On Mar. 29, critically-acclaimed author and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) Bryan Stevenson will be the keynote speaker of Pomona’s three-day Criminal Justice Symposium. Other events in the symposium include a screening of The Cooler Bandits (a documentary following four friends as they leave prison after 20 years within it), a discussion with its filmmaker, and a panel with Claremont Colleges alumni and a Community Activist Networking event.
Stevenson has dedicated much of his life to increasing equality in the American justice system, especially for minorities, children, and the poor. Stevenson was named one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People list in 2015 and has been the recipient of the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant, as well as the NAACP Image Award for Best Nonfiction. His organization, the EJI, is a nonprofit that defends marginalized groups in court.
The EJI also advocates for the end of capital punishment and has saved 115 men from the death penalty so far. Stevenson himself has argued in the Supreme Court, successfully ending the practice of sending minors to adult prisons to complete their sentences of life without parole. His book, Just Mercy, asks Americans to confront the reality of systemic racism and inequality in the prison system.
“Our students, including those involved in Black Lives Matter and other groups, and faculty have been working to address these issues and bring them forward,” wrote Pomona College President David Oxtoby in an email to TSL. “And now, the problems with our justice mechanisms and prisons have finally started to attract the attention of the country. I expect [Stevenson’s] talk, as well as the many other speaking and presenting, will be timely, relevant and critical,” he said.
Oxtoby also wrote that he hopes the talk will allow students to “reflect on their connection to those incarcerated at the nearby California Institutions for Men and for Women in Chino—and institutions across the country—as we all share a responsibility for their well-being.
“I hope this symposium will encourage students to look at issues from different viewpoints and also strengthen their sense of what ties us to others, to their struggles and their realities,” he told TSL.
Ki’Amber Thompson PO '18, co-founder of the 5C Prison Abolition Club, wrote in an email to TSL that Stevenson “is an important voice to have [on] Pomona's campus because the work that he has been doing with his Equal Justice Initiative for race, mass incarceration, poverty, and children in prison is work that is necessary, and he could inspire students at the Claremont Colleges to want to do the kind of work he's doing.”
The 5C Prison Abolition Club’s mission aligns well with Stevenson’s call to restructure the American justice system. According to Thompson, the club aims to “create critical dialogue about the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) and prison abolition in order to deconstruct the conventional idea that imprisonment is the solution to social, economic, and political problems” and “generate a movement on the Claremont Colleges and beyond to directly engage with communities affected by the PIC and to work toward building proactive solutions alternative to imprisonment.”
Stevenson’s talk is generating interest outside of the 5Cs as well.
“We have received many inquiries from community and regional organizations who are interested in attending Mr. Stevenson’s presentation,” Karen Fagan, the director of public programming and college events at Pomona, wrote in an email to TSL. “For example, the Pomona Valley Branch of the NAACP as well as several local prison abolition and advocacy groups have all reserved blocks of tickets for their members.”
Oxtoby encourages students not just to attend Stevenson’s talk, but the other events of the Symposium as well.
“I also urge students to participate in the Community Activist Engagement Activity,” he wrote. “I think this will be one of the highlights of the three days because informed dialogue can be followed by direct action. The Hive will lead a planned activity in which representatives from community organizations will actively engage with students, staff, faculty and each other in identifying key challenges and possible ways to address those challenges through partnerships.”
The Community Activist Engagement Activity will be held from 6-8 p.m. in the Sontag Center for Collaborative Creativity. Registration is required for the first half of the event.