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Bryan Stevenson’s Blueprint for Racial Justice Inspires Aspen Changemakers

August 31, 2016

By Sarah Zak Borgman

In July I attended the Aspen Institute’s Resnick Aspen Action Forum in Aspen, Colorado, along with a number of Skoll Awardees. The Skoll Foundation sponsors this annual four-day event, where entrepreneurial leaders from around the world commit to putting their ideas for social impact into action.

Attendees are drawn from the Aspen Global Leadership Network (AGLN), which is made up of more than 2,100 Fellows from 49 countries, chosen for their demonstrated leadership accomplishments and abilities. Some 350 of them gathered in Aspen this year to share ideas and get inspiration from one another.

The Action Forum is more than just another conference. Participants have signed Action Pledges that commit them to tackling intractable challenges in their communities. These are people who are serious about driving social change.

As director and curator of the annual Skoll World Forum in Oxford, England, I’m fascinated by ways of gathering the right people together and exposing them to the right ideas, at the right time, in order to catalyze solutions to big problems. Convening is both an art and a science, and when the parts come together, it’s magic.

The magic of convening was in evidence for me at this year’s Action Forum, and it coalesced around a talk given by Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama—and a 2016 Skoll Awardee. I urge you to listen to his talk. I’ve been reflecting heavily on it in the weeks since I left Aspen.

It’s hard to overstate the significance of Bryan Stevenson and his decades-long fight for racial justice in the United States. He is the leader we need right now, his voice is one we need to listen to, and his call to action is one we need to heed. With EJI, Bryan has fought to reform the criminal justice system and expose the history of racial inequality in America. He has done it through litigation, policy work, and education—and through his skill as an orator and storyteller.

 

In his Action Forum talk, Bryan offered a recipe in four parts for creating more justice in a world too often defined by “the politics of fear and anger,” those forces that give rise to oppression and abuse. “When you are afraid and angry, you will tolerate injustice,” he observes. How do we get past this fear and anger?

The first thing we have to do to create more justice is to get closer to the issues, to the injustices we’re trying to right. Too many people are trying to “problem-solve from a distance,” Bryan argued. When you do that you miss the nuances and the details, and your solutions don’t work. We need to get proximate in order to understand things that simply can’t be understood from a distance. “There’s power in proximity,” he said.

Second, we need to change the narrative. “Go any place in the world where there’s obvious oppression,” Bryan says. “If you ask people ‘why are you doing that?’ they’ll give you a narrative of fear and anger. That narrative is what we have to change if we want to create justice.”

In America, it’s the narrative of racial inequality that needs to be confronted and changed if we’re to have justice. The unacknowledged genocide of native Americans led to slavery—both were possible because of the narrative that native and African-Americans were somehow different from whites. As Bryan argues, “the great evil of American slavery was the narrative of racial difference that we created to legitimate it.”

“Injustice prevails where hopelessness persists,” which is why fighting against hopelessness is the third ingredient. As he does again and again, Bryan drove this message home with powerful stories from his own life—remarkable events from his career that have given him hope. You’ll have to watch the talk to hear him relate them.

Finally, to create justice, you need to get uncomfortable. “There is no path to justice that is only comfortable and convenient,” Bryan says. “We will not create justice until we’re willing to sometimes position ourselves in uncomfortable places and be a witness.” It was at this point in his talk that Bryan moved me the most, by revealing what this discomfort has meant in his life. He admitted the reason he serves broken people: “I am broken too,” he said. And it’s in acknowledging our own brokenness, he explained, that we arrive at a deeper understanding of compassion, mercy, and justice.

There could be no stronger call to action than Bryan’s talk, no audience more explicitly committed to taking action to solve intractable problems than the Action Forum, and possibly no problem more intractable than racial injustice in America.

For me this was an example of convening at its most magical. I could feel the electricity in the room while Bryan was speaking, and I am excited to see what the AGLN Fellows do with the energy he generated for urgent progress towards racial justice.

“We need truth and reconciliation in America. We’re not going to get where we’re trying to go without truth and reconciliation,” Bryan asserted pointedly in the middle of his talk, to much applause. What might truth and reconciliation look like in America?

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