Opening Plenary: Bryan Stevenson

April 30, 2014

Bryan Stevenson is our first speaker at Summit 2014. Stevenson began his talk by sharing a bit about his own educational history: Stevenson attended a segregated school in rural Delaware. Brown vs. Board of Education was the beginning of educational opportunity in his life.

Stevenson, a lawyer, defends some of the most marginalized and disadvantaged people in the criminal justice system. His nonprofit, the Equal Justice Initiative, provides legal assistance to death row inmates and children sentenced to life in prison. 

Stevenson shared a transformational moment in his personal history during his plenary: his first encounter with a death row inmate. Stevenson’s client, the inmate, had not spoken with anyone besides death row inmates and guards for two years. Stevenson, who was only a law student at the time, returned to Harvard Law after this encounter determined to learn everything he would need to know to exonerate innocent people.

Stevenson successfully defends innocent marginalized people, but he has only become more aware of the systemic injustices that effect his clients. These systemic injustices stem from America’s history: slavery and racial terrorism. Unlike other countries with similar histories of racial violence, the United States has never had a truth and reconciliation process; We have never fully acknowledged the presence of our troubled past.

Stevenson leaves us with a powerful message: We have to do uncomfortable things to make vital change. We have to get close to the injustices we want to overturn; We have to make ourselves vulnerable to these injustices. We have to fight the hopelessness that stands in the way of change.