Transcript – Bryan Stevenson, a public-interest lawyer, on We Need to Talk About an Injustice at TED conference
Bryan Stevenson – Public-Interest Lawyer
Well this is a really extraordinary honor for me. I spend most of my time in jails, in prisons, on death row. I spend most of my time in very low-income communities in the projects and places where there’s a great deal of hopelessness. And being here at TED and seeing the stimulation, hearing it, has been very, very energizing to me. And one of the things that’s emerged in my short time here is that TED has an identity. And you can actually say things here that have impacts around the world. And sometimes when it comes through TED, it has meaning and power that it doesn’t have when it doesn’t.
And I mention that because I think identity is really important. And we’ve had some fantastic presentations. And I think what we’ve learned is that, if you’re a teacher your words can be meaningful, but if you’re a compassionate teacher, they can be especially meaningful. If you’re a doctor you can do some good things, but if you’re a caring doctor you can do some other things. And so I want to talk about the power of identity. And I didn’t learn about this actually practicing law and doing the work that I do. I actually learned about this from my grandmother.
I grew up in a house that was the traditional African-American home that was dominated by a matriarch, and that matriarch was my grandmother. She was tough, she was strong, she was powerful. She was the end of every argument in our family. She was the beginning of a lot of arguments in our family. She was the daughter of people who were actually enslaved. Her parents were born in slavery in Virginia in the 1840’s. She was born in the 1880’s and the experience of slavery very much shaped the way she saw the world.
And my grandmother was tough, but she was also loving. When I would see her as a little boy, she’d come up to me and she’d give me these hugs. And she’d squeeze me so tight I could barely breathe and then she’d let me go. And an hour or two later, if I saw her, she’d come over to me and she’d say, “Bryan, do you still feel me hugging you?” And if I said, “No,” she’d assault me again, and if I said, “Yes,” she’d leave me alone. And she just had this quality that you always wanted to be near her. And the only challenge was that she had 10 children. My mom was the youngest of her 10 kids. And sometimes when I would go and spend time with her, it would be difficult to get her time and attention. My cousins would be running around everywhere.
And I remember, when I was about eight or nine years old, waking up one morning, going into the living room, and all of my cousins were running around. And my grandmother was sitting across the room staring at me. And at first I thought we were playing a game. And I would look at her and I’d smile, but she was very serious. And after about 15 or 20 minutes of this, she got up and she came across the room and she took me by the hand and she said, “Come on, Bryan. You and I are going to have a talk.” And I remember this just like it happened yesterday. I never will forget it.
She took me out back and she said, “Bryan, I’m going to tell you something, but you don’t tell anybody what I tell you.”
I said, “Okay, Mama.”
She said, “Now you make sure you don’t do that.”
I said, “Sure.”
Then she sat me down and she looked at me and she said, “I want you to know I’ve been watching you.” And she said, “I think you’re special.” She said, “I think you can do anything you want to do.” I will never forget it.
And then she said, “I just need you to promise me three things, Bryan.”
I said, “Okay, Mama.”
She said, “The first thing I want you to promise me is that you’ll always love your mom.” She said, “That’s my baby girl, and you have to promise me now you’ll always take care of her.”
Well I adored my mom, so I said, “Yes, Mama. I’ll do that.”
Then she said, “The second thing I want you to promise me is that you’ll always do the right thing even when the right thing is the hard thing.”
And I thought about it and I said, “Yes, Mama. I’ll do that.”