The second riveting and eloquent, though much weightier, speaker that I heard at the NAIS conference a couple of weeks ago was civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson. Founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, author of bestseller Just Mercy
, an NYU law professor, and a TED speaker whose talk has been viewed more than 2.35 million times, Stevenson has devoted his life to trying to ensure that the poorest and most disadvantaged of our nation’s citizens receive proper representation and justice. His talk focused on four factors that he believes it takes to change the world, but it was challenging because he put our nation’s racial issues into a perspective I had never before fully considered. I urge you to listen to and consider his TED Talk at this link
Stevenson believes that in order to solve problems, people must increase their proximity to the issue at hand. Studying truly important issues in the abstract, at a great distance, leads to ineffective solutions and policies. He also maintains that in order to solve problems often seen as eternal, a fact of life, or intransigent, people have to start to change the narratives they attach to these problems. Proximity helps change narratives because people are exposed to deeper, more complex realities.
Remaining hopeful is another requirement, Stevenson believes, for overcoming difficult problems that seem unsolvable. Finally, to change the world, people have to be willing to do uncomfortable things. Stevenson’s NAIS talk, and to some degree his TED talk, was full of personal experiences with the criminal justice system that he has had as an attorney for those considered “the least among us.”
Some of the statistics that Stevenson cited in his talk were staggering, challenging, and uncomfortable to hear about, but one of his most poignant points is this: each of us is much more than the worst thing we have ever done. By wrestling with this reality and moving away from our society’s propensity for over-simplification, by being willing to get proximate to issues, by changing all-too-easy-to-accept narratives, by maintaining hope, and by being willing to do difficult things, we can truly make a difference. Stevenson’s talk challenged some commonly held assumptions but was inspiring in a way that I have found few speakers ever to be.