By Dean Marcie Moore
Upon returning from the Higher Learning Conference, I did some reflection and wanted to share with you something I did not learn at the conference — but learned afterward. Our keynote speaker was Jeff Duncan-Andrade, and his keynote was entitled Equality or Equity? Toward a Model of Community Responsive Education. A book he mentioned during his talk was Just Mercy, written by Bryan Stevenson. While at a quaint bookstore in Chicago, I found this book and added it to my “to-read” pile. I began reading it on the plane and stayed up late that night and the next to finish. It is the story of Mr. Stevenson, an attorney who created the Equal Justice Initiative in the South. The work of this group focused on fair trials and punishments, particularly death row cases of people of color and teenagers.
In this book, Mr. Stevenson shares stories of the people he met (he used the term “condemned people”). One man, Herbert Richardson, had lost his mother at age three, had been physically abused at age eight, and had been the lone survivor of an ambush on his platoon in Vietnam. Upon his separation from the military, he struggled with PTSD. He ended up in prison on death row, although his intent had never been to kill anyone. (I recommend you read the book to determine why intent is important in this situation.)
On the day of his execution, he met with Bryan Stevenson, which is what Bryan wrote about: “It’s been a very strange day, Bryan, really strange. Most people who feel fine don’t get to think all day about this being their last day alive with certainty that they will be killed. It’s different than being in Vietnam …much stranger.” He nodded at all the officers who were milling about nervously. “It’s been strange for them, too.” “All day long, people have been asking me, ‘What can I do to help you?’ When I woke up this morning, they kept coming to me, ‘Can we get you some breakfast?’ At midday, they came to me, ‘Can we get you some lunch?’ All day long, ‘What can we do to help you?’ This evening, ‘What do you want for your meal? How can we help you?’ ‘Do you need stamps for your letters?’ ‘Do you want water?’ ‘Do you want coffee?’ ‘Can we get you the phone?’ ‘How can we help you?”
“It’s been so strange, Bryan. More people have asked me what they can do to help me in the last fourteen hours of my life than ever asked me in the years when I was coming up.” (Stevenson, 2014, p. 89)
This part of the story struck me as I thought of how it relates to what we do here at Zane State College. How many times a day do you ask yourself how you can help our students? How many times do you ask the students how you can help? How can we help each other help the students? How many of our students bring traumas that we don’t know about? How often do we intentionally do things to make our students feel like they belong?
Mr. Richardson’s words stayed with Bryan, too. Bryan wondered if Herbert would have ended up on death row if anyone had asked how he could have been helped.
Reference: Stevenson, B. 2014. Just Mercy.