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Bryan Stevenson, Equal Justice Initiative founder, speaks on "American Justice: Mercy, Humanity, and Making a Difference"

On Wednesday, March 16, 2016, Bryan Stevenson, the founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, spoke on the Pepperdine campus as a W. David Baird Distinguished Lecture Series guest speaker. Stevenson spoke on "American Justice: Mercy, Humanity, and Making a Difference," then led a Q&A session with attendees.

After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1985, Stevenson moved to the South: the states were speeding up executions, but many of the condemned lacked anyone to represent them.  On a shoestring budget, he started the Equal Justice Initiative.  The cases he took on would change his life and transform his understanding of justice and mercy forever.  Stevenson's lecture focused on four points: 1) get proximate to suffering, 2) change the narrative of injustice, 3) remain hopeful, and 4) be willing to do uncomfortable things.

Stevenson is the recipient of numerous awards, including the MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Grant and the NAACP Image Award for Best Non-Fiction, and was named one of Time's 100 Most Influential People for 2015.  Stevenson is a tenured law professor at New York University School of Law. Stevenson's speech took place in the Elkins Auditorium on the Seaver College campus during the School of Law spring break, but a number of law students were able to participate.

"Bryan Stevenson's lecture was deeply impactful and inspirational," says second year Pepperdine Law student Aaron Bratton.  "It gave me hope. I had been wondering for a few months now, does anyone else see the amount of pervasive flawed thinking and lack of compassion as the root of the discrimination causing a tangible harm to our society?  He demonstrated through several anecdotes that changing hearts and minds requires patience and perseverance.  It is a slow uphill battle; however, he showed that fighting prejudice while striving for equality may not be noticeable immediately, but may cause a ripple effect with rewarding benefits for someone down the line. He motivated and inspired me.  I plan to use my legal education to correct flawed thinking and opinions, through words and deeds, even if only one person at a time, and a delayed positive effect."

First year law student Jenna King also weighed in on the event.  "I read Bryan Stevenson's book last summer as I was preparing for law school.  It had a profound impact on my view of the criminal justice system and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to hear him speak live," she said.  "I specifically resonated with his view that in order to alleviate poverty, we have to first get close to it.  Los Angeles is such a socio-economically segregated town and it was a welcome reminder that I can't change people's lives from afar. We all need to get, as he said, "proximate" to the issues – that's the only way to combat the 'out of sight, out of mind' syndrome we can so easily slip into.  I'm also grateful to attend a school that brings in speakers of Mr. Stevenson's caliber and heart.  I'm proud to call Pepperdine my home because of the deep heart it has for fighting injustice for taking care of the broken and lowly.  As Mr. Stevenson said, the opposite of poverty is justice, not wealth, and I look forward to implementing some of his ideas into my future law practice in order to achieve just that."

--by Janette Blair for Pepperdine Law Communications