by Alphabet (formerly known as Google) chairman, Eric Schmidt. Fortuitously seated together, they both recognized in each other a drive to create more justice in this country.
“America is the most punitive nation in the world,” Stephenson started off, and then cited statistics the well known statistics. An African American himself, he said blacks suffer most, because one out of three male black babies are now expected to go to prison.
He said that part of the problem is our culture. “We use a punishment mindset that exacerbates the trauma (people have already suffered). We have to change that.”
He offered several solutions, some cultural, some policy-driven, such as having the Centers for Disease control and Prevention declare a health crisis in specific zip codes.
To me, the child of a holocaust survivor, whose own parents and grandparents were survivors of anti-Semitic pogroms in Eastern Europe, Stephenson’s depiction of America as a “post-genocidal society,” created by “an ideology of white supremacy” rang true.
In school, we are taught that this country as shaped by the desire for equality, yet as Stephenson points out, “The demography of this nation was shaped by racial terror.
“Slavery didn’t end in 1865. It just evolved,” he added.
My parents,” he said, “were humiliated every day of their lives. We haven’t dealt with that.”
He cited examples of countries that have faced up to their genocidal history, including South Africa with its Truth Commission after apartheid, and Germany, where in Berlin plaques are mounted on buildings denoting former homes and businesses of Jews who were killed or forced to leave.
In his own attempt to reconcile with our past and promote healing, his institute is putting up markers at every lynching site in the U.S. He’s also written a best-selling book about his work and life, Just Mercy.
Addressing the audience of 450 clinicians, educators, social workers, and therapists dedicated to helping develop resilience in children and adults suffering early childhood trauma, he said “I realized why I do what I do. Because I’m broken, too. It is being broken that can lead us to healing.”
As for what impels him to keep serving the poor, “The opposite of poverty is not wealth. It’s justice.”