Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative

Who are the people who influenced the people who influenced you?

We might call them the GrandInfluencers. I like to think of this question and these people from time to time.

We are connected more broadly and expansively than we are always aware. Whether we know their names or not, there are people who have had a major impact upon the shape and direction our lives because they had a major role in shaping the people who most influenced and inspired us.

I found myself reflecting on this several years ago when I heard Bryan Stevenson speak in Ann Arbor. Bryan Stevenson was presented with the Wallenberg Medal at the University of Michigan for his vision and service, and afterward, he gave the Wallenberg Lecture.

Bryan Stevenson is the founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization committed to ending mass incarceration in the United States, protecting human rights and dignity, and challenging racial and economic inequities. Within the large, crucial vision of this work, Stevenson has spent decades entering personal relationships with the people he represents in court. They have impacted his life, as he has impacted theirs.

His lecture was filled with stories of human connection as he challenged us to do justice in our neighborhoods, nation, and world and to change our narratives about race and poverty.

He opened the lecture first with a story about his Grandmother. He grew up calling her Mama. When Stevenson was a child, she would give him enormous hugs, and when she finished, she would ask, “Okay, can you still feel me hugging you?” If he said no, she would do it all over again. This became one of their playful rituals, and Stevenson came to know that he was loved and absolutely cherished.

As she was dying, her last words to him were, “Can you still feel me hugging you?”

Beautiful. It’s clear that he does.

She shaped so much of his vision and calling. She was the daughter of enslaved people, and she taught him about the terror and trauma of slavery. She also filled him with a sense of love and worth. Stevenson has been addressing slavery in its many forms throughout his life, protecting human lives, standing up to false narratives, and telling the truth — both about our national history and about human dignity.

In many ways, this started with his Grandmother. Unknown to many future clients, she impacted their lives — and in many cases, affected their freedom — through the formation of Bryan Stevenson.

And Stevenson told us stories about some of these clients. Unknown by name to us, they have impacted the formation of Bryan Stevenson as well, and their stories are now challenging the narratives and power structures of mass incarceration.

We are connected more broadly and expansively than we are always aware.

Who influenced the people who influenced you? Who are your GrandInfluencers?

We honor them with our lives by being ourselves. And though we cannot always predict the direction entirely, when we demonstrate love to others and are present in formational ways, we will embolden and empower people we will never meet.

Renee Roederer

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