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Speak Up In the Face of Appalling Silences, Celebrated Human Rights Lawyer Tells Santa Clara University School of Law 2009 Graduating Class
Saturday, May. 23, 2009
SANTA CLARA, Calif. – May 23, 2009. Use your diplomas as microphones to speak up in the face of “appalling silences,’’ Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) told the 280 graduating members of Santa Clara University School of Law.
The law school’s commencement took place at 9:30 a.m. Saturday in the University’s Mission Gardens, on a sunny day attended by a jubilant and multi-ethnic crowd of about 3,500 family, friends and supporters of the Class of 2009.
Santa Clara Law’s Class of 2009 is nearly evenly split between male and female graduates, with 49 percent women and 51 percent men. One of the top-ranked schools for diversity, 23 percent of SCU Law’s graduates are Asian or Pacific Islander; 6 percent each Hispanic and African American; 5 percent Mid Eastern; and 43 percent Caucasian. Twenty one already have advanced degrees.
Speaking extemporaneously from a dais under crisp white awnings, Stevenson spoke to his rapt audience about “the importance of recognizing your power.” He said he could trace his own empowerment to his grandmother’s doting love, saying she taught him to respect words, to consider them your identity.
“There is power in identity,’’ he said. “’If we say something, with the identity that we have, we can change the way people think, we can change the way people behave,’’ he added, telling a story about a racist and abusive prison guard who eventually came to treat Stevenson respectfully after hearing him passionately defend an unfairly treated client in court. “Nothing is impossible if you speak up,’’ he said.
Stevenson has won national acclaim for his work challenging bias against the poor and people of color in the criminal justice system, and for working to overturn unjust death penalties, especially in the South where the legacy of racism persists.
Under his leadership, EJI has assisted in securing relief for at least 75 condemned prisoners in Alabama, advocated for poor people, and developed community-based reform litigation aimed at improving the administration of criminal justice. Stevenson has argued twice before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Summarizing some of the core lessons he’s learned, Stevenson repeated his oft-stated belief that “each person is more than the worst thing they’ve ever done,’’ and “the opposite of poverty is justice.’’
He said one “appalling silence” he is currently trying to break is the trend toward the permanent disenfranchisement of black males, as more and more of them lose the right to vote due to laws stripping convicted offenders of that basic right. He is also fighting to stop 13 and 14-year-olds from being tried as adults and sentenced to life in prison, and to help give hope to extremely poor youth in inner cities.
“If we don’t say something there will be costs; there will be consequences,’’ he said. He also made the crowd laugh with a story of how in a fit of frustration he filed an unsuccessful motion to have his teen client tried, not as an adult, but as “a 75-year-old privileged white corporate executive.’’
Stevenson was introduced by Santa Clara Law Dean Don Polden, and his speech followed a welcome by Santa Clara University’s president Michael Engh, S.J. Engh issued his own request to the students to “be heroes” like Stevenson, to “inspire us by your lives as lawyers,” and perform works that will inspire emulation in children.
Although Stevenson has spent decades speaking up for “the hated,’’ the wrongfully convicted or shoddily defended poor, he urged students to be vocal no matter which field of law they practice.
“You have the capacity, you have the power, you have the ability when you leave this place today to say things that can change the world around you,’’ said Stevenson, who received an honorary doctor of law degree on Saturday. He graduated magna cum laude from Eastern University in Pennsylvania, before attending Harvard Law School and the Harvard School of Government, from which he graduated in 1985.
Stevenson received a standing ovation from the entire audience, including the graduating class.
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