Bryan Stevenson, a Harvard law school graduate and New York University law professor, and his organization the Equal Justice Initiative, are the winners of the biennial Dodd Prize in International Justice and Human Rights.
The Dodd Prize is awarded to those who have made a significant effort to address human rights issues on a global scale. The prize, first awarded in 2003, is named in honor of Thomas J. Dodd, a Connecticut senator from 1959 to 1971 and major advocate for human rights.
Stevenson, through the Equal Justice Initiative, looks to fight against injustices in the U.S. legal system; in particular, he addresses issues such as racial justice, children in prison, mass incarceration and the death penalty. For example, Stevenson looked at the data regarding incarceration of women in recent years.
“Terrible things have happened to women in the last quarter-century; the percentage of women who went to jails and prisons in America has increased 646% in the last 25 years,” Stevenson said. “seventy percent of the women that we send to jails and prisons are single parents with minor children.”
When discussing the concept of proximity being critical to justice in society, Stevenson cited experiences with his grandmother when he was young. His grandmother’s embrace was a reminder that she was always with him, something that relates heavily to his work, Stevenson said.
“I believe to create justice, to change the world, at the very least, we’ve got to be willing to get close enough to people who are suffering, people who have fallen down, people who are dealing with difficult things that we can wrap their arms around them,” Stevenson said.
Additionally, Stevenson touched on his own experiences with human rights activism growing up. In particular, he cited experiences with the desegregation of schools in his area.
“I grew up in a community where black children couldn’t go to the public schools…There were no high schools for black kids in my community. My dad was a teacher but we couldn’t go to high school,” Stevenson said. “And then these lawyers came into the community and they made them open up the public schools.”
While Stevenson was at Harvard, he cites one course in particular that helped shape his future plans. Stevenson said he had always cared about poverty and racial inequality, but this course allowed him to get proximate with those who were suffering.
“This course required me to spend a month with a human rights organization that provides legal services to people on death row, and I went to Georgia, I met a community of lawyers who got up early in the morning, they worked hard all day providing legal services to people on death row, and these lawyers, their lives seemed to be animated and shaped by the work they were doing,” Stevenson said.
Stevenson said experiences like these led him to reflect upon how he could best create positive change in the world. In particular, he has begun to focus on the narratives of society that negatively impact marginalized communities.
“Underneath the debates and the discussions, there are narratives, there are things that reflect values and ideas and we have to understand the narratives, and some of those narratives foster bigotry and hatred,” Stevenson said.
According to Stevenson, these narratives do not form out of a vacuum. He cites fear and anger as the leading forces behind these misguided beliefs, saying that they can have major effects on the culture that forms.
“I want to say that fear and anger are the essential ingredients of oppression and injustice. We have to stand against the politics of fear and anger, we cannot allow ourselves to be shaken that way,” Stevenson said. “Fear and anger will make you tolerate things you should never tolerate, it’ll make you accept things that are always unacceptable.”
The narratives that form out of fear and anger are not necessarily written in stone, though, and Stevenson believes that they can be changed. The issue with this, though, is that the United States is not taking, the steps it needs to change the narrative, Stevenson said.
“In this country, we don’t talk about slavery, we don’t talk about the native genocide, we don’t talk about lynching, we don’t talk about segregation; we start talking about race, people get nervous,” Stevenson said. “We start talking about racial justice and people look for exits, we’ve got to change the environment, we’ve got to change this narrative.”
For winning the Dodd Prize, Stevenson and the Equal Rights Initiative will receive $100,000 and a bronze bust of Senator Dodd.
Thomas Alvarez is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.