Stevenson’s book was honestly challenging for me. His life’s work is beyond admirable, and his achievements are something that we all can aspire to. Several times, while reading, I thought to myself, whoa what more could I be doing with my life? In the end that might be a simple goal of this book. He clearly does not seek glory, or to share how great he is, but he wants to stretch our social justice nerve to its limit, to spark an interest and a drive to make a change.
I would catch myself getting caught up in rage about the treatment of those he represents, and in the McMillian case (which I had seen a 60 Minutes episode on) I felt beside myself in how a system could so aggressively pursue the punishment of a person without even considering facts. I would have to calm down in some instances and remember that some of these people did actually commit crimes (but not in every case), and while there was a serious miscarriage of justice, there should have been some punishment and repercussions for people.
Reading the book I could imagine the students that I mentored in after school programming on the Westside of Chicago being clients for Stevenson. When Stevenson shows us the long standing societal bias against communities of color, and how they can be abused by the system set out to protect them it makes it easy to understand why some of the students behaved the way they did. I remember a moment two years after I stopped working at Bethune Elementary in North Lawndale, in Chicago. I was at my desk about to make a school visit when someone told me that Damarious, one of the students who attended our after school program all the years I was at Bethune, and who I had developed a relationship with, had brought a gun to school. Fortunately for those at the school he had brought the wrong bullets. The constant presence of violence in his neighborhood, aided by the mass incarceration of the men in his community and the culture that develops, created a world where he thought his actions were the right solution.
I know that students bring guns to school in different types of communities, for different reasons, but the fact that Damarious had previously brought an exacto blade to school while I had been working there was starting to form a pattern for him. I knew his grandma was overwhelmed with he and his brother, I knew that his dad was inconsistently present in his life, I did not know his mom, and I knew that Damarious was a young man who was able to excel at math, he was able to make you laugh by telling a goofy story, and in a fight he could make contact with his fist in a blink of an eye (I saw it on a couple occasions out front of the school). He loved football, and wanted to play in high school and professionally, he had never considered college in his life (and that is understandable considering no one he knew personally had ever gone). I knew the gun was going to be a big strike against him, I knew it would follow him as he grew up, and if we did not intervene soon, it could escalate. He was immediately removed from Bethune, and sent to a special school for students with more serious challenges. Our window to reach Damarious had closed. I do not cry at work often, but I did that day.
Breaking a cycle is hard, especially when it is so deeply rooted. Stevenson’s work is taking a real approach at addressing part of the challenge, and righting some egregious wrongs, I can’t help but feel the need to intervene sooner. To step in at younger ages, and work with communities to change things, would have a large impact.