There is a reason why Bryan Stevenson, Founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, has won numerous awards for his work in fighting poverty and challenging racial discrimination in the criminal justice system. This Harvard Law School graduate (and author of the New York Times bestseller Just Mercy) doesn’t give up.
At the recent National Charter Schools Conference, Stevenson advocated “Creating Proximity” to those who are underserved as one of four ways to bring balance into an unjust system. Here are the others.
Deal with the Narrative of Fear and Anger. Fear and anger are essential to existence of injustice. Some students come to school traumatized. “There is a PTSD epidemic affecting black and low income children,” he said. “Veterans with PTSD can’t be treated with just a drug—they need a relationship. So when children come with issues, can we greet them as people who have needs, or do we have to talk about expulsion? We need a relational model rooted in love and commitment.”
And we need to change the narrative, he says. We haven’t addressed the trauma because we haven’t identified it. Until we talk about our history of slavery, we can’t rise above it. We are still burdened by it, because we never talked about it. African Americans were humiliated for decades—we need truth and reconciliation in this country. In Germany there is a marker in every place where someone was taken to a concentration camp. Their history is everywhere. We haven’t done that in America!
We’ve Got to Be Hopeful. Hope is an essential ingredient to creating change, Stevenson says. “Fear is the ally of inequity. I see hopeless defendants. They know the justice system treats you better if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent.”
These individuals need someone to say “You can!” They need to be hopeful. A teacher without hope won’t make a difference in the lives of young people who have been condemned and abused.
We Must Choose to do Uncomfortable Things. Progress and change happen when people do uncomfortable things. The opposite of poverty is justice. A society is judged by how you treat the poor and underserved. If you beat the drum for justice, you may get kicked. But it is in those moments that we understand the power of our humanity.
These are strong messages for all of us–including our teachers. Know the person and his story. Talk about history that matters. Instill hope. And take a stand for justice, no matter how uncomfortable.