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How To Change the World

How do you change the world? It's the question that troubles anyone who looks at the state of the culture around us and sees the many deep injustices within it. Idealists still believe it's possible; the more weather-beaten tend to concede that the system is fixed to prevent true change. While most of us want to sit in the former camp, in our darker moments we can tend to gravitate toward the latter. Last night I heard a man who believes so strongly that we can change even the worst parts of our world for the better, he convinced a room full of people to re-embrace their idealism again.

Bryan Stevenson is an extraordinary man. As the founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative based in Montgomery, Alabama, he has gained global acclaim for his work challenging injustice in the American legal system. A close advisor to President Obama, he has successfully campaigned for changes in the law around the trial and incarceration of minors, and has represented dozens of death row prisoners, many of whom had been wrongly imprisoned and faced death without Stevenson's intervention. One of his clients, Anthony Ray Hinton, had been on death row for nearly 30 years for a crime he did not commit; Stevenson worked on his case for 15 years before seeing him exonerated this April. So this man knows a thing or two about fighting injustice, and just how much it takes to see real change happen.

Speaking (without hesitation, or notes) from his experience working among prisoners on death row in the American South, he presented four ideas which he said could be applied more widely to the other social and cultural problems which we face together.

1. We have to get approximate to the problems we care about.

Stevenson's first point was that we can't solve the world's problems at a distance. We have to get up close to the people we want to help, because that 'proximity' helps us to truly understand them, their problems and the possible solutions. He told a moving story about the experience of meeting his first death row prisoner while still at law school, and how looking a condemned man in the eyes while witnessing the shocking treatment of his guards became formative in his career. He went on to explain that when he looks at the Gospels, he sees this same proximity in Jesus' life, as he moved among and got up close with the most broken people in his society. "To me, the Great Commission is a call to get approximate," Stevenson said.

2. We have to change the narrative.

Next, Stevenson explained his belief that US culture is based on "a narrative of fear and anger". He gave the example of the demonization of young people; the formation in American psychology of the idea that some children aren't children, but are in fact 'super-predators', which paved the way for children to be tried as adults – many of them getting life sentences without parole. He spoke too of a flawed narrative on race, where because "American doesn't do shame well", the culture is attempting to suggest that slavery is a thing of the past when "really it has evolved" into a legacy of racial inequality. Stevenson said that to achieve real change, we need to identify and challenge some of the stories that our culture tries to tell.

3. We have to remain hopeful.

In perhaps the most moving part of the lecture, Stevenson talked candidly about some of his experiences fighting for condemned men, sometimes not always successfully. While he has felt battered and bruised by some of these cases, he has identified hope – driven and enabled by faith – as the key ingredient in fighting injustice for the long-term. Stevenson's team of 50 all have to figuratively 'sign up' to a statement of hope in order to be employed by him, "to work for me, you have to be able to believe what you have not seen", he said, referencing the famous passage in the book of Hebrews. Stevenson was electric on this subject, slipping into the mode of a master preacher: "Hope is what will make you stand when everyone else is sitting," he proclaimed, "hope is what will make you speak when everyone else is silent."

4. Sometimes we have to do uncomfortable things.

Finally, Stevenson outlined a commitment to discomfort as being vital to achieving real and lasting change. He spoke about facing down a humiliating strip search from a racist guard in order to see a client with severe learning disabilities, but referred to the trials faced by some of the "giants" on whose shoulders he stands, people like Martin Luther King and the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, and reflected that he feels comparatively "privileged" not to have to face a similar level of oppression. Although he didn't talk specifically about Jesus' command to "take up [your] cross and follow me", the notion of sharing in Jesus' sufferings loomed large at this point. The pursuit of justice isn't easy, it's uncomfortable.