We Need to Face Our Genocidal Past, Says Bryan Stevenson

Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, won a Supreme Court case banning mandatory life sentencing without parole for anyone age 17 or younger. Based in Birmingham, Alabama, a hinterland that officially celebrates Robert E. Lee alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., the Harvard-trained lawyer dedicated his life to serving the poor, the incarcerated, and children prosecuted as adults.

Stevenson keynoted the final day of the Conference on 2016 Adverse Childhood Experiences held October 19–21 in San Francisco and hosted by the Center for Youth Wellness, based in Bayview/Hunter’s Point, a part of San Francisco as far removed from the thriving high-tech scene as is Birmingham.

The founder of the Center for Youth Wellness, Nadine Burke-Harris, a dynamic pediatrician turned social activist, introduced Stevenson, whom she met at a dinner hosted by Alphabet (formerly known as Google) chairman, Eric Schmidt. Fortuitously seated together, they both recognized in each other a drive to create more justice in this country.

“America is the most punitive nation in the world,” Stevenson began, and then cited statistics the well known statistics. The U.S. incarcerates 2.3 million people today, upr from 300,000 in 1972. An African American himself, he said blacks suffer most, because one out of three male black babies are now expected to go to prison.

He said that part of the problem is our culture. “We use a punishment mindset that exacerbates the trauma (people have already suffered). We have to change that.”

He offered several solutions, some cultural, some policy-driven, such as having the Centers for Disease control and Prevention declare a health crisis in the 200 zip codes in the U.S. where 80 percent of the children are expected to end up in jail because of the traumatic experiences they will face, including violence in the family, the neighborhood, and schools.

To me, the child of a holocaust survivor, whose own parents and grandparents were survivors of anti-Semitic pogroms in Eastern Europe, Stephenson’s depiction of America as a “post-genocidal society,” created by “an ideology of white supremacy” rang true.

In school, we are taught that this country as shaped by the desire for equality, yet as Stephenson points out, “The demography of this nation was shaped by racial terror.

“Slavery didn’t end in 1865. It just evolved,” he added.

My parents,” he said, “were humiliated every day of their lives. We haven’t dealt with that.”

He cited examples of countries that have faced up to their genocidal history, including South Africa with its Truth and Reconciliation Commission after apartheid, and Germany, where in Berlin plaques are mounted on buildings denoting former homes and businesses of Jews who were killed or forced to leave.

In his own attempt to reconcile with our past and promote healing, his institute is putting up markers at every lynching site in the U.S. He’s also written a best-selling book about his work and life, Just Mercy.

Addressing the audience of 450 clinicians, educators, social workers, therapists, and community advocates dedicated to helping develop resilience in children and adults suffering early childhood trauma, he said “I realized why I do what I do. Because I’m broken, too. It is being broken that can lead us to healing.”

As for what impels him to keep serving the poor, “The opposite of poverty is not wealth. It’s justice.”

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