The Opposite of Poverty isn’t Wealth

I recently started reading Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson.  I was about 1/3 of the way through it when I realized that I kinda sorta already knew the ending.  Somehow, somewhere I read the story of Walter McMillian, the man on death row around whom Stevenson bases the book.   Something about it felt familiar from the start and when I realized that I actually knew quite a bit of the basic story line, I put it down in order to finish some other books with more pressing deadlines at the library.

That said, I do think I will go back and finish it.  It’s a compelling read and I’ve already returned to it a couple times for certain quotes and passages.

Bryan Stevenson at TED2012: Full Spectrum, February 27 - March 2, 2012. Long Beach, CA. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Ted Talk

Yesterday I watched his Ted Talk from a few years ago and it was so, so good!  Full of facts and information, yes, but also full of stories and inspiration.  It’s definitely worth a watch and even more than the book, it encouraged me to pay attention to my ballot and the measures that impact incarceration.

Truth & Reconciliation

I had never heard about the “truth & reconciliation” process he mentions that was essential in Rwanda after the genocide of the Tutsi people and in South Africa following apartheid.  The US had nothing like it following slavery and segregation and Jim Crow.  The part where Stevenson says, “We don’t understand what it means to have done what we did” is still echoing in my head as I process some of the numbers he shared…

The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world.  Our incarceration rates are astronomical yet violent crime has remained steady over the years.  It hasn’t gone up!  What’s gone up are policies like “3 Strikes” which puts people in jail for life for stealing a bicycle.

In the U.S, rich & guilty > poor & innocent.  Wealth, not culpability, is what shapes outcomes in the US.  You are 22x more likely to get the death penalty if you are Black and your victim is White.  Stevenson says the opposite of poverty is not wealth.  It’s justice.  And as a culture, he says, we need to care as much about policies that embrace compassion, human dignity and caring for the poor as we do about technology, innovation and entertainment.


As I sit here this week marveling over the FitBit given to me as a gift from my sister-in-law and secretly dreaming of a better phone with a better camera, I’m particularly convicted by his words to “keep my eyes on the prize” and I’m on the lookout for ways to care more about the poor and the policies that affect them than about the latest innovations for my wrist or my workouts.

Can’t swing the 17-minute Ted Talk?  I feel ya. I had the Ted Talk up in my browser for almost 2 weeks. Check out this 2.5 minute video instead.


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