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Founder’s Week Speaker Suggests Path for Promoting Social Justice

Friday, September 25, 2015

Addressing more than 400 members of the St. John’s community as part of the University’s 21st Annual Founder’s Week, author and activist Bryan Stevenson challenged students to step into “uncomfortable territory” by directly confronting the causes of social injustice.

“When you try to solve social justice problems from a distance, you miss the details and you come up with solutions that don’t work,” Stevenson said in his lecture. “Proximity will teach you something about yourself and will empower you to do things that you may not think you can do.”

Founder’s Week, held this year from September 21 to October 2, features service opportunities, lectures, and other activities that highlight the University’s Vincentian and Catholic mission.

“Professor Stevenson’s tireless efforts to bring reform to the criminal justice system remind us of the work of St. Vincent,” said Robert Mangione, Ed.D. R.Ph., provost. “His great dedication to seeking truth and justice reminds us that there is much to be done, and that one man can make a great difference in the lives of many.”

Stevenson is the founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative, an NYU law professor, and bestselling author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. For more than 30 years, he has worked to challenge racial discrimination and unjust incarceration. His TED talk about injustice has more than 2.5 million views, and he is one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2015.

A public-interest lawyer, Stevenson has dedicated his career to helping the poor, the incarcerated, and the condemned. At the heart of social injustice, he argued, is a “narrative” of fear and anger. “Whenever fear and anger dominate our policy choices, you become abusive—you become unfair,” he said. “It allows good people to feel okay about bias and discrimination. If we do not change the narrative, then we will not succeed.”

Clement Anozie '17C, a first-generation American, has experienced the kind of bias of which Stevenson spoke. “My family is from Nigeria, and the narrative in this country where being black is perceived as being ‘less’ is new to me,” he said. “Professor Stevenson gave me a lot of insight on how to combat that reality.”

According to Stevenson, if we want to change the world—above all else—we need hope when confronted with adversity. “The truth is, when you do uncomfortable things, when you are forced to change narratives and be hopeful in the face of hopelessness, it will break you,” he said. “But there is a power in brokenness. The people who are going to save this country are not the whole and healthy ones; it’s the ones who are broken—because the broken ones tend to be about the power of compassion and mercy and justice.”

“With everything that’s been going on nationally and internationally, it’s wonderful that we’re having this conversation at St. John’s,” said Leah Todd '16CPS. “Professor Stevenson really challenged us to address the issues and step into uncomfortable territory.”  

The Academic Lecture series is organized by Student Government, Inc.; Division of Student Affairs; Office of the Provost; Vincentian Center for Church and Society; and The Ronald H. Brown Center for Civil Rights and Economic Development. The next Academic Lecture Series event, “The Inside-Out Experience: Examining Social Issues Through the Prism of Prison,” will take place on Monday, October 19 at 5 p.m.