Tag Archives: bryan stevenson

Innate Potential for Joy

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One of the many programs that I love at Lipscomb is the LIFE Program (a program that received global attention in the story of Cyntoia Brown Long). The LIFE Program holds classes inside the Tennessee Prison for Women and the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution, and I shared before how the opportunity to lead a class session in the LIFE Program impacted me, not to mention the soul-cleansing experience of a graduation ceremony that came later on.

Statistics of incarceration in the United States are troubling. Our country has 25% of the world’s prison population but only 5% of the overall population. You may be surprised to learn that women represent the fastest-growing demographic going to prison in the United States. The mass incarceration of Black men is particularly egregious—statistically, Black boys have a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison in their lifetimes compared to White boys whose chances are 1 in 17. I am glad to be a part of a university program that has at least engaged and invested in shifting such troubling narratives.

Unable to hold in-person classes due to COVID-19 or allowed to communicate with its “inside” students by phone, the LIFE Program deftly shifted to writing letters. If not for COVID-19, I would have had my first opportunity to teach a class session at Riverbend this week, the facility that holds most of Tennessee’s fifty-one death row residents (of which over 50% are Black, compared to 17% of Tennessee’s population). This summer, Dr. Kate Watkins has initiated a “common read” to connect with the residents. I was honored to be invited to read The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky and exchange letters with three men at Riverbend.

I should say that my admiration for the work of Bryan Stevenson knows no bounds, and I agree with his statement “that each person is more than the worst thing they’ve ever done,” but I learned too late that it is not the best idea to Google the names of your prison pen pals. And yet, that made the choice of book and the thoughts it had generated in me even more profound.

I confess that The How of Happiness would not have been my natural book choice. I have benefited greatly from several self-help books in my life, but that is not the section of the bookstore that I gravitate toward. However, it has turned out to be exactly the book that I needed to read, and I devoured it. (Thanks, Kate!)

So, consider: The book is based on scientific research, and the underlying premise is that a full half of our happiness is basically genetic—i.e., some of us are simply hard-wired to be and feel more cheerful than others—another 10% is based on our circumstances, and the remaining 40% is within our power to change. As the back book cover describes, we each have an “innate potential for joy.”

So here’s the deal: I am exchanging letters with men who live in a prison that houses not only them but also the State of Tennessee’s electric chair and lethal injection facility. And we are reading a book that argues from science that despite any possible circumstance that we face, we all have within ourselves four times the power to experience (are you ready for this?) happiness.

It is unquestioned that 2020 will be unforgettable, but in the middle of it all I will be checking my mailbox for letters from men who are considering how to find happiness and joy while in prison. Talk about unforgettable. I love that we are providing education for people who are incarcerated, but as is often the case, I suspect that I will be learning from them.

 

 

 

 

 

Telling the Truth in America

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“I think we do need truth and reconciliation in America. But truth and reconciliation are sequential. You can’t get to reconciliation until you first tell the truth.” – Bryan Stevenson

My dad was born and raised in Kennett, Missouri, the largest town in the Missouri Bootheel located just across the Arkansas border and not far from the Mississippi River. He was born in 1920, over four decades before singer-songwriter, Sheryl Crow, Kennett’s most famous native.

I don’t know much about my dad’s childhood years but have never forgotten a haunting story he told of witnessing the lynching of a black man on the courthouse lawn for allegedly raping a white woman. Children were not supposed to be there, but my dad wiggled his way to the front while the crowd was shamefully mesmerized by the spectacle of a human being with a noose around his neck being asked if he had any final words. The man answered, “Well, I didn’t do it, but I know that doesn’t make any difference to you all.” And then he was killed.

I don’t remember my dad telling the story with any particular emotion so I’m not sure why he shared it with his young son over fifty years after the fact, but it was obvious that it had made an impression. And here I am almost another fifty years later telling it again. If you wonder how far we have to go back to find race-motivated lynchings on a courthouse lawn, for me it is one generation.

I think Bryan Stevenson is a remarkable human being and encourage you to read/watch/listen to him in any way that you can. Stevenson is the founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative (“EJI”) in Montgomery, Alabama, and among many wonderful projects had the idea of telling the truth about lynchings in the United States.  EJI published a report titled, Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, which documented over 4,000 lynchings between 1877-1950—a period of time after, of course, the Civil War, the abolition of slavery, and the other Reconstruction Amendments to the Constitution. I looked at the map and noted zero lynchings identified in Dunklin County, Missouri, where Kennett is the county seat. I know a man who witnessed one, so I can only imagine how many race-motivated lynchings actually occurred.

Stevenson’s message is that we must tell the truth before we get anywhere on racial reconciliation, so on a day set aside to remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I will use my small platform to say that my personal heritage includes a history and ongoing legacy of things we can be proud of alongside things for which we should be deeply ashamed. We cannot honestly claim one without the other. And among those things that require deep shame is nothing less than domestic terrorism that targeted a particular race of people motivated by white supremacy.

May we tell the truth. May we lay markers so that we never forget. And may we recommit to the pursuit of Dr. King’s not-yet-realized dream.

“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted and every hill and mountain shall be made low; the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (Washington, D.C., August 28, 1963)

Just Mercy

My colleague, Jessie, said that I needed to read Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. I told her that I already had a sizable stack of books to read. She brought me a copy anyway. I read it. She was right.

Cue the Twilight Zone music because in the middle of the inspiring, troubling, quick read, I learned that Bryan Stevenson was scheduled to speak at Pepperdine this semester. I attended the lecture this past week and had the distinct honor of attending a dinner with Mr. Stevenson afterward. It turned out that I needed to hear him speak, too.

So you can quit reading and buy the book now and thank me later.

If you need further encouragement, how about Desmond Tutu?

“Bryan Stevenson is America’s young Nelson Mandela, a brilliant lawyer fighting with courage and conviction to guarantee justice for all.”

Wow, you still haven’t purchased the book? Let’s try John Grisham:

“Not since Atticus Finch has a fearless and committed lawyer made such a difference in the American South. Though larger than life, Atticus exists only in fiction. Bryan Stevenson, however, is very much alive and doing God’s work fighting for the poor, the oppressed, the voiceless, the vulnerable, the outcast, and those with no hope. Just Mercy is his inspiring and powerful story.”

Okay, I’m not playing around now. If justice and/or the American South and/or the United States of America and/or humanity means anything to you, read this book.

That’s all I need to write today, but as a bonus consider arguably the best line from Stevenson’s book: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” Think about it: What is the worst thing you have ever done, and does that define you? Are you really best described as: Cheater? Thief? Addict? Criminal? Liar?

Well, if you answered Yes, I join Stevenson in declaring that you are not. But for those of us who answer No, then what allows us to define anyone else by their worst moment?