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PLS Speaker Bryan Stevenson Discusses the Power of Proximity and Ways to Change the World's View of Incarceration

By Noell Saunders

Civil rights attorney and social activist Bryan Stevenson has dedicated much of his life to helping incarcerated and condemned individuals whom he says didn't receive a fair chance in the justice system.

"I've seen some really troubling things happen in America," Stevenson said during his President's Lecture Series speech Tuesday night. "I think our nation needs to change. We need more justice. We need more hope."

Stevenson recounted riveting stories to a packed crowd of more than 1,300 at Old Dominion University's Ted Constant Convocation Center. He told them what led him to his passion for law and how his grandmother taught him the power of proximity and love. He argued that to address the critical issues surrounding incarceration, such as racial inequality and oppression, we as a nation need to be proximate to these issues, change the narrative of them, remain hopeful and be willing to be uncomfortable and inconvenienced.

He recited alarming statistics about incarceration in America.

"In 1972, there were 300,000 people in jails and prisons in the United States and today there are 2.3 million people in jails and prisons," he said. "The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world."

However, there's one statistic that Stevenson said kept him awake at night. The Bureau of Justice states that one in three black male babies born in United States are likely to go to jail or prison in their lifetimes. Stevenson meets with children in underserved communities and said he was astounded to hear many of them say that they expect to go to the jail by the age of 21.

"We've accommodated this phenomenon," he said referring to society. "There's this profound hopelessness shaping the lives of these children."

When Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, was a law intern at Harvard University, he took a course that allowed him to work for a month with a human rights organization in Georgia that provided services to people on death row. He was sent to tell an inmate that there was no risk of execution anytime in the next year.

"This was my first time meeting a death-row inmate, and what should have been an hour-long conversation turned into three hours," he said.

The inmate thanked Stevenson repeatedly. Stevenson said the guards became impatient during the conversation and violently picked the inmate up and shoved him against a wall. As the guards were taking the inmate to his cell, he closed his eyes and started to sing the hymn, "I'm Pressing on the Upward Way."

"New heights I'm gaining everyday still praying as I onward bound. Lord, plant my feet on higher ground," the inmate sang. At that moment, Stevenson realized that he wanted to help people get to higher ground.

In terms of the power of proximity, Stevenson told the audience, "We can't change the world if we are not willing to get close to those who are suffering."

Stevenson also expressed changing the narrative about various issues, especially those relating to children. Far too many are serving outrageous sentences, he said.

"We've built this pipeline from school houses to jail houses," he said.

He gave an example of how troubled children are often demonized and not even considered children. Stevenson recalled another tear-jerking story about a 14-year-old boy he represented who had killed his mother's abusive boyfriend.

The youth was being tried as an adult because his mom's boyfriend was a deputy sheriff. Stevenson said he couldn't get the boy to speak when he initially visited him in jail. When the teen finally spoke, he cried repeatedly and told Stevenson he was raped and that several other inmates had hurt him.

"All children are children," Stevenson tearfully said to the audience.

Stevenson ended his speech by reiterating to remain hopeful that change will come and to not be afraid to sacrifice comfort for success.

During the event, Old Dominion President John R. Broderick presented Stevenson with the Marc and Connie Jacobson Raoul Wallenberg Humanitarian Award for his work in changing lives and shaping a better society for future generations.

In addition to winning relief or releases for more than 125 death-row prisoners, Stevenson and his staff successfully argued several cases in the U.S. Supreme Court. Their work led to a ruling that mandatory life-without-parole-sentences for youths 17 and under were unconstitutional.

The annual Wallenberg Lecture is sponsored by the Marc and Connie Jacobson Philanthropic Foundation. Speakers for the Wallenberg Lecture are chosen by the University. They must be humanitarians - those who are "making the world a better place" - balanced in their philosophical beliefs and not at either extreme of the social spectrum.

Old Dominion University's President's Lecture Series serves as a marketplace for ideas, featuring renowned speakers who share their knowledge, experience, opinions and accomplishments. Discussing timely topics, the series puts diversity first, showcasing authors, educators, business innovators and political figures.

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