Plenary Connections: Bryan Stevenson

November 16, 2015

By Meredith McQuaid

Bryan StevensonIf you have not yet had the chance to hear Bryan Stevenson, founder and CEO of the Equal Justice Initiative, and author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, prepare to be utterly inspired when he speaks at NAFSA's 2016 Annual Conference & Expo in Denver. And, if you have had the chance to hear him speak before, then you will likely be one of the first to grab a seat near the front of the auditorium.

Bryan is passionate on speaking out about our failed criminal justice system. He is outspoken about this country's tolerance for deliberate and demonstrated injustice against the poor. He is also articulate, honest, provocative, and charming. This combination of characteristics allows him to get under your skin while he holds up a mirror to our society. If you're like me, you will remember things he says about us and our country for days, even weeks afterward. But of course, remembering what he says and acting upon it are two different things, and I am reminded, in writing this, that there are things I can and must do to be part of the solution.

My own training as a lawyer, and my experiences listening to my husband talk about clients he represented as a state public defender for many years, make me particularly inclined to trust Bryan's insight, which is based on decades representing the poor in Alabama. But, Bryan also has a lot of data to back up his argument that everyone in this country ought to take more ownership of the unjustified incarceration of poor, black men, and for allowing children to be treated like adults and sentenced to life in prison. In this country, he says, if you are rich and guilty you are more likely to win in court, then if you are poor and innocent. Wealth, it seems, is more persuasive than truth.

As an international educator, I feel it is incumbent upon me — indeed upon all of us — to understand the strengths and the weaknesses of our criminal justice system in order to be able to engage in meaningful discussions with people from around the world. We have a lot to be proud of in the United States. But, we also have plenty of challenges as well. Talking about them is a good first step to overcoming them.

Learn more about all of the plenary speakers at NAFSA 2016.


Meredith McQuaid serves as a member at large on the NAFSA Board of Directors and is associate vice president and dean for international programs for the University of Minnesota system.


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