A few words about Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson...
Just Mercy is a compelling survey of the criminal justice system. It begins when Stevenson is still a student at Harvard Law School and takes us through his earliest experiences in working with prisoners through to the present moment, after he has defended many individuals and set up a social justice organization called the Equal Justice Initiative (http://www.eji.org). Stevenson’s odyssey comes together as an intense, enlightening walk through various facets of the criminal justice system, especially regarding his own areas: the judiciary and penal systems, and the body of state and federal laws pertaining to them.
Like Foer’s book, Just Mercy is a gripping work of non-fiction based on a tremendous amount of research on a vast social and political system; and like Skloot’s, it delves into the ways social inequities "live" inside the institutions of civil society and play out systemically. Also like those texts, Stevenson’s book is written in the style of creative non-fiction. As such, it is highly readable and works well in the classroom. As a narrative account, the large swathe of historical and legal data contained within its pages is both more memorable and more easily understood. In yet another link to Skloot and Foer, Just Mercy is not only a well-researched study but also a deeply personal tale. The book is at once strongly research-driven and a moving story about a new lawyer trying to make a positive difference in the lives of struggling Americans while struggling himself to discern how best to negotiate the penal and prosecution systems.
Just Mercy will prompt students to puzzle through, for example, what Stevenson "really" means when he says: "My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice" (18). It will bring them into consideration also of the history behind that question, the circumstances that bring us today to the situation in which our "prison population has increased from 300,000 people in the early 1970’s to 2.3 million," with a whopping (approximately) six million additional Americans under some other form of correctional control (15).
In preparing this year’s bibliography, with gratitude and kudos to librarian Wendy Chu, we looked carefully at the book and realized the array of themes addressed, as well as the ways the book can usefully enrich the classroom. Those themes include: the criminal justice system and component parts (policing, prosecution and the judiciary, the penal and prisons systems); gender concerns within that context, from Women’s and Masculinity Studies perspectives; the important contexts of psychological health and public health and sustainability; matters of juvenile justice and corrections; institutional and structural racism; and the range of additional issues intersecting criminal justice—the family, economic class, industry, education, and civil and voting rights, among others. We are excited about this year’s book because, given the range of themes and issues addressed, it engages a genuinely wide range of disciplines. The story Stevenson tells is relevant for courses in Health, English and Journalism, History, Communications and Media, Philosophy, Law and Ethics, Political Science and Criminal Justice, as well as Business and all of the Behavioral Sciences.
The bibliography is designed to support students, faculty and staff doing research on the book and aims also to buoy our various co-curricular projects and programs. Along with the standard roundup of annual events, members of the cohort, inspired by Just Mercy, are working on some supplemental projects. Robert Schacter is coordinating a campus oral history project and David Prevost is working on a way to bring The Strangers Project (http://strangersproject.com) together with that. Peter Santiago will organize an event on the criminalization of mental health, Betsy Tompkins has offered to assemble a rotating library display featuring books on key themes in Just Mercy, and Janine Palludan will work with Student World Assembly to arrange a program based on the book. Chef Instructor Lorne Feldman, who already works with students at The Fortune Society (http://fortunesociety.org), will, with my support, work on ways to connect our own endeavors with the good work that organization is doing. And, Jennifer Radtke is working, with Mara Gittleman, on connections with the KCC Urban Farm, as well as putting together "flipped" classroom materials on Just Mercy. Madeline Sorel, as always, will lead illustration students to produce art inspired by the book and teachers like D.L. Anderson, Janina Perez, Jason Leggett and Indira Skoric will work with students to create formal presentations and creative responses to it. Lastly, among other tasks, I’m lining up external and internal speakers to enrich all this work, and will arrange a screening, organized by my Fall civic engagement students, of Broken On All Sides (http://brokenonallsides.com).
The first event of the year will be the Inaugural Lecture, Tuesday September 20th in the Rotunda (M240). It will be given, we are pleased to report, by Professor Debra Schultz (History, Philosophy & Political Science). (Full details for Inaugural Day coming soon.)
Please also save these dates: the Fall student programs and lecture are Wednesday and Thursday November 9th and 10th, and our spring student conference is to take place May 15th and 16th 2017, a Monday and Tuesday. The keynote lecture is as yet unscheduled while we await word from Mr. Stevenson regarding his available dates for the spring.
We look forward to your participation in our year of spirited programming, community building and scholarly inquiry into Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy!
Attend our events, adopt the book in a class** (if faculty, and if appropriate), or join our cohort (open to all faculty, students and staff).
Books are available, for as long as they last, in Room M-386.
**Note for new faculty or those unfamiliar with KCC Reads: The common reading text is available for you to adopt in any course. Books are provided by the program to your students should you decide to adopt it. (You do not need to include this book on your books order; the books are housed in M386.) To decide, pick up your copy at M-386. Then, if you choose to adopt it, you may either have students pick up their copies individually OR we can deliver the books to your department for you to distribute. If you want students to pick it up, they may do so anytime at M386 OR they can pick up a copy between 10 and 4 on Tues. Sept. 20th at the MAC Rotunda (M240). In addition, anyone teaching the book is encouraged to include their students in our student conferences—to make presentations, hold roundtable discussions, debates or any other type of session on the book—in November and May. On our website, you will find a research bibliography and teacher toolbox, designed to support you and your students. Stay abreast of events, learn more about the program and access all of our support materials at: www.kbcc.cuny.edu/kccreads