Bryan Stevenson – Catalyst 2012

I want to talk to you about identity. I think to lead, to be people who make a difference, to be agents of change and justice, I think we have to think about our identy. I also think we have to think about what we say.

I learned about identity from my grandmother. My grandmother was the ultimate matriarch. She was the dominant force. She was the end of every argument. She was the beginning of a lot of arguments too.

She'd hug me so hard I almost couldn't breathe.

My grandmother was the daughter of slaves.

The only problem with spending time with my grandmother was that she had 10 children, and my mother was the youngest.

One day my cousins were running around and for about 20 minutes she kept staring at them. ANd after a while she came over to me and said, Come on Bryan, we're going to have a talk.

She said to be, Bryan, I"ve been watching you. You're special. I think you can do anything. She said, you just have to promise me three things. She said, you have to promise me you'll always love your mom. And I said, yes, momma, I'll do that. She said, you have to promise me you'll always do the right thing, even when the right thing is hard. And I thought about it for a minute, and I said,f yes, momma. And she said the third thing is, you have to promise me you'll never drink alcohol. And as an 8 year old, I said, yes momma.

I later learned momma had that conversation with all of the grandchildren. But at 52 years old I've never had a drop of alcohol. ANd I tell you that not to preach the virtues of abstinence but the power of identity.

In 1942 there were 300,000 people in jails and prisons. Today there are 2.3 million. We have the highest rate of incarceration in the world. WE have 6 million on probation and parole.

This has devastated communities. In alabama 34% has permanently lost the right to vote. We're actually anticipating getting to the point where there's a higher level of disenfranchisement than before the Civil Rights Act in the 60s.

The people who are most victimized by it than the poor. We have a criminal justice system that treats you better if you're rich and guilty than if you're poor and innocent.

The united states is the only country in the world that sentences children to die in prison.

It's not just age or poverty, but it's race. We have a horrible history of racial tension. Older people come to me all of the time and sago, you make people stop saying we're dealing with terrorism in the first time in our history. I dealt with terror. We decided not to talk about all of the problems and trauma caused by racial tension.

We haven't dealt with the problems to get to the point of reconciliation.

But I'm not hear to talk to you about all of that. We have a bigger problem… the profound absence of hope.

I talk to 12-13 year old children who don't believe they're going to be free or alive by the time they're 21. This hopelessness is shaping their lives. They say I've got to go and get mine while I can.

We've got to get proximate not to the hopeful but to the hopeless if we are to truly be agents of change.

I represent people on death row. I've been proximate to people like this not so long ago. Recently I was working on this case at the last minute. We started working to try to help this man who was to be executed with only 30 days to go. This man, in our judgment, had been wrongly convicted, he had done some wrong things but wasn't the primary one responsible for what haps happened. ANd we just couldn't do anything about it.

When I was 9 or 10 years old I meant a boy with a speech impediment, and I had never met anyone like that, and so out of ignorance I laughed. My grandmother pulled me aside and told me to go apologize, give him a hug, and tell him you love him. And I didn't want to do that last one, but when I did, you know what he said, "I love you too,"

I was thinking about this when I was talking to this man on death row the night he was to be executed. He had a speech impediment too. And he said, I thank you for standing with me. And I love you.

And I was overwhelmed and thought I can't do this anymore. Why do we want to kill all of the broken people. I had to remind myself why I do this. I started realizing I don't do this because I think it's fun or important or because it's the kind of thing that has to be done.

I do this because I realized I'm broken too.

When you're broken you realize that you don't see things the same way until you're broken. I am part of a broken community.

Brokenness can be mended by grace. Brokennes can be healed by mercy. And there is opportunity to be a voice to the broken.

My clients have taught me that we are all more than the worse thing we've ever done. Even if you kill somebody, you're not just a killer.

There is this need to be an advocate, for redepntion.

For poor communities and disadvantaged communities, the opposite of poverty is not wealth. The opposite of poverty is justice, the dignity of every person.

If we are a truly a community of faith, we will define ourselves not by how we treat the rich and powerful but how we treat the poor and the marginalized.

If we truly believe the vallies can be made high, the mountains made low, the crooked made straight, surely we have to believe in the lowly.

It is a difficult thing.

As a young lawyer I had the privilege to meet Rosa Parks. Ms. Parr, a friend of Ms. Parks would tell me that they were going to talk with another woman and they would ask me if I would like to come listen. They would talk about faith and I was so energized and one day Ms. Parks turned to me and asked what the Equal Justice Initiative is and what you're trying to do.

And so I told her about the injustices we're trying to do something about. ANd she looked at me and she said, "That's going to make you tired, tired, tied." And then she put her finger in my face and said, "That's why you're going to have to be brave, brave, brave."

We need a community of people who are going to embrace the broken. I gave a talk one time and this woman who came up to me and said, I feel so bad for you and talked about the woman caught in the act of adultery and how everyone went away who was going to throw a stone. She said, today, they aren't going away, and you'er trying to be a stone catcher. I said, that's okay. I've been healed by grace. That's what we're called to.

I leave here today hoping there are those here who understand what it means to be a means of grace, hope, and redemption. I have to be willing to speak when everyone else is quiet and to love those who everyone else thinks is beyond love, mercy, and grace.

Posted at 3:55 PM on October 4th, 2012
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