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Bryan Stevenson’s Primer on Social Justice

Bryan Stevenson

Bryan Stevenson is an attorney who works to “increase the justice quotient in this country.” At session 3 of the Global Leadership Summit, Stevenson offered a surprising solution to the overwhelming problem of social injustice we see in America: Proximity.

“One in three black male babies is expected to go to prison in his lifetime,” Stevenson says.

In 1972, there were about 300,000 people in prison, compared to roughly 2.3 million now. America has the highest population of incarcerated people in the world. This includes a 646 percent increase in women inmates over the years.

If Stevenson sounded calm and collected as he was sharing these alarming statistics, it’s not for lack of compassion. These are statistics that Stevenson know and understand on a personal level. He’s helped kids who are being tried as adults as young as 10, he’s fought for a mentally ill inmate who was sentenced to death and ultimately executed, and he still believes there is hope.

Through his years of social justice work, Stevenson has learn four key things about leadership.

We have to get proximate to the people who are suffering

Stevenson believes the only way to change a person’s situation for the better is to understand what life is like for them. And we can’t do that unless we get close. Politicians, as much as they may try to do good for people, are often far removed from the problems they’re trying to address.

“Leadership requires that the people we are serving believe we are with them,” Stevenson says. We’ve allowed distance to come between us and needy people, he argues, which makes us ineffective as we try to offer solutions. As leaders, we have to be willing to get closer to suffering.

“There is power in proximity,” Stevenson concludes.

We have to change the narratives that sustain the problems we’re trying to address

Stevenson argues that we could have used healthcare system to help people with mental illness, but instead we chose the prison system. This is because we’ve chose the narrative that people who are broken or hurt or beaten down by poverty have chosen this lifestyle for themselves and should be penalized.

“We’re so burdened by our history of inequality,” Stevenson says, that we can’t imagine a different narrative.

Indeed, there are wounds from eras past that have gone untreated. Namely, the genocide of the Native American population and the evils of slavery. “We’re a post-genocide society,” Stevenson says.

Stevenson believes the greatest evil of slavery was the narrative we told of racial difference—that there are differences between blacks and whites on the most basic levels. The narrative refused to acknowledge the human-ness and God-given worth of black people.

In America, we don’t talk about slavery, lynching, or wiping out entire tribes. But if you go to Germany, Stevenson says, they tell you about the holocaust.

We’ve got to stay hopeful

“Hopelessness is the enemy of social justice. It is the enemy of effective leadership,” Stevenson argues.

Stevenson admits it’s not easy to stay hopeful in the face of such an overwhelming problem. “It takes courage to stay hopeful in hard situations,” he explains.

The driving force behind Stevenson is the understanding that he works with broken people. “I do what I do because I’m broken, too.” Why is it, he asks, that when we see brokenness we want to kill it? Although Stevenson didn’t make this connection (he left it to the listener to apply), the question presents itself: Is the work of restoring broken people to wholeness not the message of the gospel?

We’ve got to do uncomfortable things

“Effective leadership only happens when great leaders are willing to do uncomfortable things,” Stevenson says. It’s not comfortable to sit in a holding room with a 10 year-old being tried as an adult after he has been molested and beaten by other inmates. But Stevenson has done that.

“True leadership is measured by how you treat the poor and neglected,” Stevenson reminds us. Those who have the privilege of being safe and secure, with a roof over our heads and food in our pantries should be the first to offer assistance.

But we won’t know what to do or how to help unless we get proximate to those who need help.

To read more on the subject of social justice, check out Bryan Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy.