In Pursuit Of Equal Justice

Bryan Stevenson

Sometimes you see someone so special that it literally takes your breath away.

Someone so brilliant and emotionally intelligent that their words stop you in their tracks and you are left changed by the experience.

That’s how I felt when I heard Bryan Stevenson speak recently at the annual meeting of Leadership Florida in Orlando.

Stevenson is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative which is the subject of a new HBO documentary.

His work focuses on race and criminal justice reform and how we can inch our way toward a more perfect union.

We live in a society in which 1 in 3 African American males and 1 in 6 Latino men will end up incarcerated; a disturbing statistic that we somehow seem to accept. As if those lives are disposable. As if our nation can afford to throw these people away.

Stevenson wants us to chafe at these statistics.

It’s not that he wants us to feel bad or guilty.

In fact, he wants us to heal and feels that the only path to healing is facing what ails us as Americans.

Stevenson is a founder of the only museum dedicated to the history of lynching in America. It’s located in Montgomery, Alabama.

In fact, he was in Orlando to dedicate a marker at the site of a lynching in that city right here in our state.

By putting the issues front and center, Stevenson is hoping to spark a dialogue and a process that will ultimately lead to the airing of truths and a national reconciliation.

He fears what will happen to us if we don’t discuss these painful issues—slavery, bigotry, racism, violence. He believes it is keeping us apart.

Regardless of how you feel, it’s hard to deny that we have a racial divide in this country and in our own community.
Delray has a fraught relationship with race—Swinton has been a dividing line, we wrestle with issues of equity, trust, inequality and how to communicate.
I see it every day in Delray.

I feel it too.
I know I am not alone.

But I also know that many people  don’t feel the tension or have no interest in engaging.

But those who care about making a lasting difference should care. Because the divide holds us back and we are forever at risk of volatility if we ignore or pretend that these issues aren’t real or don’t exist. We will never reach our potential until we face up to what separates us.
So what we can do?

Stevenson suggests that we put ourselves where we typically refuse to venture.

The best part of Stevenson’s powerful message was his plea for people, especially those who seek to lead to get “proximate” to the issues in their communities.

Stevenson urges all of us to get close to the issues and get to know the most troubled parts of our community.

Proximity enables us to understand, empathize and eventually help.

Distance keeps us apart and does not allow for solutions to take root. It may even be wasteful since often we will prescribe the wrong solutions to community problems because we haven’t taken the time to get close to the suffering.

It may seem easier to turn away, but it’s not says Stevenson. The price we pay is too high—estrangement, anger, violence, division and a host of other ills.

As I watched Stevenson mesmerize a large crowd of experienced leaders, I couldn’t help but think that this is the kind of leadership we are missing in our cities and  inour country.
We need leaders who share, empathize and truly care to get close enough to understand, grow and evolve.

It takes an investment of time and heart. It takes a willingness to set aside preconceptions and open ourselves to possibilities and healing.
This not us versus them politics designed to keep us angry and apart. This is true inclusiveness, idealistic and human. It summons our better angels.

We can choose to remain angry, divided and sure of our positions from the safety of our couches and echo chambers or we can be “proximate” and learn to love thy neighbor.

It’s a simple choice. And an obvious one.

But For Leadership Florida…

Leadership Florida builds statewide community.

We spent the weekend at the annual meeting of Leadership Florida in Orlando.
We’ve attended every annual meeting since I graduated from the program 15 years ago.
Its a mental boost that comes at a time of the year when I’m looking for a reboot.
Leadership Florida is a statewide program that gathers, trains, educates and then nurtures leaders from all walks of life. There are programs for emerging leaders ages 25-40, educators, executives, elected officials and a general class program that always includes a wide mix of people from all parts of our state.
It’s extremely competitive to get in the program and members tend to become very invested and loyal to the organization.
Because Leadership Florida is transformational and the annual meetings are fun and educational.
We’ve hosted some amazing minds through the years: Tom Brokaw, Colin Powell, Ken Burns, Geoffrey Canada, Jon Meacham and more.
This year we heard from conservative icon Arthur C. Brooks, former U. S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, early childhood advocate and retired journalist Dave Lawrence Jr., “Homeless to Harvard” author Liz Murray, best-selling author Brad Meltzer, social justice advocate Bryan Stevenson, Chief Disney Veterinarian Mark Penning and provocative demographer Ken Gronbach.
As usual, the takeaways were powerful.
Secretary Duncan outlined five national goals for education to consider: the U.S should lead the world in access to Pre-K (currently we hover between 28th and 30th), raise the high school graduation rate to 90 percent; commit that 100 percent of our high school graduates are ready for university classes. We currently spend $9 billion a year on remedial education; raise college completion rates and commit to retrain every worker whose job becomes obsolete.

Mr. Stevenson, whose life is soon to become a movie (and who has an HBO documentary debuting this week)  urged us to get “proximate” to the people in our communities who need us most. Proximity allows us to better understand the issues, strengths and challenges in our communities. Who can argue with that?

Mr. Meltzer talked about heroes and urged us to thank the heroes in our lives, sharing special stories about President George H. W. Bush and his 9th grade teacher Mrs. Spicer who said three words to Brad that changed his life: “you can write. “
And Ms. Murray, whose life was a Lifetime movie, told us how her experiences on the streets forged her character and made her strong.
Powerful stuff.
These kinds of weekends inspire and fuel us as citizens, volunteers and leaders in our communities.
These special people push us to think, read, study and ultimately act.
If you are a leader, I urge you to apply to one of Leadership Florida’s programs. The experience is a game changer and it’s a gift that keeps giving. Because each year, we get to gather with now more than 1,000 leaders from all over this great state and learn from each other and from our guest speakers.
We come back restored, energized and committed to make our part of Florida a better place.
Visit for more information.