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Month: October 2015

An Evening With Bryan Stevenson a Success

Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy, visited UW-Madison on Monday, October 26th, and for many, the culminating event of the day, Stevenson’s talk at Varsity Hall in Union South, was an overwhelming success.

Part of the crowd at An Evening With Bryan Stevenson.

Varsity Hall’s doors were set to open at 6:00 pm, but people were already lined up and waiting before 5:00 pm; the hall’s capacity was reached before 6:30 pm. Live streaming of the event was available for those who were not able to attend the event in Varsity Hall.

Stevenson discussed four things that need to change in order to help combat social injustice, racism, and corruption in America’s criminal justice system, and he shared anecdotes from Just Mercy as part of this discussion. The crowd was energized and responsive during Stevenson’s talk, evinced especially by the resounding applause after the talk and the question and answer session.

The number of people who attended Stevenson’s talk was higher than anticipated. Reception of the event has been overwhelmingly positive, which speaks to the important conversations surrounding social justice, race, and the criminal justice system that Stevenson’s Just Mercy has sparked at UW-Madison and in the larger community.

To watch the video recording of Bryan Stevenson’s talk at UW-Madison on Monday, October 26th, click here. (Please note that this video is only available for viewing by those with Net IDs).

Mia Birdsong’s TED Talk: Connections to Just Mercy

As a book concerned with the corruption and problems plaguing America’s criminal justice system, Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy also discusses the contexts surrounding this corruption. Mia Birdsong’s TED Talk from May 2015, “The Story We Tell About Poverty Isn’t True,” has important connections to Just Mercy.

Mia Birdsong has been an active advocate for social justice and liberation for the past thirty years, and she has held leadership positions in organizations focused on helping families living in poverty, all of which are listed in her biography on Especially relevant to Just Mercy, Birdsong has also been involved with the prison abolition organization Critical Resistance.

Birdsong’s TED talk focuses on the marginalization of the poor in America, especially in terms of how people view the poor and the causes of their poverty. “I have worked with and learned from people just like them for more than twenty years. I have organized against the prison system, which impacts poor folks, especially black, indigenous, and Latino folks, at an alarming rate,” says Birdsong.

Mia Birdsong giving her TED Talk. Photo from

The overarching message of Birdsong’s TED talk is that the narrative surrounding poverty simply isn’t true. “Most people work hard. Hard work is the common denominator in this equation,” Birdsong says, “and I’m tired of the story we tell that hard work leads to success. Because that story allows those of us who make it to believe we deserve it, and by implication, those who don’t make it don’t deserve it.”

One of Birdsong’s largest issues with this story about poverty is that it disregards the drive and determination of the poor. “What if we recognized that what’s working is the people, and what’s broken is our approach? What if we realized that the experts we are looking for, the experts we need to follow, are poor people themselves?” she argues. “Marginalized communities are full of smart, talented people hustling and working and innovating, just like our most revered and most rewarded CEOs.”

Birdsong’s call for a change in the narrative Americans tell about poverty echoes Stevenson’s call for a more compassionate and just view of inmates, not to mention more humane treatment. “Everywhere I go, I see people who are broke but not broken. I see people who are struggling to realize their good ideas so that they can create a better life for themselves, their families, their communities,” says Birdsong. Stevenson makes a similar argument in Just Mercy, arguing that “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

To watch Mia Birdsong’s TED talk, click here.

UW-Madison Welcomes ‘Go Big Read’ Author Bryan Stevenson on October 26th

This press release was written by Jenny Price from University Communications.

Go Big Read is bigger than ever in its seventh year.

The selection of Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” prompted record participation in UW-Madison’s common-reading program. More than 170 courses are using the book this semester, in disciplines including business, education, English, history, law, nursing, political science and social work.

The UW-Madison community will hear from Stevenson on Monday, Oct. 26, when he visits campus to meet with students and give a public talk as the centerpiece of Go Big Read.

The event, hosted by Chancellor Rebecca Blank, begins at 7 p.m. in Varsity Hall at Union South and will be streamed live and captioned on the Go Big Read website. Stevenson’s talk will be followed by a question-and-answer session, moderated by Everett Mitchell, director of community relations for the UW–Madison Office of University Relations.

During his visit to the UW campus, Stevenson will also meet with students from First-Year Interest Groups, the College of Letters & Science Honors Program and the law school.


Bryan Stevenson, author of “Just Mercy” and founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, will speak at UW-Madison on Monday, Oct. 26, in Varsity Hall at Union South.

Stevenson co-founded the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative, based in Montgomery, Alabama, three decades ago. Since then, he has argued before the U.S. Supreme Court five times and played a role in landmark court cases that have transformed how the criminal justice system deals with violent youths. He has helped secure relief for dozens of condemned prisoners, advocated for poor people and developed community-based reform litigation aimed at improving the administration of criminal justice.

Last year, President Barack Obama appointed Stevenson to a task force established to recommend police practices that can improve relations between officers and the people they serve, particularly in minority communities. Stevenson is on the faculty at New York University School of Law and the winner of a MacArthur “genius grant.”

More than 5,000 new UW students received copies of “Just Mercy” during Wisconsin Welcome in early September. This month, every member of the UW-Madison Police Department is reading the book. During their orientation week at the start of the semester, first-year law students also received copies to read and discuss before participating in a community-service day.

Other upcoming Go Big Read events:

— “Just Mercy” is being featured on Wisconsin Public Radio’s Chapter a Day series, airing at 12:30 p.m. (and repeating at 11 p.m.) from Monday, Oct. 19-Friday, Nov. 6.

— Thursday, Oct. 22, noon-1:30 p.m.: Daniel Meyer, a professor of social work, will lead a faculty and staff panel discussion of key issues raised by “Just Mercy” from a Christian perspective during a luncheon at the University Club.

— Thursday-Saturday, Nov. 5-7: free conference at the Pyle Center, “A New Politics of Human Rights: Crossing Disciplines, Regions, and Issues.”

— Tuesday, Nov. 10, 5-9 p.m.: Reform Now Programs and Resource Fair, an evening of social justice at the Madison Public Library, 201 W. Mifflin St., includes a screening of “Reform Now,” a film about Wisconsin citizens who are challenging solitary confinement.

Read the original press release here.

WPR’s “Chapter a Day” Reads Just Mercy

Starting Monday October 19th – Friday November 6th, Lydia Woodland of Wisconsin Public Radio, is reading a chapter of Just Mercy each day as part of the “Chapter a Day” program.  According to the WPR’s website, “Chapter a Day” is WPR’s longest running program. It debuted in 1927. Hosts of the program read a chapter of a book each day. They read entire books in half hour segments.

Listen to “Chapter a Day” by clicking here.

Just Mercy in the Community

Monday October 12th, 200+ people attended “And Justice for All: A Community Panel Discussion” hosted by Middleton Public Library. The audience was made up of community members, including many staff from the Middleton Cross Plains Area School District. The discussion panel was made up of six members: Dan Mahoney (Dane County Sheriff), Dr. Ruben Anthony (Urban League of Greater Madison CEO), Josann Reynolds (Dane County Judge), Percy Brown (Director of Equity, Middleton Cross Plains Area School District), Chuck Foulke (Middleton Police Chief), and a Middleton High School Student Voice Union member.

Community members attending Just Mercy discussion Panel

Community members attending Just Mercy discussion panel

The panel discussion began by reading the passage in Just Mercy where Stevenson talks about his unprovoked encounter with the police outside his apartment in Atlanta (pages 39-42). The panel discussed how Stevenson’s experience relates to the Middleton area and Dane County.

The discussion also focused on kids in the community and how themes in the book may effect them.  Many shared and agreed that the first step is building stronger relationships with the police, within the community, and with your neighbors.

To find out about upcoming Just Mercy discussions, visit our events page here.


Business Students Create Just Mercy Themed Art at Wheelhouse Studios


Today and tomorrow a business class will be meeting in Wheelhouse Studios to create art-based learning projects focused on the book Just Mercy. Wheelhouse Studios is an open art studio located in Memorial Union. Its website describes the art studio as “three versatile workspaces, flexible studio designs, drop-in art opportunities, and classes for enthusiasts and dabblers alike, it’s easy to sign up and get involved.”

Four sections of a 120 student class will go to Wheelhouse Studios to create screen printed posters that they co-designed in small groups around themes of leadership, mental health, and humility from Just Mercy. Each student will get a copy of their poster and a set of the student created posters will be on display to the public at Grainger Hall sometime in upcoming weeks. Two examples of the student posters can be seen on the right side of this post.

Crime&PunishmentPosterWhile at Wheelhouse Studios students will also construct handmade, saddle-stitched notebooks and journals that will be donated to Wisconsin Books for Prisoners and the LGBT Books to Prisoners Project.

For more information about Wheelhouse Studios click here.

For more information about Wisconsin Books for Prisoners click here.

For more information about LGBT Books to Prisoners Project click here.

Harvard Debate Team Loses to Inmates: The Success of the Bard Prison Initiative

The Harvard University debate team, one of the most highly ranked debate teams in the world, was recently beaten by the Eastern New York Correctional debate team. According to an article from BBC News, the inmates’ debate team challenged Harvard’s team in September of 2015 to debate at the maximum security prison.

The Eastern New York Correctional Facility is one of the prisons in New York that the Bard College Prison Initiative operates in and offers courses at, and inmates taking courses from Bard formed a debate team. Since forming in 2013, the Eastern New York Correctional debate team has beaten other formidable debate teams, such as the University of Vermont and the US Military Academy at West Point’s teams. According to the BBC News article, the inmates and the US Military Academy at West Point’s teams “have established an annual match and a budding rivalry.”

Beating Harvard’s debate team, however, speaks to the determination, hard work, and rhetorical skills of the Eastern New York Correctional debate team, as Harvard’s team has won both the national and world debate championships in the past.

The Harvard debate team took the loss well, posting on their Facebook page that “there are few teams we are prouder of having lost a debate to than the phenomenally intelligent and articulate team we faced this weekend…and we are incredibly thankful to Bard and the Eastern New York Correctional Facility for the work they do and for organizing this event.”

As Bryan Stevenson says in Just Mercy, “The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.” The Eastern New York Correctional debate team’s victory over Harvard demonstrates the success of the Bard Prison Initiative and providing opportunities for inmates to pursue educational goals while in prison.

To read the BBC News article about the Eastern New York Correctional debate team’s success, click here.

Madison Public Library Book Discussions of Just Mercy

Several branches of the Madison Public Library are hosting book discussions of Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy in the next few months. Stevenson’s book has received much publicity and acclaim since its publication, and it has sparked discussions about social justice and activism at UW-Madison and in the wider Madison community.

Copies of the book are available in hardcover, as a book on CD, and electronically via Overdrive as an ebook or as an mp3 audiobook (which you can access from your iPad, iPhone, iPod, Android phone, tablet, etc.) via the Overdrive app.

If you are interested in attending one of these discussions, the schedule is as follows:

  • Wednesday, October 14th, at 7:00 pm at the Sequoya Library branch
  • Saturday, October 17th, at 1:30 pm at the Goodman South Madison Library branch
  • Wednesday, October 21, at 7:00 pm at the Central Library branch
  • Thursday, November 5, at 6:30 pm at the Lakeview Library branch
  • Thursday, November 12, at 12:00 pm at the Lakeview Library branch
  • Tuesday, November 24, at 7:00 pm at the Pinney Library branch
  • Wednesday, December 2, at 6:30 pm at the Meadowbridge Library branch
  • Wednesday, January 20, at 7:00 pm at the Alicia Ashman Library branch

To visit the Madison Public Library’s web page about these discussions and other events, click here.

To read the list of suggested discussion questions from MPL and Go Big Read, click here.



A New Politics of Human Rights

On November 5th-7th, at the Pyle Center, UW Madison is hosting a conference about human rights. Sponsors of the event include the UW-Madison Human Rights Program, UW Madison Go Big Read Program, Global Legal Studies Center, LACIS, UW Law School, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, and the Center for South Asia. According the the event’s website, the conference, A New Politics of Human Rights: Crossing Disciplines, Regions, and Issues, was planned with the questions listed below in mind.

  • What concepts may usefully undergird an ever-growing and more heterogeneous field of study and practice in a twenty-first century world?
  • If human rights comes to stand for “everything” (every right is fundamental and rooted in the human), does it come to stand for nothing and undermine its premise? Put differently, if human rights becomes a standard language of law and accountability policy, and a standard language of moral claim and political mobilization, does it lose its counter-hegemonic potential?

The conference is free and open to the UW Madison community, community members, and anyone interested in human rights. The conference coordinators ask that attendees register by October 23rd. Walk-ins are also welcome. To register click here.

For more information about the event, including a draft of the conference schedule, click here.

For more information about the Human Rights Program at UW Madison click here.

Innocent Man Released From Prison After 20 Years, Thanks to EJI

A recent article from the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) discusses yesterday’s release of Beniah Dandridge, the fourth man to be released from prison in Alabama in 2015 after being wrongly condemned. EJI took on Dandridge’s case in November of 2014, after Dandridge had been in prison since 1995 for a murder that he did not commit.


Beniah Dandridge with his legal team on the day of his release from prison, October 1st, 2015. Photo from

The only evidence presented against Dandridge was a set of bloody fingerprints at the crime scene – that the Alabama Bureau of Investigation (ABI) claimed matched Dandridge’s fingerprints – and the falsified testimony of a jailhouse informant, who later said that he gave a falsified testimony in exchange for a reduced sentence. Dandridge testified that he was innocent and presented evidence that he was not present at the scene of the crime when it was committed, but he was convicted of intentional murder nonetheless. Dandridge was sentenced to life in prison and had been denied for parole twice by the time that EJI picked up his case.

Independent forensic examiners were able to prove Dandridge’s innocence by exposing the faulty methods ABI had used to compare the fingerprints and, instead, matched them to the murder victim’s son. As a result of this evidence and EJI’s involvement in the case, the judge demanded that Dandridge be released from prison, and Dandridge left prison yesterday afternoon as a free man.

To read the article by EJI, click here.

To read about the release of Montez Spradley, click here.

To read about the release of William Ziegler, click here.

To read about the release of Anthony Ray Hinton, click here.