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Stay on the Side of Love

Thomas DeLay, Reporter

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“I don’t think that we are free in this country,” lawyer and civil rights activist Bryan Stevenson’s words seem to echo off of the walls of the Great Hall in the Iowa State Memorial Union.

Some people in the crowd nod and grimace an affirmative others shift uncomfortably in their seats looking for some rebuttal in their minds to make them feel more comfortable about the country that they live in.

But none comes because Bryan Stevenson has just laid out a case, based on both statistics and on experience,  so convincing that even our nation’s fiercest patriot would have to stop and reflect for a second.      

Bryan Stevenson is the founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative, he has dedicated his life to assisting the marginalized and wrongfully sentenced people of America, and he is the winner of the Macarthur genius grant.

Steven’s book, Just Mercy, is a critically acclaimed account of the injustices that occur in Southern courts and an intimate portrayal of his life trying to combat these injustices. On January 29, 2018 he came to visit ISU.

Stevenson’s lecture (much like his book) demonstrated not just a mastery of persuasive language but a thorough understanding of the American experience and the issues facing our nation. Stevenson centered his talk around “How we change the world.”

He began by outlining the problem that he saw as needing to be solved, mass incarceration. He said correctly that 2.3 million Americans are currently in prison and 70 million have been in prison at some point. 30% of the male population in Alabama has lost its right to vote due to incarceration. And the heartbreaking thing about this mass incarceration, as Stevenson points out, is that many of the crimes that inmates committed to lose both their rights and their livelihoods are non-violent drug offenses. So how do we help these marginalized and oppressed people? Bryan Stevenson says, by getting close to them and by changing the narrative about them.Bryan Stevenson emphasized our nation’s seeming inability to show compassion towards the most vulnerable among us. He pointed out that “If we allow ourselves ourselves to be governed by fear and anger we accept things that we wouldn’t have otherwise.”

“If we allow ourselves ourselves to be governed by fear and anger we accept things that we wouldn’t have otherwise.”

I can say definitively that we are currently allowing ourselves to be governed by fear and anger making this point especially pertinent. As Stevenson points out the evil of slavery lives on in the current American rhetoric of racial difference and because of that we continue to live in a polarized and hateful time. But we can change this.

Stevenson says that if we change the narrative of slavery and oppression to focus on the evil that it truly was and not on confederate war heroes we can demolish the idea of racial difference and get to the root of racial issues facing our nation today. He asserts that recognizing suffering has worked in other nations.

Because Germany recognized the horror of the holocaust after WWII, NAZIS were largely eradicated from their society. Stevenson points out that Germany no longer flies Nazi flags proudly the way America flies Confederate flags.

This is incredibly important because “You can’t have reconciliation without truth.” And the truth is, our country has done and continues to do some abhorrent things.

In the face of these injustices, to take Bryan Stevenson’s advice and stay hopeful and stay on the side of love, because that is how you change the world. Because of this important and impactful message I can truthfully say that this is the best lecture that I have ever attended. I can not praise Mr. Stevenson and the work that he is doing enough.

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