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 www.ted.com. 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.
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.