Moistening the Heart

In listening to a talk given by Jon Kabat-Zinn at a Mindfulness and Compassion conference last week, he mused about poetry being a way to moisten the heart and invited us to “learn poems by heart and let them reside in you”.  Hafiz has written that “the gauge of a good poem” can be measured by ” the size of the love-bruise it leaves on your neck…or the size of the love-bruise it can weave into your soul.”

Jon Kabat-Zinn then commenced to recite some poems.  Here is one he shared:

Love After Love by Derek Walcott

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.

You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Poems I am sharing with you that I love:

The Happy Virus by Hafiz

I caught the happy virus last night

When I was out singing beneath the stars.

It is remarkably contagious —

So kiss me.

The Sacraments by St. Francis of Assisi

I once spoke to my friend, an old squirrel, about the Sacraments —

He got so excited and ran into a hollow in his tree and came back holding some acorns,an owl feather, and a ribbon he had found.

And I smiled and said, Yes, dear,you understand:

Everything imparts His grace.”

Relationships Booster by Rumi

Here is a relationship booster that is guaranteed to work:

Every time your spouse or lover says something stupid,

make your eyes light up as if you

just heard something


My Lips Got Lost by Rumi

My lips got lost on the way to the kiss — that’s how drunk I was.

Luckily though I still connected with the most tender part of her.

The moon conceived — what a wild looking baby we are going to                                                   have.

The Sun Never Says by Hafiz

Even after all this time the sun never says to the earth,

“You owe me.”

Look what happens with a love like that —

It lights the whole world.

Two Giant Fat People by Hafiz


and I have become

like two giant fat people living

in a tiny



keep bumping into

each other



Lake Sunset Canoe Pictures

The Subject Tonight is Love by Hafiz

The subject tonight is Love

And for tomorrow night as well,

As a matter of fact

I know of no better topic

For us to discuss

Until we all


How do you moisten your heart?

Why do we want to kill all the broken people?

“We have to get close to the problems, we have to get close to inequality, we have to get close to suffering, we have to get close to exclusion and in that proximity, we learn things.” ~ Bryan Stevenson

 Played in December 2012 on KPFT, 90.1, Pacifica Radio, in Houston and recorded by Wally James for the program, The Progressive Forum.  Bryan gave this talk at the November 2012 Houston Peace and Justice Center’s Annual Awards Dinner.  Bryan was the National Peacemaker Award Winner.  He is the Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EAI) and a professor at the New York University School of Law. (This speech was transcribed by Gregorio Ayala, student at the University of Houston.)

 [1:01:27] Bryan Stevenson: Thank You.  It’s really a wonderful, wonderful honor for me to be here and to share this evening with so many extraordinary people.  Houston is a remarkable place with some really remarkable challenges that are being met by a remarkable community of people.  We’re trying to change the narrative, and that’s what I want to talk about briefly tonight.  All around us, there are narratives; there are stories of what’s possible, and what’s not possible.  And, we absorb them sometimes even without thinking about it.  We are told that difference is the only thing that we should focus on. We are told that we should be angry and afraid.  We are told that the world is too complicated to insist on peace; that the world is too complicated to demand justice.

 There are all of these narratives out there that begin to force us to lower our expectations of what a community should be, what a healthy place should be.  And I think the real challenge that people who are committed to justice, people who are committed to peace, have to embrace is that we have got to change the narrative.  We have got to change the way people think about what’s possible, the way people see what’s possible.  And the powerful thing about what so many of you are doing is that you are positioning yourselves in places where there is inequality, where there is unfairness, where there is injustice.  And, you’re allowing that proximity to change the narrative.

 And I’ve learned that doing the work that I do.  I wasn’t really sure about what I was going to do. I grew up in a poor, rural community.  I was definitely a product of Brown v Board of Education.  In my community, black children couldn’t go to the public schools.  We started our education in the colored school, and I remember when the lawyers came into our community to open up the public schools and they made it possible for me to go to high school, and that made it possible for me to go to college, and that made it possible for me to go to law school.  But if it weren’t for that intervention, I wouldn’t be standing here, talking to you tonight.

 [1:03:47] In the 1950’s, people said that the narrative was that we cannot have racial integration in the south.  It’s too costly; it’s too dangerous, white families don’t want their kids going to school with black kids; black families don’t have the resources to send their kids to white schools.  The narrative made it impossible to imagine that there could be the kind of racial integration that created opportunities for people like me, and a handful of really talented organizers and really dedicated activists started protesting, marching and strategizing, and being tactical about how we change this narrative.  And no one in 1954 could have imagined that in the span of fourteen years, we’d see radical shifts in the quality of life for people of color in this country.  That there would be a civil rights movement; that we’d be celebrating, as a national holiday, the life and legacy of one of its leaders.  It was unimaginable, but the narrative changed, and proximity to inequality will do that.

 [1:04:42] And so my real message is that we have to get close to the problems, we have to get close to inequality, we have to get close to suffering, we have to get close to exclusion, and in that proximity, we learn things.

 I went to law school.  I didn’t know what I was going to do.  I went to work with this human rights organization providing legal assistance to people on death row.  I remember going down there as a second year law student and I went to this office, and the head of the office, Steve Bright, said “We’re sending you to death row tomorrow. We want you to meet with one of the guys on death row.  Just tell him that he’s not at risk of execution any time in the next twelve months.”  And I came back to the office the next day and asked which lawyer would come with me to death row, and they said “We don’t have time to send a lawyer down.  You have to go down by yourself.”  I was feeling so overwhelmed and so nervous, and I got in the car and I started rehearsing what I was going to say to this man when I got there, and I was really nervous.

 I got to the prison, and I went inside, and I kept rehearsing what I was going to say, and this man came out. And I kind of blurted out what I’d been rehearsing. I said, “Look, I’m sorry, I’m not a lawyer.  I’m just a law student.  I don’t know very much.  I know you don’t understand a lot of these things, but I’m here to tell you that you’re not at risk of being executed anytime in the next twelve months.”  And as soon as I said it, he grabbed my hands, and he kept saying, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”  And I couldn’t understand why he was being so grateful, and he said “I haven’t let my wife come because I was afraid that she would show up and I’d be executed. I haven’t told my kids to come because I didn’t know when I would be executed. I’ve just been so anxious. You were the first person I’ve talked to in three years who is not a death row prisoner or a death row guard.  And he kept holding my hands and saying “thank you, thank you,” and we started talking, and all of a sudden, I forgot that I was a law student, and this was a person on death row.  We just started talking, and it turned out that he had the exact same birthday as I have, November 14th.  And we kept talking, and before I knew it, time had just flown by.

 Two hours later, the guards came in and said, “It’s time for this visit to end, you’ve had more time than you’re supposed to have,” and I said “I’m sorry, we were just talking,” and the guards got angry that we had been engaged in such a conversation.  And they came in there and they actually hand cuffed him and they put the shackles on him, and they moved all of the death row prisoners out of his way, and they put the shackles on too tight.  And the man was telling them that they’d put them on too tight, and they were just disregarding him.  They were being very rough.  I kept saying “look, you don’t have to do that,” and they said, “Don’t you tell us what to do,” and they pulled this man out and as he was leaving, I felt, again, worried that he had been shackled so tightly and that they were making him [hurt unnecessarily].

 And this man turned around, and he did something I’ve never forgotten – he turned around and just smiled at me, and he just said “thank you” one more time, and then he did something I could not believe – he began singing.  And he began singing the words to this hymn I had not heard in a really long time, but he started singing it loudly. He started singing this song and here are the words, “I’m pressing on the upward way, new heights I’m gaining every day.  No place better that I have found, Lord plant my feet on higher ground.”  And as he was being pushed out of this area, shackled at the ankles, handcuffed, all I could hear him saying was “I’m pressing on higher ground,” and it changed my narrative.  I couldn’t help but think that even though I didn’t know as much as I wanted to know, even though I didn’t understand the things I needed to understand, by being present in this prison, I’d had an impact on this man’s life, and he’d had an even greater impact on my mine.  My narrative changed. Being close, being proximate, even to things that are difficult can change the narrative. I left that prison and ever since, I’ve been trying to change the narrative about the criminal justice system in this country.

 [1:08:39]What’s happening in this country?  This is a very different place than it was forty years ago, through the lens of criminal of justice.  In 1972, there were 300,000 people in jails and prisons in America. Today, there are 2.3 million.  The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.  We have nearly six million people on probation or parole.

 Mass incarceration has fundamentally changed our society.  In poor minority communities, you see it in places all across this country.  We said we were trying to wage a war on drugs, and what we did was to wage a war on poor people, people of color.  And we’ve devastated communities.

 One out of three black men between the ages of eighteen and thirty is in jail, in prison, on probation, and parole.  In communities like Houston, there are neighborhoods where 50% of young men of color are under the control of the criminal justice system – in jail, in prison, probation, or parole.

 In my state, we actually take away the right to vote.  We have ten states that permanently disenfranchise people who are convicted of crime.  Today, in Alabama, 34% of the black males have permanently lost the right to vote.  We’re actually projecting that in the next ten years, the level of disenfranchisement in Alabama will be as high as it was, in some communities, at the time we passed the voting rights acts, and there is this appalling silence.

In 1996, Congress passed a law under a democratic administration, a democratic president – the welfare reform act.  And there was a provision in the welfare reform act that got almost no attention that actually allows states to permanently ban people with drug convictions from public benefits.  And in a bunch of these states, today, if you have a former drug conviction, you can’t get food stamps. You can’t live in public housing.  You can’t get access to public medical services.

 We created, in our lifetime, a new kind of person in America.  This law created “untouchables” in American society.  These are people who cannot access our public system. These are women with children – poor women with children.  These are women who cannot get even the meager benefits that we provide to other people who are poor. We don’t talk about it, and we do these things with this consciousness that we’re moving toward justice, when, in fact, we are creating injustice.  It’s not just what I’ve seen in the incarceration context and what it’s done, it’s also the way we’ve corrupted our community by having influence of wealth.  I was so happy to hear that the senators are working on campaign finance, dealing with private prisons – the influence of money has been so corrupted in so many spaces where justice should prevail.  And the criminal justice system is no different.

 [1:11:40]We have a criminal justice system in this country, in Texas, in Houston, that is all about wealth.  It treats you better if you’re rich and guilty if you’re poor.  It does. Culpability is shaped by wealth.  And the hardest thing I have to do for many of the people that I represent is to sit down and explain that it doesn’t matter if you have a rock solid alibi, it doesn’t matter that there are all of these witnesses that can account for you, we’ve got to deal with a system where wealth shapes outcomes.  And because of that, these challenges make it very difficult for us to figure out how we move forward.

The state of Texas has struggled with the question of providing legal services to the poor. [It is only in 2012 that a Public Defender’s Office is up and operating in Harris County.]  We’ve struggled, and while there have been some instances of progress, we are nowhere near where we need to get.  There are people in Texas literally dying on death row for legal assistance – literally dying.  The quality of legal assistance is a continuous challenge because poverty matters.  It’s not just poverty – it’s the legacy of racial inequality. The legacy of racial injustice in this country is something that we haven’t confronted. We haven’t confronted it.  We’ve talked about these issues, but we haven’t really talked about these issues.

Our newest project at EAI is a project dealing with the history of racial inequality.  We want to talk about these issues that we’ve avoided for so long.  I look at the experiences of African Americans in America. African Americans in America have been dominated by four institutions: [the institution of slavery, reconstruction, segregation and mass incarceration].

 [I want to talk about the first institution – slavery.]  We’ve rarely understood slavery the way we need to.  A lot of communities and countries had slavery. Europe had slavery, lots of places in the world had slavery, but in America slavery was distinct; it was different.  Slavery wasn’t an economic status, it wasn’t a status that you occupied until you won your freedom; slavery in America was about caste.  We actually created a slave society where people were relegated to the bottom because they were deemed inferior, and the fact that we eliminated and abolished slavery didn’t challenge the fact that we still thought of these people as inferior, and their plight and struggle wasn’t something we were really interested in. And we allowed that institution to pass without understanding what we’ve done.

 [1:14:00] My office is on a street in Montgomery, Commerce street, and about 150 yards to the east of my office, is a river, the Alabama river, and there’s all this development going on – we’re building restaurants and hotels, and if you come to Montgomery, this is  a really comfortable place to stay. I’m all for the development.  But at that river between 1850 and 1862, we had the highest slave trade space in America.  Thousands of people were brought on train and on boats through that harbor, 150 yards from my office.

They were chained together, they were paraded up Commerce Street, they were taken to a square about 150 yards to the west of my office, and they were sold day in and day out. And the slave trade in Montgomery was notorious because in Montgomery you didn’t have to prove that the African people you were selling had actually been enslaved.  So black people were kidnapped anywhere in the region and brought to Montgomery and sold into slavery.

Montgomery was also notorious because in Montgomery, you didn’t have to abide by the principles that some slave markets insisted, which was to keep slave families together. And so people would be sold separately; siblings would be sold separately.  It was a horrific place of tremendous death and destruction and pain.  And yet, if you walk up that street, you don’t see anything about the slave trade. And you don’t see it because we’re not really comfortable talking about it.  We talked to the community about just recognizing this horrific space, and they were completely hostile to the idea.

 [1:15:38] The second institution we’ve created is reconstruction and that ended in the 1870s. What created the second institution was terror – racial terror.  Between reconstruction and World War II, the lives of people of color were dominated by terrorism. Lynching, racial violence, and all of these horrific things, and without terror, you wouldn’t have had Jim Crow and segregation.  In fact, older people of color come up to me all the time and they say, “Mr. Stevenson, we get so offended when we hear someone on TV talking about how we’re dealing with terrorism for the first time after 9/11.  They say, “Mr. Stevenson, we grew up with terrorism, we had to grow up worrying about being bombed, worrying about being lynched; this was our reality!”  And they get offended when they hear someone saying that.  They say, “Make them stop saying that.”

 [1:16:27] Well, the third institution of course we know more about; that was Jim Crow. That was segregation.  It was very alive in this community.  It required racial subordination and racial hierarchy.  And that institution of Jim Crow was something we confronted with the civil rights movement.  We did some remarkable things. [and changed] the legal apparatus that supports Jim Crow, most of it, not all of it.  [We just had] a legal referendum in Alabama on Tuesday where they tried to remove the segregation language from the state constitution, which still prohibits black and white children from going to school together.  It’s unenforceable under the federal constitution, but it’s still in the state constitution.  We keep saying, “Well, it’s not good to have your constitution say that there should be racial segregation and apartheid,” and the state has to take a vote on it, and, of course, on Tuesday, in the state of Alabama, most people voted to keep the language in the constitution.  This is the second time in eight years that we have failed to get that language out of the state constitution.

And so the legal structure isn’t gone, though we’ve dealt with most of it.  The thing that we didn’t deal with is that we didn’t actually commit ourselves to a process of truth and reconciliation and because we didn’t commit to truth and reconciliation, we started moving forward with distrust and discomfort and anxiety.  And because we haven’t gotten to that place of truth and reconciliation, we still are haunted by the legacy of Jim Crow and racial hierarchy.

The problems we are dealing with [regarding] immigration are by-products of our inability to confront racial thinking, racial bias.  These unbelievably racist, anti-immigrant laws are the same tradition that created and supported racial subordination of African Americans.  You can compare the fugitive slave act of 1850 with these Arizona and Alabama anti- immigrant acts and recognize where we are.

In South Africa, people recognized that you have to commit yourself to a process of truth and reconciliation before you can move forward.  In Rwanda, they recognized that they had to commit to truth and reconciliation to get past the genocide.  In this country, we didn’t do it.  And because of that, we don’t understand all the damage that was done by decades of racial subordination.

In my community, older people, people my age, have been bruised, battered and traumatized. (I think Bryan is in his early 50’s.)  The humiliation of having to deal with this every day was painful.  My parents wouldn’t take me to town when I was a little boy because they were afraid that they would be made to humiliate themselves, to submit to racial hierarchy in my presence, and they didn’t want me to see them acting that way. When they knew they had to act [a certain way] and when you deal with that day in and day out, it makes you angry.  It creates frustration, it creates pain, and we’ve never had space to give voice to that.  Even today, we don’t want to talk about these injuries created by racial inequality. As a result of that, we’ve given rise to the fourth institution, which is mass incarceration.

 [1:19:28] It is the institution that is continuing to devour communities of color, poor communities and new immigrant communities. People of color are being devastated.  I work in communities, young communities, with young kids; it’s the work we’ve been doing recently.  And the hardest thing I have to hear when I engage in anonymous conversations with some of these young people is – I hear these young people say to me things that break my heart.  And I’ve talked to these twelve and thirteen year old boys and they say – I get them to talk honestly – they say, “Mr. Stevenson, I know I’m going to be in prison by the time I’m twenty one.”  And they don’t say it because they’re making it up; they don’t say it for dramatic effect – they say it because that’s what they see happening in their community!  They see their brothers and their siblings, and their neighbors being arrested and taken to prison, and there’s this expectation of incarceration that is shaping the choices of these young kids. They say, “Mr. Stevenson, I gotta get mine while I can. I gotta do what I can while I can.”  And until they are turned around with something more hopeful, that is where they will end.

You can’t intimidate them, you can’t threaten them, you can’t create more punishment to turn them around; they believe that definite incarceration is the outcome.  And it’s a tragic reality, but it flows from our inability to talk honestly about these problems.

But it’s not just race, it is other kinds of disabilities.  We’ve filled up the prisons with people who are mentally disabled because we don’t invest in health care, because we don’t invest in services.  We’ve just put them in jails and prisons where their disabilities are aggravated by abuse and misunderstanding.  We’ve taken it out on our children.

The United States now has all of these young children sentenced to die in prison.  I was arguing at the U.S. Supreme Court in March of this year, trying to convince the Supreme Court that it is cruel and unusual punishment to sentence a thirteen-year old child to die in prison.  Three thousand kids sentenced to life in prison without parole – we are the only country in the world that does that.  The United States and Somalia are the only two countries that have not signed the covenant on the rights of the child. And if you get proximate to this injustice, it challenges you.

 I got involved in these cases when I was a young lawyer.  I was working on a case with a young boy, fourteen years of age who was living in a house where his mother was repeatedly the victim of a lot of domestic violence.  And the man who lived with him and his mother would come home and just get very aggressive and violent.  And one day, the man came to the house and he had been drinking, and he punched the woman in the face, and she fell on the floor.  She was unconscious.  And this boy was trying to revive his mom, and after about twenty minutes, his mom wouldn’t come to and we think the little boy thought his mom was dead.

The man had gone into the bedroom to go to sleep….after twenty minutes of the little boy trying to get his mom to wake up, he got up, he walked into the bedroom, he walked over to the dresser, where he knew this man kept his handgun, he opened the dresser door and he pulled out the gun, walked over to where the man was sleeping, and at point blank range pointed the gun and, tragically, pulled the trigger. The man was killed instantly.

Now, this child was a good kid, never been in trouble before, no juvenile adjudications, never been arrested, no kind of issues, a good student, and he probably would have been tried as a juvenile, but for the fact that this man – the boyfriend of this boy’s mother- was a deputy sheriff.  And because he was a deputy sheriff, the prosecutor insisted that this child be tried as an adult.  And the judge certified him to stand trial as an adult, and they put him in adult jail, which is where they put kids in thirty states who are certified to stand trial as an adult.  And I went to the jail and his grandmother caught me after he’d been there for about three days and asked me to work on the case and I said I would. I went to the jail to talk to this young man, I started asking him my questions, and he just sat there, staring.

And after ten minutes, I said, “Hey, look, I can’t help you if you don’t talk. You’ve got to talk to me.”  He wouldn’t say a word. I finally put my pen down, I said, “Look, I can’t help if you don’t talk; you’ve got to talk to me.”  And he just kept staring. I got up, I walked around the table, I got my chair close to him, I said, “C’mon, you’ve gotta talk to me, I can’t help you if you don’t talk to me.”  And the boy just kept staring. Finally, I just started leaning on him. I kept leaning on him, kept leaning, and finally, at one point, he leaned back And when he leaned back, I put my arm around him, I said, “c’mon, tell me what’s going on.”  And this little boy started to cry.

And through his tears, he started talking to me, but not about what happened with his mom, not about what happened with the man, but he started talking to me about what had happened in the jail.  And he told me that on the first night he’d been assaulted by several men, and then he told me that on the next day he had been raped by several men, and then he told me that on the night before I’d gotten there, so many people had assaulted him that he couldn’t actually remember how many there had been.  And I held this little boy while he cried hysterically for almost an hour.  And when I left that jail, I kept thinking to myself, “What kind of society does this to its children?  What kind of society is this? What kind of community calls this justice?”  A blind community, a community that’s been corrupted by the politics of fear and anger[does this] .

And to create justice, to create peace, we have to understand that fear and anger are the enemy.  Where there is fear, where there is anger, there will be the temptation to abuse basic human dignity, to abuse basic human rights.  Fear and anger is what created genocide, it’s what creates wars, what creates bigotry and prejudice, what creates all the abuse that we see in our society.  We finally got that child back into a juvenile facility, and got him out of jail and prison, but the reality of what we do to each other is seared in my heart.

I represent people on death row; that’s the bulk of my job. I don’t always understand why we continue to execute people.  This state, of course, has been at the front of the line when it comes to this horrific human rights violation, and we ask the wrong question when we talk about the death penalty in most places.

 In most places, we ask, “Well, did the person deserve to die for the crime that they committed?” when in fact, the real question we should ask is, “Do we deserve to kill?” when we have a justice system that is corrupted by bigotry against the poor, when we have a justice system that has a racial bias, when we don’t know how to deal with people with disabilities, when we don’t know how to treat our children, when we have abuse of power and politics by judges; we don’t deserve to kill.  That’s the real question.

 [1:26:00] And so, we need to change the narrative. You can give the right answer to the wrong question for a really long time and not get anywhere. It’s only when we ask the right question that we begin to change the narrative.  And what I’ve learned about this whole changing the narrative thing is that it’s hard.  It really is hard, and you have to get close to things that are difficult, really, sometimes painful things.

I’ve been doing death penalty work for a really long time; we’ve had a bunch of executions in Alabama. In 2011 we actually had a higher execution rate in Alabama than in Texas, and we had an execution, it seemed, all the time.  We’re just a state of four million people and both of those years we had in raw numbers more death sentences than you had here in Texas and we were running, trying to keep up with these people facing execution.  And we were doing all of this other work for children facing life without parole, and we were trying to start this program on race and poverty; we were just racing everywhere.

It got to the point where it just felt like it was overwhelming.  And a man had an execution date in thirty days, he called us and asked us to get involved, and of course we said yes, and we tried to get a stay, and I knew going into it that I was going to be very, very hard.  And we were getting close to the execution, and I was talking to this man on the night that he was scheduled to be executed and I do this a good bit, I’ve been doing it a really long time. And I didn’t think very much about it and when I picked up the phone, that there was something about this man that just got to me.

And I was just talking to him and I was just having a harder and harder time getting thorough this conversation. When I was a little boy, my grandmother, if you’ve heard my TED talk, you know that I have this really powerful grandmother. My grandmother took me to church one Sunday when I was about nine or ten and there was a boy in the church that I’d never met before, and this child had a very severe speech impediment.  And because I’d never met anybody like that, I did something really ignorant when he introduced himself – I laughed.  And my grandmother saw me laughing and she gave me this look I’d never seen before and she grabbed me by the arm, and she pulled me back, she said “Don’t you ever laugh at somebody because they can’t get their words out right, don’t you ever do that.”  And so I said, “I’m sorry mama,” and she said, “Now, you go back over there and you tell that little boy that you are sorry,” and then she said, “You hug him,” and then she said, “You tell him you love him.”

I said, “Mama, I can say I’m sorry, but I can’t go over there…”  And she gave that look again, so I went back over there, and I said to that little boy, “Look man, I’m sorry,” and I gave him my little boy version of a man-hug and I said “I love you,” and I never will forget this child hugging me tight, and he said, “I love you too.”  I remembered it when I was on the phone with this man…this man who was facing execution, also had a very severe speech impediment…I’d forgotten all about that boy, I’d forgotten all about that incident with my grandmother.  But there was something about hearing this man trying to talk brought that back to me. The more I thought about it, the more overwhelmed I became. Sitting there holding the phone, he was trying to get his words out, and the closer we got to the execution time where they were going to make him hang up and put him on that gurney the harder it became for him to get his words out, he was trying so hard, he was trying so hard, and the more he tried, the more I just sat there and tears started running down my face and I was just thinking to myself, “This is just too hard. Too hard. Too hard.  I don’t wanna do this anymore.  Too hard.” And he was trying and trying and he finally got his words out, he said, “I just wanna thank you for doing what you do, for standing with me,” and then he said, “I love ya’ll for fighting for me.” And when I hung up the phone, I thought, this doesn’t make any sense.  Too hard.  Too painful.  Can’t do it anymore.

 Now I had one of those conversations that we have to have when we do the difficult things that we have to do.  I started asking myself, “Why do you do this? It doesn’t make sense.”  And I realized that I hadn’t thought about that in a long time, and the more I thought about it, the more complicated it became, and I started thinking, well this man is so broken – why do we want to kill all the broken people?  I don’t understand that.  So much pain, so much suffering, so much abuse, so much of all of the things that we need [and they are deprived of]; all of this ugliness and it breaks you.  I don’t understand why we want to kill people as a result of that.

 And then I started thinking about the brokenness – people broken by racial bigotry, people broken by poverty, people broken by the ugliness of abuse and people broken by power; all of this brokenness, and I started to question whether it made sense to keep doing what I do and I had to have that conversation that I was asking to myself, “Well, why do you do it?”  And I had to think it through, and I said to myself, “Well you know you don’t do it because there’s money, because there’s no money.  You know you don’t do it because it’s fun, because it’s not fun,” and then I had to realize that I don’t even do it because I think it’s important; it’s important, but that’s not the reason why I do what I do.  And I started thinking more – I don’t do it because I think I have to, I don’t do it because I have this opportunity, I don’t do it because I think I have a chance to talk to wonderful people; I realized at that moment that I do what I do not because of all of those things, but that I do what I do because I am broken too.

 And then I realized that proximity to brokenness, to injustice will break you. It will cause things to crack; it will create cuts and bruises, it will create scratches and injuries that nothing short of proximity to inequality can achieve.  And it’s in that brokenness that it’s very tempting, you’re very tempted to say, “I can’t do this.”  But then, the more that I thought about it, the more I realized that I don’t have a choice because I am broken, I am part of a broken community.  Marginalized people, disfavored people, excluded people are my people.  And because of that, I have no choice but to stand when it’s time to stand.  Even if I have to stand by myself, you have no choice but to speak when everyone else is quiet because in brokenness, you hear things that you cannot otherwise hear; you see things that you cannot otherwise see.  And it’s in that space where you begin to realize what it means to change the narrative.

 I’ve learned very simple things doing what I do.  In brokenness, I have learned that we are all more than the worst that we’ve ever done.  I believe that.  My clients have taught me that. I think that if someone tells a lie, they are not just a liar.  I think if you kill somebody, you’re not just a killer.  There is this basic human dignity that must be protected by law.  My work in poor communities has taught me that I just don’t believe that the opposite of poverty is wealth. I don’t believe that.  My work has taught me that in most places in America, the opposite of poverty is justice.

And, finally, I’ve come to believe that you judge the character of a society, you judge the quality of life in this society, you judge its commitment to the rule of law not by how you treat the powerful and the privileged and the wealthy and the esteemed.  You judge a character of society by how you treat the poor, the incarcerated, and the condemned.

 [1:33:08] And, ultimately, ultimately, I have been persuaded, not just because I am here with you, that the real leaders of a community are not necessarily those who get elected, they’re not those people you see on the TV – it’s the people who go into neighborhoods where nobody else goes.  It’s the people who stand when everyone else is sitting, it’s the people who tie themselves to a tree, it’s the people who stand and fight for janitors,  it’s the people who allow their voices to give visibility to the invisible….space to the people who have been crowded out…it’s those people who are the real leaders and the reason why I am so honored to be with you tonight is that it’s your activism, your proximity, your courage that actually makes all of this come together.  That’s how we get to justice. It’s an amazing thing.  You see these unbelievable things.  Proximity will crack you, it will shake you; it will kinda wear you down.

 [1:34:05] I tell this story a lot. I had the great privilege of meeting Rosa Parks when she used to come back to Montgomery, and she would get together with her two closest friends when they would come to Montgomery, and Ms. Carr, who was the organizer of the Montgomery bus boycott, and Virginia Derr, who was a white woman whose husband, Clifford Derr, represented Doctor King…they would get together and just talk, and Ms. Carr would call me sometimes and say, “Bryan, Mrs. Parks is coming to town. We’re gonna get together and talk, do you wanna come over and listen?”  And I’d say, “Oh, yes ma’am, I do!”  And she would say, “Well, we’re gonna talk, but you have to tell me now, what does the word listen mean?”  And I’d have to show her that I knew I wasn’t supposed to say anything, and I’d go there and I wouldn’t say a word.

 I was over there one time, and Mrs. Parks turned to me after I’d been there for a couple of hours, just listening, it was always so wonderful, and she said, “Now, Bryan, tell me what the equal justice initiative is. Tell me what you’re trying to do.”  And I looked at Miss Carr to get permission to speak, and she nodded.  I gave her my rap, I told her, “we’re trying to end mass incarceration, we’re trying to end the death penalty, we’re trying to confront a prison system that’s out of control, we’re trying to do something to help children, we’re trying to elevate a conversation around race and poverty, we’re trying to do some things about the abuse of power.” I gave her my whole rap and when I finished, she looked at me, she said, “Mmm-mmm-mmm,” she said, “That’s going to make you tired, tired, tired.”  And that’s when Ms. Carr raised a finger, and she said, “That’s why you got to be brave, brave, brave.

 It takes courage to get proximate to the problems that we want to get proximate to.  Who talks about peace in a world ravaged by war?  Who talks about justice with all of the inequality that we have in this country?  Who talks about these things?  Well…the people who actually understand that these are the only things to talk about when you have a world ravaged by war, when there’s the kind of inequality that we see…and when we do it with the kind of heart and conviction that you are doing it – I just want you to know that you never know how powerful it becomes.”

 [1:35:57] I’ll end with this. At times, I get kind of beat down by the work that I do, and it’s just challenging doing it in the places where there is so few resources and every now and then you get something that seems extra ugly. I was working on this death penalty case, we had a client who was moved to a prison and I went down to see this man, and when I got there, there was a truck in the parking lot…this truck had all of these bumper stickers.  And it bothered me a lot what these bumper stickers said. I’m still bothered by the images of the old south.  I’ll be perfectly honest…I’m one of these people [that don’t like it] when they talk about the good ole days.  I don’t like the confederate flag.  I don’t like this rhetoric about the great times we had in the ’20s and ‘30s, I don’t like that old south imagery’ it’s not fun to me, it’s not interesting to me; it’s oppressive.  And I can’t help it…I’m still dealing with it.

 And so I saw this truck with all of these battle flags and bumper stickers.  It had a bumper sticker that read, and I quote, “If I had known it was going to be like this, I’d have picked my own cotton.”  And I saw it, and I just thought to myself, “That’s so ugly.”  And so I went inside of the prison, and there was this guard there who I’d never seen before, and the guard came up to me and I said, “I’m here for a legal visit,” and he said, “You get in that bathroom, I’m going to search you.”  I said, “No, sir, lawyers don’t have to be searched.”  He said, “Don’t you tell me what has to happen.”  And I needed to see this client, so I said, “Okay.”

 I went into the bathroom [and endured] a very aggressive search.  I came back out, and said, “I wanna see my client now,” and he said, “You gotta go back and sign the book.”  And I said, “No, lawyers don’t have to sign the book,” and he said, “Oh, yes, you do.” So I went back to sign the book.

 I was about to get in to see this man, I’d never met the man before, and he grabbed me by the arm, this guard who was being so nasty, and he said, “Hey, did you see that truck out there?”  I said, “Yes, sir, I did.”  He said, “I want you to know that truck is my truck.” I said, “Okay.” I walked away.

I went into the prison with this client that I hadn’t met before; he was a very severely disabled man.  And he came out and the first thing he asked me was, “Did you bring me a chocolate milkshake?”  I thought to myself, this is the strangest day that I’ve had in a really long time. I said, “No, I didn’t bring you a chocolate milkshake.  I’m your lawyer, and I’m here to help you on your case,” and we started talking.  I realized fifteen minutes into the interview that the client wasn’t with me. And I thought, he’s still hung up on this milkshake.  I said, “Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t know you wanted me to bring you a milkshake.  The next time I come, I’m going to try to bring you a milkshake.”  And then he calmed down and we could do our interview.

 Every time I saw this man, I had to talk about the milkshake.  I would explain to him, I would say, “Look, I tried to bring you a chocolate milkshake, but they wouldn’t let me do that,” and I had to do that before he began to engage with me.  A very severely disabled person, he’d been pretty abused as a child, put in the foster care system, horribly mistreated, at one point, he was abandoned, tied to a tree in the woods and left there for several days, psychotic by the time he was thirteen, drug addicted by the time he was fifteen, homeless at seventeen, and committed a very serious crime when he was twenty.

 And it was time for us to got to court to try to put out the evidence about this man’s background and his disabilities, and when I got to court for this hearing, I was alarmed because this guard who had been so ugly and difficult was the guard that had brought him the two blocks from death row to the court house.  And I went to my client… “Sir, are you okay?”   He said he was fine.

 We started putting on our case, and we put out evidence for three days about this man’s disabilities, about his background, about all of the abuse, about all of the neglect, and I felt pretty good about the hearing.  I thought our evidence had gone well, we had some experts come out and testify, and about a month later, it was time to see this man in prison, and I went to the prison to see him, and the guard who was always so nasty and difficult was working that day.  And when I saw him, I said, “Well, I’ll go into the bathroom and get ready,” and he surprised me.  He said, “Hello, Mr. Stevenson, how are you?”  And I said, “I’m fine.”  And I said, “I’m gonna go into the bathroom and get ready for your search,” and he said, “No, sir, you don’t have to worry about that, I don’t need to search you.”  I said, “Well, thank you.”  I said, “Well, I’ll go sign the book,” he said, “Mr. Stevenson, I saw you coming and I signed the book for you.”  Completely threw me.  I said, “Well, thank you.”

 I was about to go inside, and the man grabbed me by the arm, and he said, “Can I say something?”  I said, “Sure.”  I didn’t know what to expect.  He said, “Um, Mr. Stevenson, I’m, grateful for what you do.”  You could not have shocked me more.  He said, “I’m grateful for what you do.”  And then this man actually became emotional with me and grabbed my arm.  He said, “I was in the foster care system, too.  Had it really tough coming up.  Really tough.  And I was listening in that courtroom and I just want you to know that I’m grateful for what you do.”  Shocked me.  Completely shocked me.  I said, “Thank you.”

I was making a move to go see this man, he grabbed me by the arm again and he said, “I have to tell you something, I did something on the way back from the prison.”  I said, “What did you do?”  He said, well, I took your client to a Wendy’s and I bought him a chocolate milkshake.”

 It’s a silly story, but it speaks to me to the power of what witness can do.  We sometimes are on corners, five or six people, sometimes we’re in places where there are forty or fifty when there should be forty or fifty thousand, given the issues that we are talking about. Sometimes, we’re standing and everyone’s staring at us, trying to figure out why we keep standing, why we keep talking, why we keep marching, why we are not silent about the things that we should be silent about, why do we keep up this activism, why do we keep talking about peace, why do we keep talking about justice?

We keep talking about it, and sometimes, it can be alienating or overwhelming, but you never know when you’re giving somebody that talk…[things happen like] the milkshake when you’re doing the things that actually make real justice stick.  And that is our great privilege.  That is our great opportunity, and that’s why I’m so honored to receive this award, and be with you here tonight.  I wish you all the best in fighting the good fight, and doing the right thing.  Thank you.


Solving Intractable Issues

Compromise Required

Panoramio - Photos of the World

A quote I love, attributed to both the Dalai Lama and Anita Roddick (founder of The Body Shop who died in 2007): “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try going to bed with a mosquito in the room.”  I like to couple this with a quote by Mary Pipher (as shared by Brene Brown): “Cultural change is a million individual acts of courage and kindness.”

I have been pondering the cultural change I’d like to effect – to contribute to solving today’s intractable issues.  I’d like to hold monthly salons and call together people of different persuasions to discuss the issues that divide America—talk about a venue where courage and kindness would be necessary!  We could tackle one issue at a time and when we have found a compromise, pay a visit to our congresspersons and lay out our plan.

We could hold our own town hall meetings to share our plans with others and encourage them to lobby their congressperson to sign on to our solutions.  We all know: leadership in the important topics of our time has to come from the everyday citizen.

In the Summer 2012 issue of Parabola, Joshua Boettiger (Alone with Others) makes the point that compromise is the cost of belonging (p. 32).  As I read that passage, I realized that compromise is often seen as a dirty word.  The word has become murky for me so I looked it up.  Compromise is a settlement of differences…reached by mutual concessions…blending qualities of two different things (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Ed.).  I know that for years, I have refused to compromise.  When I believe in abolition of the death penalty, nothing less will do.  When I believe in a woman’s right to an abortion and birth control, I will not accept a middle ground.  I will accept nothing less than full equality and rights for the GLBT community.

So I began thinking: If I knew that in order to move forward as a country, I had to compromise, could I look at some things differently?  I thought, okay, I could look at abortion and the death penalty, but I could not budge on equality and rights for all (although in some ways, the death penalty and abortion involve equality and rights for all).  Putting that aside, I began to think about abortion.  Just the process of thinking about compromise provided an entryway into thinking differently about my positions.

Kauai, Hawaii

If I were to budge on this issue, what could I accept?  If I were to agree to no more abortions, what would convince me to do that?  I thought if I could get the following, I could support no more abortions:

  1. Staff the schools with counselors so that all of our children could get the help they need.  Strengthen public education and lower teacher-student ratio to 1:15.  This means putting more resources into education. My reasoning is that if students are fully engaged and getting the services they need, they will be less likely to “compromise” their future.  I’m using a different meaning of the word in this sentence.  Again from Webster: to cause the impairment of.
  2. Have high schools for youth who are pregnant (and the fathers) with day care so that they could finish their education.  Have the fathers take turns at the day care watching the children.  Have everyone attend parenting classes.
  3. Provide the resources necessary to make the Children’s Protective Service effective.  I know many of these workers and they are devoted to their kids, but are understaffed, underpaid and under-resourced.  It will be important for the community to have a referral source they can trust to solve family issues in which children are victims.

If I were to budge on the death penalty, what could convince me to do that?

  1. We spend an average of $40,000 per prisoner per year.  Some zip codes can determine the likelihood of you going to prison.  I’d like to begin with those zip codes and spend $40,000 per student per year on education to put them on a different path.
  2. Rather than put people in prison for drug offenses, I’d like to spend $40,000 per year on getting them into residential treatment and intensive case management.
  3. Rather than jails and prisons being the number one place for our citizens with mental disorders, I’d like to see treatment centers made available to treat this population.
  4. I’d like to house anyone under 18 with their age group and not with adults.  Here is why.  I want to share a heartbreaking story as told by Bryan Stephenson (next blog).

These are not perfect solutions.  And this is just me talking to myself.

If this were to be discussed among others, many more ideas could be produced.  While none of this is perfect and none of us would receive exactly what we want, at least some of our intractable issues (the issues inside of issues) would be tackled.  Imagine how freeing that would be.  I’d love to hear your thoughts.


Authenticity and Eccentricity

Two Sides of the Same Coin?

I am struggling with what I want to write.  Will it be profound and wise?  Or will it be trite and boring?  I think we all fear being boring and irrelevant; we want to be fascinating and have fascinating minds.  A long time ago I figured it out:  If I keep people busy talking about their lives, they will not find out all the boring details about mine, and I will elude the vulnerability of someone knowing I don’t have it all figured out and in fact, I’m a pretty confused human being (at that time I was confused, things are different now…I have other vulnerabilities to explore!)  When I thought I had it all figured out, I could enjoy the vulnerability of others and remain safe.  But I have changed.

I’m trying to remember, when did I realize that sharing who I am, sharing my struggles, sharing my celebrations feels really good and makes me feel more grateful to be alive?  It kind of “snuck up on me”.  I can remember a time when I needed a therapist because I had no one I could trust to talk to.  I remember someone telling me one time that a therapist was a rent-a-friend.  They didn’t know I was in therapy, but I remember feeling the pain of thinking that I had to pay someone to listen to me.

Now I know it’s more than that.  Therapy is not about paying someone to listen to you; it’s about learning to trust that relationships are safe.  It is safe to reveal who I am because I am not a mistake; I am not flawed (but I am imperfect as are we all).

Revealing who we are is scary because everyone has opinions about who we are!  Case in point: Really eccentric people that we become fascinated with.  It’s as if we revere eccentricity because it is a caricature of who and what we want to be – authentic.  The Brown twins in San Francisco are one such example.  Everyone in San Francisco knows them.  They are, I’m guessing, in their late 60’s or 70’s and they still dress alike (It’s been several years since I’ve seen them.)  They go everywhere together and they are dressed classically and fashionably, with always a twist of creativity.  Everyone wants to take their picture.


A part of us shakes our head at their odd eccentricity (redundant, but I’m stressing the oddness we all think in our minds).  Who still dresses like your twin after a certain age?   Another part of us admires their courage, boldness, and authenticity. They are making their mark on the world.  As I write, I am reflecting on what they are teaching.  If you are going to risk what it takes to not be boring and irrelevant, you can’t worry about what others think of you…because if you dare to be different, you will be judged—sometimes the harshest judges are those who wish they could dare to be different.

I did not know when I sat down that my writing would take me down this path.  It is interesting to see the places the mind wants to take us.  We are always reaching for authenticity….like the blade of grass that pushes through the crack in the sidewalk to reach the sun.  For the latest update on the twins, check out this article:


Empathy and Suffering

(In the Aftermath of Hurricane Sandy)

Anywhere I see suffering that is where I want to be, doing what I can.  Princess Diana

I have seen no visual accounts of the destruction of Hurricane Sandy; I have only read accounts from friends on Facebook who live on the east coast.  I suffer when I watch TV because it harps on the negative and so I do not watch.  At times like this, I would like to feel more connected when a disaster strikes; still, I choose to tend to my emotional well-being and live without TV or searching the Internet. (I do get my news from trusted internet/radio sources; I just want to control what I take in and not be assaulted by visuals and hyped-up voices.)

So that I can feel connected to what people are feeling in this disaster, I have been working on empathizing with what my friends may be experiencing.  I once believed it was impossible to empathize with certain experiences because I had not lived them.  In Brene Brown’s work, she explains that empathy is not about connecting with an experience, but rather, connecting with an emotion.  What experience(s) can we find that can give us an emotion that might be close to what someone is feeling?  And so I began to shuffle through my experiences that might allow me to feel what my friends might be feeling.

I was living in Houston during Hurricane Rita and had not lived here for almost twenty years.  I did not have the same urgency about leaving town as did everyone in my family.  By the time I left work, freeways were packed, gas lines were long, and I just wanted to get home.  I decided to sleep, arise the next morning, get gas, and join my sisters and parents.  Traffic was even worse the next morning and I could not find any gas.  I saw a woman walking, asked her if she needed a ride, and got her close to her destination; she had run out of gas after helping to move children from an institution to a place safe to ride out the storm.  I made a decision that if I was going to die (I thought that might be a possibility), I would do what I could on this one day to help others.  It was an exquisite feeling to know that I had a chance to make my last day count.

As we all now know, Hurricane Rita was tame(for Houston) .  I can imagine the fear of those in Sandy’s path who could not leave (many of whom had no money or no car).  I can imagine the helplessness one feels at not being able to do anything about the coming of an impending disaster, the sense of no control.  I can imagine the fear of dying. In my situation, it never happened.  In theirs, it did.  I can still connect to the emotions they might be feeling.

The other experience I connected with is cancer.  I always think about it during this time of year.  One day you are healthy and the next day you have cancer.  (Emotions that might be similar to what people on the east coast are feeling – disbelief and shock.)  Life can change with the snap of a finger.

I remember waiting for my biopsy results over Thanksgiving weekend.  Because it was a long weekend, I had to wait a few days rather than a couple.  I remember making a decision that whatever happened, I was strong enough to get through it.  I now wonder why I didn’t tell myself that no matter what happened, I would let people support me through this.  And so, I imagine in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, there are many who think they are on their own (and indeed they may be); there are many who are embracing a community of support; and there are many who are discovering the beauty of our interconnectedness.  Some are in shock, devastated and wondering if they will ever feel safe again.  And some are feeling all, or a combination, of the above.  I/we can connect with all of these emotions and embrace this suffering with you.

How can I/we contribute in a way that is meaningful for us and for you?  Some of us will drive trucks full of clothing and supplies to you; some will donate money; some will watch what is happening on TV and weep for you (and for ourselves, for the suffering we have all experienced); some of us will listen to your sorrow, your fear, your relief, and provide empathy; but, all of us will know that at any moment, life can serve up a dish of suffering to any one of us.

On the other hand, life can also open avenues that did not heretofore exist.  “All the world is full of suffering.  It is also full of overcoming” (Helen Keller).  In the weeks and months to come, I know we will hear stories of survival and triumph that will transform our relationship to the suffering we have all felt, albeit some more than others.

On Becoming


I love to write and for years I have wanted to share my words with the world.  Sharing what we create is a desire to connect and I love to connect through writing.  I have a secret cache of poetry that has never been shared.  I have dreams of touching others with my words. A confluence of recent events and comments from friends convinced me to write.  I am grateful for all of these influences.

At a Halloween party last night, the host started the Karaoke music.  Initially, no one wanted to perform except a young boy I’m guessing was five years old.  He belted out a song off-key, singing only some of the words, doing a little dance at the end of the chorus, and oblivious to what anyone thought of him.  I was mesmerized at his earnestness, courage and authenticity.  I define authenticity as doing whatever we feel like doing, saying, being, without regard to what anyone thinks, and doing no harm to others.  What if we all had the heart of a five year old?  

If I/you were not afraid of the opinions of others (and of our own opinions about ourselves!), what would we do?  Who would we be?  What would we release from our lives (including thoughts)?  What would we embrace?

I want to speak with less words and more movement and music.  I dream of responding with dance when someone asks me how I’m doing, or of drumming a rhythm to express my feelings.  I want more forms of communication to be acceptable.  I want to BE the music rather than turn on the radio, ipod or computer to hear music.  When I’m sad or blue, I want to tell you how I feel by playing the harmonica for you.  [First, I have to learn how to play the harmonica, but maybe I’ll just play it and see what comes out.]  I want “crazy” to be normal.

I want the freedom to dress in costume every day, not just on Halloween.  I love it when I see (mostly) little girls dressed up in very creative clothing…wearing a baseball cap, pink tutu, red glitter shoes and multi-colored scarf.  I want little boys, big boys, big girls, men and women to feel the freedom to express themselves freely with their clothing.  How interesting the world would be!

I see the beauty in a person’s soul very quickly and easily and I want the freedom to express that.  I want to be open to those who see the beauty of my soul instead of quickly dismissing their comments.  I want to stop judging myself and others.

We are either in empathy or judgment for ourselves and others.  Empathy is an expression of the heart and soul, a willingness to be open and vulnerable and accept ourselves and others as we are in the present moment.  Judgment shuts down our heart, our soul, our beauty, our giving, our understanding, our creativity….what else does judgment shut down in you?  

Judgment protects our notion of who we think we and others “should’ be.  Let’s return to the drawing board of possibilities for becoming: Let go of “should” and invite in “could”….I could dance, I could love, I could play my harmonica…I could….

If you had the courage to be authentic, what would you do? Who would you be?