A month ago, Nalani and I attended a gathering in Evanston Township High School where Bryan Stevenson, Founder and Executive Director of Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), gave a talk entitled “American Injustice: Mercy, Humanity, and Making a Difference.”
Bryan Stevenson is a public-interest lawyer who has dedicated his career to fighting poverty and challenging racial discrimination in the criminal justice system. His team at EJI, an Alabama-based group, has won major legal challenges eliminating excessive and unfair sentencing, exonerating innocent prisoners on death row, confronting abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill, and aiding children prosecuted as adults.
In his engaging and personal talk, Stevenson challenged the audience to change the conversation about race in the U.S., starting with realizing that the opposite of poverty isn’t wealth—it’s justice. Stevenson told stories of his childhood, growing up within reach of his grandmother. She was a strong influence to his psyche, helping to shape his values into adulthood. To this day, he hasn’t touched a drop of alcohol. He mentioned this not because he believes it’s virtuous, but rather because it became a significant part of his identity. This resonated with me as I believe that a person must have a solid sense of identity in order to know the true meaning of justice, which then leads to a clear vision for how to make necessary change happen.
According to Stevenson, there are four keys to positioning ourselves to make change:
- Get proximate to the problem: Be present where we can experience the issues with our own senses.
- Change the narrative: Understand where people are coming from, what stories fill their minds and engage in the process of reconciling them into a shared narrative.
- Do something uncomfortable: Be compelled to do what’s right, one trickle at a time, to help yourself and the people around you overcome fear.
- Protect our hopefulness: Believe in the potential strength and goodness of the human spirit.
Using the power of narratives to facilitate transformative change for organizations and communities is at the core of Barkada Circle’s mission. Stories reveal shared experiences and values deeply rooted in our common truths as human beings. It’s where we all come together and recognize a common identity. To reach this destination, we must first listen to the stories of others and share our own.
On May 12, 2015, Barkada Circle® will participate in On the Table, the civic engagement initiative of The Chicago Community Trust that celebrates its centennial by building community throughout Chicagoland. Barkada Circle will be gathering people around a dinner table in Evanston to share their experiences and perspectives on education. Participating in this conversation will provide them opportunities for:
- Meeting other equally invested neighbors who share similar visions for Evanston
- Deepening their understanding of the community’s needs, programs, challenges and successes
- Planting the seeds for future interactions, collaborations and resource sharing
- Exploring possibilities for shared initiatives
This is Barkada Circle’s first step in supporting people’s efforts to make the necessary change for education in Evanston. As we facilitate more conversations, we continue the journey of addressing education as the cornerstone of our democracy and, presently, a tangled web of direction, intention and contention. Once we reach the place where we find our common truth and identity, only then can we change our story that weaves together reconciliation, courage and hopefulness.