The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) states on its website (LINK) that it is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenge racial and economic injustice, and to protect basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.

Bryan Stevenson has led the charge on these efforts since creating EJI in 1989, and delivered an engaging and passionate opening keynote at the 110th annual meeting of American Association of Law Libraries (AALL). Stevenson’s remarks stirred emotions and were sprinkled with personal stories ensnaring the audience while reinforcing the importance of access and equality of justice.

Stevenson noted various challenges our society faces and the impact these issues make in our daily lives, but encouraged everyone to look at their environment, workplace and relationships to see where one can make a difference. His challenge to the audience was that with access to and an understanding of the legal system, they should become better stewards, custodians and doorkeepers to those in need of access to justice.

Stevenson reviewed four strategies to accomplishing these goals.

Stevenson’s first was proximity and noted that in order to be committed to the rule of law, one must get closer to those who are suffering from inequality and injustice. Society has taught people to stay away from underserved or poor areas, but Stevenson encouraged the audience to do the opposite and recognize that there is power waiting for us in closing the distance between legal professionals and the underserved. Stevenson said that society can’t wait until it has the answers to get closer, but rather the answers come through proximity.

The second strategy is to change the narrative. One area he took a deeper look at was the scourge of drug addiction, and recognized that it could easily be managed as a health care issue, but society deems it to be a criminal issue, thereby defining the narrative going forward.

“When we allow society to be governed by fear and anger, we allow ourselves to enable a threat to society,” he said. Legal professionals understand the narrative, and those with the right information and access to justice are able to change it. Speaking directly to the audience as custodians of law libraries and institutions, he suggested that they also fill those same roles for the broader society and open all the books, doors and information that can lead us to a more equal society.

Stevenson’s third challenge was simple: be hopeful.

“We have to be hopeful. You are either hopeful or hopeless – which is part of the problem,” he noted. Being hopeful can lead us to a sense of resolve and drive us toward making improvements.

And finally, Stevenson  asked that audience “to do the uncomfortable” – something he acknowledged may be hard to hear. He encouraged everyone to position themselves in uncomfortable places, say what is needed, do what you must to create and foster a more just society.

Stevenson reminded the audience that we have allowed the distance to be created between our society and those most in need of the rule of law. To make improvements and create opportunities for access to justice, one should not be measured by what others have said are the measurements.

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