Finding Mercy and Justice for the Most Vulnerable

Emma Growney

“Ultimately, you judge the character of a society not by how they treat their rich and the powerful and the privileged, but by how they treat the poor, the condemned, the incarcerated. Because it’s in that nexus that we actually begin to understand truly profound things about who we are.”

At a time of uncertainty about the identity of this country, the realization of its professed values, and the direction of its future, these words spoken by Bryan Stevenson in his 2012 TED talk are especially resonant. (Set aside 25 minutes to watch the whole thing — it’s necessary viewing.)

Stevenson is a widely acclaimed public interest lawyer, author, and nonprofit leader who has dedicated his career to challenging racial discrimination in the criminal justice system. The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), the Montgomery, Alabama-based nonprofit Stevenson founded and leads, works to end mass incarceration, challenge racial and economic injustice, and protect basic human rights for the most vulnerable in American society — including individuals who have been illegally convicted or unfairly sentenced in the U.S. justice system, and those in communities that have been marginalized by poverty and unequal treatment.

Under Stevenson’s leadership, EJI has won major legal challenges eliminating excessive and unfair sentencing, exonerating innocent death row prisoners, confronting abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill, and aiding children prosecuted as adults. He has successfully argued several cases in the United States Supreme Court and recently won a historic ruling that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for all children 17 or younger are unconstitutional. EJI has also initiated major new anti-poverty and anti-discrimination efforts challenging the legacy of racial inequality in America.

Stevenson’s bestselling book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, grippingly and movingly chronicles his fight for justice. It’s a book about the flaws in this country’s criminal justice system. But it’s also a book about race that, though published in 2014, speaks to the moment. He describes the corrosive effects of racial profiling as one who has both defended those who were its victims and experienced it himself. “Constantly being suspected, accused, watched, doubted, distrusted, presumed guilty, and even feared is a burden borne by people of color that can’t be understood or confronted without a deeper conversation about our history of racial justice,” he writes.

To that end, this August, EJI announced its plan to build a national memorial to victims of lynching and museum that connects the history of racial inequality with contemporary issues of mass incarceration, excessive punishment, and police violence. It will be the U.S.’s first national memorial to victims of lynching. (For more, read Jeffrey Toobin’s profile of Stevenson and EJI in The New Yorker from earlier this fall.)

At a moment like the present, the leadership of individuals like Stevenson and the work of organizations like EJI feel more necessary than ever. For foundations, several of which were key early (and continuing) supporters of EJI, Stevenson’s message is relevant and timely, no matter their program goals.

That’s why we are thrilled that Stevenson will be joining us in Boston on April 4 to speak at the 2017 CEP Conference, Leading Effective Foundations.

You can reserve your spot at the 2017 conference to hear from Stevenson and other speakers by registering here.

Emma Growney is coordinator, programming and external relations, at CEP.

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