It's a tall order, changing the world, especially when the subject is race. But it didn’t surprise me that Bryan Stevenson had ideas - four of them, in fact - worth listening to when I heard him speak earlier this year.
Stevenson is executive director of the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) and author of Just Mercy, an engrossing and deeply disturbing memoir about his baptism as a young lawyer into the fight against class- and race-based malpractice in our criminal justice system.
CNN's Fareed Zakaria recently recommended the book, sending me back to notes I made during Stevenson's April speech at Connecticut College.
Just Mercy was a "One Book, One Region" selection for my area, meaning individuals and organizations were encouraged to read and discuss it. If any book deserves to be a "One Book, One Nation" selection, this is it.
I had already read Mercy, attracted in part by its links to Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. Stevenson didn't intend to make that link, but one of the case histories he lays out is that of Walter McMillian, a black man falsely accused of murdering a white woman in Monroe, Alabama. Monroe, you may recall, was Lee's home and the model for the town in Mockingbird.
McMillian's case doesn't precisely mirror that of Mockingbird's fictional Tom Robinson, but how he was convicted and sentenced to death is equally egregious.
What Stevenson had to do - endless legwork despite obstruction and threats - to gain the release of this obviously innocent man is a powerful argument for systematic change in our criminal justice system.
While Mockingbird was set in the 1930s, Mercy's actual events happened in the 1980s. This makes it much harder to pretend that the injustices Stevenson exposes existed only in America's distant past.
Now, back to the task of changing the world - specifically the demonstrably unfair and too often deadly criminal justice system described in Just Mercy. Stevenson suggested four ways to do this, beginning with "Get Proximate to the Problem."
"Get closer to where there is suffering and abuse," Stevenson said. "You will find power when you do this."
His second point was "Change the Narrative," which I've been thinking about a lot this week as I watch the GOP convention and anticipate the Democrats. Every policy, Stevenson said, has a narrative behind it that enabled its creation. For example, "we could talk about drugs as a health issue instead of a crime issue."
Changing the narrative could help cure the disease and help empty the prisons. Of course if you're somehow profiting from our massive prison system, you might prefer to keep the crime narrative going as is.
A related example that comes to my mind is Donald Trump's bid to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Trump's narrative is that Mexicans crossing our border are criminals - rapists and drug dealers, not poor people desperately searching for a job. Change the narrative, and you kill the wall.
"You can have a narrative of fear and anger," said Stevenson, or change the narrative to one of healing and hope. I shudder to imagine what policies might result if we don't change the fearful, angry narratives put forth by some that there is a "War on Cops" and "Black Lives Matter" is a hate group.
Stevenson's third point was "Protect Our Hopefulness." Don't listen to the doomsayers, he said, and remember that in the fight against injustice, "our ability to change is directly related to staying hopeful." Throughout history, he said, only those who stayed hopeful ever accomplished anything good.
His fourth and final point was "Stand Arm in Arm with the Broken." I really love that one. "Everyone is more than the worst thing they have done," Stevenson said, even those who have killed someone.
People often ask him, said Stevenson, why he wants to work with broken people. "All my clients are broken," he said, and experience has sadly shown him that we have a broken criminal justice system.
But here's the thing. "I do it," he said, "because I'm broken, too." Only men and women with courage to admit that, I think, can ever heal/change our broken world.