Best Selling Author and Social Justice Activist Inspires the Loyola Community
On Thursday, November 30, Loyola Academy welcomed Mr. Bryan Stevenson, a noted lawyer, social activist and the New York Times bestselling author of Loyola’s first-ever all-school read Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Stevenson spoke to students during an all-school assembly in the afternoon and to parents, alumni and community members in the evening.
“Just Mercy is an unforgettable account of Mr. Stevenson’s own journey, a window into the lives of those he has defended and an inspiring argument for compassion in the pursuit of justice,” said Loyola Academy Principal Dr. Kathryn M. Baal in an address to students before the presentation.
The Principal’s Office initiated a community-wide conversation about the important issues of race, gender, mental health, social justice equality and education when it chose Just Mercy as the first all-school reading. Teachers have been weaving these themes into class discussions and writing assignments across the curricula to provide students with opportunities to address the complex issues presented in the book.
“I approached Just Mercy like any other,” said Noah Jones ’19 in his introduction of Stevenson. “Except this book was unlike any other book I have encountered in my academic career.”
Jones shared with students his experience growing up on the South Side of Chicago and how, despite his family’s move to the North Shore, he continues to be at risk of racial profiling, which increased after a growth spurt in junior high. “I grew to be around six-feet tall,” he says. “And I quickly realized I was no longer seen as the child I still was.”
The book proved to be a relevant read for the entire Loyola community, which draws students from nearly 80 zip codes throughout the Chicago area.
In his presentation to students, Stevenson first provided some context to frame his work and presentation. He explained that the United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. He shared the sobering statistics that one in three black male children and one in six Hispanic male children are expected to go to jail in their lifetimes. He also discussed the astronomical increase in the percentage of women in prisons—many of whom are single mothers whose children’s lives are consequently disrupted.
“But I didn’t come her to talk about problems,” Stevenson said. “I came here to talk about solutions.”
The author proceeded to outline his four-point model to change the world:
There is power and strength in proximity. To unlock the challenges that face parts of our community we have to get close to them.
Narratives must be changed. We start to believe the stories we tell ourselves. This is true on a personal level, as well as on cultural and societal levels. Existent narratives affect decision making and play into the politics of fear.
Hopelessness in the enemy of justice. Hope is a superpower because it organizes your capacity to make a difference in the world.
We have to be willing to do uncomfortable things. As humans, we’re biologically and psychologically programmed to seek comfort and safety. Confronting what causes discomfort can transform our lives and the lives of others.
Stevenson ended his presentation to students with one simple yet powerful call to action: Change the world.
“One of the most valuable takeaways from Mr. Stevenson’s talk was him emphasis on using active methods to work toward a change in the way we treat criminals and minorities,” reflects Elise Damasco ’19. “Although it is easy to ignore the issues that do not directly affect us or that we don’t feel confident discussing, Mr. Stevenson encouraged us to do uncomfortable things. Ignoring a problem does not make it go away, so we must step outside our comfort zone in order to seek justice and give mercy to those who need it most.”
Bryan Stevenson was born in Milton, Delaware, and graduated from Eastern College in Pennsylvania with a philosophy degree in 1977. He went on to earn both a law degree and a master’s in public policy from Harvard Law School. During an internship with the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, Stevenson met his first death row inmate and decided to commit his life to criminal justice. Learn more at https://eji.org/bryan-stevenson.