Last week Bryan Stevenson, lawyer and executive director of the Equal Justice Institute, delivered a stirring speech for MLK Convocation. At times funny, others teary eyed and always powerful, Stevenson’s speech was inspiring in a myriad of ways. While Stevenson focused on his experiences and causes, mainly injustice and bias within the criminal justice system, his points can be applied to any cause for change or justice.
Stevenson’s first point was to “Get proximate to the issues.” Stevenson described the first time he met with a defendant on death row while still a young law student. It was in witnessing the humanity of the defendant and the brutality of the guards that he solidified his career path and realized the magnitude of the issues at hand.
As university students, we could and should get more proximate to the issues that we are passionate about. Signing change.org petitions, hash tag social activism and bake sales, while all better than nothing, do not get your hands dirty. To create real change we have to get out from behind the comfort of our computers and volunteer our time as a tutor at an underprivileged school or regularly help out at the Greater Cleveland Food Bank.
The second point in Stevenson’s speech was to “Change the narrative.” If we want to change the future, we have to change the way we are talking about issues. Stevenson spoke passionately about our inability to have a modern truth and reconciliation process following centuries of slavery, the terror of Jim Crow and oppression. He believes truth and reconciliation can begin to change the narrative of racism and white supremacy in America.
As a campus we have made great efforts to change narratives. Following 2014, a year where sexual assault on college campuses plastered the mainstream, Greek Life attempted to change the way we talk about alcohol, sex and sexual assault through Greeks Against Sexual Assault. More recently the Undergraduate Diversity Collaborative has emerged as a shining example of how students can come together to change the way we talk about and view diversity and inclusion on our campus.
In his third point Stevenson urged listeners to “Protect our hope, [as] hopelessness is the enemy of injustice.”
He explained how the numerous Confederate flags and celebration of MLK and Robert E. Lee on the same day in his home state of Alabama sometimes made him feel hopeless. But Stevenson recognizes that if he loses hope and gives up on the future, injustice and oppression will continue to hold power over us.
As bright-eyed and bushy-tailed college students, we are unburdened by the responsibilities of the world and relatively unscathed by the realities and hardships of life. Some may call us naïve, but we still see the world as beautiful and bountiful. Our hope allows us to believe that we can do anything and that the future is unbounded.
In his fourth and final point, Stevenson urged us to “be willing to do things that are uncomfortable … position yourself in a difficult position and bear witness.” He recalled a time when he defended a 10-year-old boy who, after killing his stepfather (who had just beaten the boy’s mother bloody and unconscious), was sentenced to life in prison and tried as an adult. Holding the young boy as he recounted his first few haunting, unimaginable days in prison, Stevenson bore witness to the cracks and injustice within the system intended to be just in its cause.
Being uncomfortable is closely related to getting proximate and thus, is an opportunity for us university students to widen our impact and deepen our reach. Liking and retweeting on social media, while ways to spread awareness, are not enough to truly create change. Tutoring ex convicts, working with veterans or volunteering at the Cleveland Refugee Center are more impactful and educational opportunities to make a difference.
Before he was applauded off the stage, Stevenson made a remark that is imperative and resonant for those in our CWRU community: “Grades are not a predictor of your capacity to do justice.”
Students and faculty alike must remember that while our academics certainly will aid us in effecting change, rigorous study and grades alone will not guide our path to a more just and positive future.
If we wish to do more, change more and forge a brighter community, then we must not limit ourselves to our transcript. Instead we must seek proximity, actively change the narrative, remain hopeful and willingly be uncomfortable.
Heather O’Keeffe is a fourth-year student studying biomedical engineering and minoring in sports medicine. She likes to sing “Hotline Bling” with a Russian accent.