Bryan Stevenson urges Exeter to 'change the narrative' on race

The MacArthur Fellow and Equal Justice Initiative founder outlined his four-pronged approach 

Adam Loyd
February 27, 2019
Bryan Stevenson at Exeter

Exeter's 2019 Bragdon Fellow, Bryan Stevenson, addresses assembly.

Speaking at a rare evening assembly, Exeter’s 2019 Bragdon Fellow, Bryan Stevenson, began his address by declaring that we have problems in this country. The founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative sees problems in growing income inequality, public safety and — from a first-hand perspective — the criminal justice system.

Looking out at the Exeter student body, however, the Montgomery, Alabama-based attorney sees a brighter future. “I didn’t come to talk about problems, I want to talk about solutions,” he said. “I believe we’re living at a time where we need a generation of people like you to change the world.”

A MacArthur Fellow and recipient of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Medal of Liberty, Stevenson founded EJI in 1989 to provide legal representation to the wrongly convicted and unfairly sentenced. The nonprofit has won relief for more than 140 wrongly condemned prisoners on death row and is a leading advocate for criminal justice reform and better prison conditions. That work has grown in recent years to confront racial injustice in American society.

To an engaged audience, Stevenson outlined a four-pronged approach to making a meaningful impact in the United States and around the world, starting with “getting proximate.” He explained that the only true way to understand the plight of the “poor, excluded, neglected and marginalized” is to go into their communities to listen and learn.

“We have to find ways to connect with people living in the bad parts of town who are dealing with violence, dependency, addiction and distress,” he said. “I believe when you’re proximate to people who are suffering, you hear things that you can’t otherwise hear and see things that you won’t otherwise see.”

Highlighting what he terms an ever-present “smog” of racial injustice in this country, Stevenson declared that we as a society must “change the narrative” when dealing with race.

“When we start talking about racial justice, people start looking for the exits,” he said.

“We’re still living at a time where if you’re black or brown you will go places in the country where you will have to navigate a presumption of dangerousness and guilt.”

Stevenson unveiled his third step in making meaningful change in the world by urging Exeter students to “stay hopeful,” especially as they continue to grow and the world becomes more complicated.

“Injustice prevails where hopelessness persists,” he said. “Your hope is your super power. Hope is what will get some of you to stand up when other people say sit down. Hope is what will get some of you to say something when others say stay quiet.”

Stevenson admitted that at times he struggles to heed his own advice to stay hopeful when relics from his home state of Alabama’s sordid history are romanticized.

“When people try to glorify the past, it just challenges me,” he said. “Our two largest high schools in Montgomery are Robert E. Lee High and Jefferson Davis High, and they’re 99 percent black.”

Stevenson concluded his set of instructions by challenging students to do the “uncomfortable and inconvenient.” He joked that he has been unsuccessful in his research to find an example of a time “where justice prevailed, where equality triumphed, where liberty won and nobody had to do anything uncomfortable and inconvenient.” Stevenson clarified that doing the uncomfortable does not mean taking a vow against comfort, but that “sometimes you have position yourself in uncomfortable places and you have to be a witness of what justice requires.”

In addition to his advice to the student body, Stevenson shared anecdotes of his life, effortlessly moving between stories of his work with death row inmates, to childhood memories of his grandmother’s hugs, to his days as an awkward college student.

“When I got to college, I was so excited, I would do this thing where I would go up to people I didn’t know and I would shout at them, ‘My name is Bryan and I love college,’” he quipped, receiving a laugh from the audience. “I think I ate alone a lot during my freshman year.”

Stevenson’s parting advice was met with snaps and claps throughout Assembly Hall. “We need you to be as informed and tactical and strategic and aware as you can possibly be, but don’t ever think your grades are a measure of your capacity to change the world.”

Following Stevenson’s remarks, Principal Bill Rawson made a surprise announcement, saying he would use his Principal’s Discretionary Fund to buy any interested student a copy of Stevenson’s 2014 memoir, “Just Mercy.” Stevenson remained in the Academy Building signing copies of the book for students in the foyer.

Just days after Stevenson's Exeter appearance, EJI won a ruling in a case before the Supreme Court that centered around a death-row inmate who suffers from dementia.

The Henry Bragdon Public Service & Interest Fellows Fund, started in December 2006, brings to campus speakers who have demonstrated special accomplishment and prominence in their professional and personal lives. The objective of the visits is to encourage discussion of issues relating to public service. Bragdon was a revered instructor of history and renowned scholar who taught at the Academy from 1945–72.