Source: Flickr, Jurvetson

Bryan Stevenson is not a pioneering scientist or tech entrepreneur, nor is he a globally known entertainer, a powerful politician or a media mogul. Given that Stevenson’s day-to-day company includes the poorest Americans, prisoners and the condemned he would not seem to be a likely candidate to speak at the prestigious pay-to-attend TED Conference. And yet, Stevenson, a lawyer of over 25 years, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), stole the show at this year’s TED meet.

Without the aid of flashy visuals, Stevenson described how it is the poor and disadvantaged who suffer the racial and class biases within the US criminal justice system. Not only a breath of fresh air, his presentation was a challenge to both the moneyed and influential TEDsters in the room and we – the online audience – to engage with the facts, laws, and shortcomings of criminal justice within our communities.

Can we reconcile the belief that the US is a society based upon fairness, equality and opportunity when over 7 million citizens are under some form of correctional supervision? Why do we sentence children to an entire life behind bars? Can we adopt restorative justice and move away from an over-reliance on incarceration? Can we truly see and tackle the causes of despair, poverty and crime?

Given his other commitments, appearing at TED was not even Stevenson’s priority. One week after TED, he stood in front of the United States Supreme Court and made arguments in the Jackson vs. Hobbs and Miller vs. Alabama cases against the use of Life Without Parole (LWOP) sentencing for children. Stevenson believes it cruel and unusual – and therefore a violation of the eighth amendment – to sentence a minor as an adult, and especially cruel when the sentence carries no possibility of release.

For many reasons including the current budget crises, criminal justice spending and policy is under scrutiny. Stevenson is at the sharp end of this hot topic. He sat down with Prison Photography to discuss his start in these tough issues, the need for us all to treat issues of poverty and marginalization as our own, and the long arc of the universe that Stevenson – despite the inequalities he battles daily – still believes bends toward justice.

Prison Photography (PP): How did you get invited to TED?

Bryan Stevenson: I hope it’s not too embarrassing to admit that I had never actually heard of TED. I was never really that plugged in to that community. I was given a Four Freedoms Award in New York, last year, and that is where I met Chris Anderson.

Chris was very generous. He said, “I think you might be great for a TED talk.” I said, “Well, I’ll talk to you about that.” I went back to Alabama and asked my staff, “What’s a TED Talk?” and they said I should do one. It was a tough month because I had cases going to the Supreme Court and I wasn’t sure I could do all of it, but I decided I would.

PP: You founded the EJI over two decades ago, and I presume while your focus has changed your message has been consistent. Did the TED conference have any effect on how your message has been received?

Bryan Stevenson: It was really surprised by what a vibrant community TED is. There are a lot of very thoughtful people all engaged in the pursuit of ideas. I listened to many of the presentations and I was quite inspired by them.

Frankly, I was tempted to do things differently to what I had planned; everything there was so visual, dazzling and spectacular. I don’t usually use visual aids or do Powerpoints. I was a little concerned about that but I just decided to give the talk I planned. I was humbled by the response; people were very generous and very enthusiastic. For me, that was very affirming.

I talk in a lot of places where there’s a great deal of hostility, where there is a great deal of resistance; where you know you’re saying things that people don’t really want to hear and frequently they show that. It was very gratifying to be received well at TED. And it has had an impact – just the notion that you can put a talk like that online in a venue that people regularly visit has meant that a lot of people have heard what we are trying to do and they’d otherwise have never heard about our work.

The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) believes deeply in getting more information out, educating more people. We cannot change this environment inside a courtroom alone; we’re going to have to change the broader political, social and cultural environment; if we are going to have the sort of conversation I think we need to have.

PP: Did you really raise $1million in 15 minutes from TEDster donations?

Bryan Stevenson: Yes. The day after my talk, I had to go to Seattle to give another talk, so I wasn’t at TED, but a lot of people had said that they wanted to advance the work we were doing and to participate directly. Chris was kind enough to have a few minutes to invite people to offer support and they did and we have gotten pledges of about a million dollars which really comes at a critical time. We’re engaged in campaign right now to end excessive sentences of children. The United States is the only nation in the world that still sentences children to die in prison. Life in prison without parole for children as young as thirteen is a sentence that is still widely imposed in the US and we are really actively trying to eliminate that sentence, so we’ve been at the US Supreme Court, we’ve been in courts across the country and we’re now doing a national campaign.

In addition [we’re working on] a couple of other things – stopping the underage prosecution of children as adults, and stopping the incarceration of children with adults. This support will really allow us to move that forward. TED has had a tremendous impact on the visibility of our work and I’m hoping that out of it will come new partnerships, new colleagues, new opportunities for these very critical social justice issues for our era.

PP: One of the biggest laughs you got in the talk was when described writing a motion to have your poor, juvenile client tried as a 75 year-old, white corporate executive! That latter description would fit many in the TED crowd. Beforehand, were you nervous about the demographic and reaction of the TED crowd? Did you think it might be a tough crowd?

Bryan Stevenson: It ended up be a very generous crowd. I was a little nervous about that story, of course, but one thing I’ve learnt is that you want to reach people where you and they are. I talk about a lot of tough issues all the time and I genuinely want us to get to a better place; I genuinely want all people to achieve a relationship within the human community which is full, robust, respectful and appropriate, so whether you’re black or white, rich or poor, employed or not, whatever the dynamic we must find ways to communicate with one another.

We impose on people in the criminal justice system identities that presume guilt, presume dangerousness and a fitness for incarceration. It has contributed to a high rate of error and wrongful convictions. We have to deconstruct that and my story about the motion is just one of the ways I’ve tried to raise important questions about why we are so indifferent to the status of people who are needy and vulnerable when to be just we need to acknowledge those deficits and deal with them appropriately.

PP: You talked about identities, how they are made, individual identity and collective identity. Was there a point in your life that you decided a life of fighting racial bias and inequalities in the criminal justice was for you?

Bryan Stevenson: I grew up in a poor rural community where issues of race and poverty were very dominant. It was a southern community where the legacy of Jim Crow was very evident, schools were segregated, social institutions were segregated and that was all slowly starting to get dismantled as I was coming up. It was hard to not see that.

I decided when I was a senior in college that I’d go to law school really with no clear idea of what type of lawyer I’d be or even if I would practice law. I just knew, as a philosophy major, no-one would pay me to philosophize.

After a year in law school when I had an internship at an organization in the South that provided legal assistance to death row prisoners and I became acutely aware of just how stark the differences were for people who were poor and incarcerated when it came to legal help. I met people on death row who were literally dying for legal assistance.

As a student at Harvard Law School and going back there where people were very anxious about which job they were going to take, not whether they’d get a job, the idea that there were people moving toward execution largely because they could not find legal assistance was pretty startling and compelling to me. I found in that area also some really interesting questions about how we treat the poor and how we deal with racial bias and how we deal with our history of racial discrimination. So all of it spoke to me in a way that I found very hard to ignore.

I started working on death penalty cases when I was a law student and when I graduated I began working at the same organization on criminal justice reform, excessive punishment, conditions of confinement and to this day I find new reasons to pursue this more intensely, to dig deeper and to struggle toward a better future and better solutions to the ones I’ve seen along the way.

PP: So there was no single personal experience in which you or your family were directly involved with the criminal justice system or a personal racist confrontation?

Bryan Stevenson: When people think you’re doing something unexpected and something hard to understand they are always searching for a narrative of something episodic or some incident to help explain how you got thrown off the path that you’re supposed to be on [laughs] to this misguided path that they really have great concerns to see you traveling down.

I do get those questions and I tell people, “No, I’m not motivated because I have a loved one in prison, no-one in my family has ever been executed.” That’s not to say that I don’t have an identity that is deeply vexed by the persistence of racial bias in our society; an identity that is challenged by the pervasive nature of poverty and our indifference to poverty; an identity that very much values freedom and fairness and the application of law that is just and reliable. But it doesn’t come from a place of personal exposure.

I think everyone should realize that these are not issues for activists and advocates; these are basic fundamental issues for people concerned about the quality of society we live in. One of the great problems that we are dealing with is that mass incarceration, excessive punishment, the marginalization of communities of disadvantaged people in this country have been relegated to the boundaries and are not part of mainstream conversation, whereas in fact, I think they reveal more about us than many of the other things we are preoccupied with. If you look at magazines, we spend a lot of time looking at fashion, consumers habits, what we buy, what we watch on TV, the gadgets we use. All of these do reveal things about our culture, but when you have the highest rate of incarceration in the world and a system of justice that is systematically depriving people of basic human dignity and human rights – that says something about the society we live in as well.

I’m always saying to folks that you judge the character of society not by how you treat the privileged the rich and the powerful and the celebrated but how you treat the poor and the incarcerated and the condemned. I do think it is a very mainstream question that it is difficult for many people to ask or respond to because it has been so marginalized in popular discourse.

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The second part of a two-part conversation with Prison Photography can be read here.

I recommend Bryan Stevenson’s TED presentation.