College-Wide Reading selection promotes discussion about injustice of mass incarceration

By Linda Pang

reading

Mass incarceration, the lives of prisoners, and criminal justice reform. These are some of the topics that will be covered during this year’s College-Wide Reading Program, featuring Bryan Stevenson’s memoir “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.”

The book shares Stevenson’s experiences during the case of Walter McMillian, weaving personal narratives of other people he met during his 30 years of legal work to help prisoners in a system he says is broken. McMillian was on death row for six years for a murder he didn’t commit. His story is set in Monroeville, Ala., the community which inspired Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“Just Mercy,” a New York Times Best Seller, was the winner of the Carnegie Medal for best nonfiction, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and the Cohen Prize for Best Nonfiction; it has appeared on numerous college lists as the required “common reading” selection for incoming freshmen.

During the 2017-18 academic year, College-Wide Reading participants will have the opportunity to attend special events, such as panel discussions, field trips, and film screenings.

The program, open to all students, faculty, and staff, was founded in 2006 as the “One-Book One-College” program. According to its webpage, the program evolved into an initiative supported by the Institutional Diversity Committee (IDC), with the intention to “provide a common reading that encourages thought, discussion, and collaboration at DCCC.” Annually, the IDC selects a book from nominations submitted by the college community that fit the upcoming year’s theme.

JoseFrancisco Mazenett, associate professor of French, Spanish, and humanities, said the book aligns with the college’s learning goals, but the program needs additional support to get students more involved.

“Reading is extremely important to the development of all of our students, regardless of what profession they are going into,” he explained.

Reading professor Valerie Schantz has been using titles from the past eight years with her classes. “They’re not necessarily something they would choose to read, but through our activities and discussions and the college’s support of the text, they found [reading] them to be a positive experience,” she said.

Premisa Kerthi, 24, a liberal arts major from Albania and this year’s Multicultural Club president, learned about the program when she first read Rigoberto González’ memoir “Butterfly Boy,” and subsequently won first place in the program’s student writing contest with her poem “A Mysterious Life.” Kerthi said González spoke with her as if they were old friends at the author luncheon, even getting misty-eyed as he described moments that led to his memoir.

“The sentence I will never forget from him is, ‘Never be afraid to try new things. Just do it,’” said a smiling Kerthi, adding that she is enjoying the characters in “Just Mercy” because Stevenson’s themes of discrimination, immigration, and social work speak to her on a personal level.

Stevenson, a professor of clinical law at NYU School of Law, has won numerous awards, such as the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Prize, and holds 26 honorary degrees from academic institutions across the United States, including the University of Pennsylvania. He also founded the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), which focuses on ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States.

Paul Pat, associate professor of English, said that Stevenson is one of the most important voices in promoting justice. “His book is incredibly timely and my students have been engaged with the many social issues presented in the text,” he explained.

Reference and instruction librarian Eleanor Goldberg added that Stevenson’s stories “put a persona behind the problems,” instead of statistics and demographics. Goldberg served as co-chair of the program with librarian Erica Swenson Danowitz in late 2014, and sole chair from 2015-2017.

Elizabeth Gray, associate professor of English, and new program chair, said that she has read the book a few times already and wishes that the program could get copies into every student’s hands, along with guaranteed author talks.

“One of its strengths is that Stevenson takes on these really big concepts like justice, racial relations, poverty, and economic disadvantages, etcetera, but he does it in a really artful way,” Gray said. “Far-reaching societal issues are viewed through a very personal lens.”

To provide background on complex topics, the DCCC library has provided thematic resources, including interviews with Stevenson and supplemental materials on racism, mass incarceration, and Walter McMillan’s exoneration. Stevenson’s website also includes a Common Core approved teacher’s discussion guide.

English professor Fernando Benavidez is using “Just Mercy” in his composition courses. As an introduction, Benavidez had students respond to two key quotes from Stevenson: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done…” and “The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.”

Benavidez said people tend to regard death row prisoners as only criminals and not as human beings. “I think this book really challenges us and my class, in a good way, to rethink our views of the criminal justice system and the criminals themselves,” he added.

This year’s events have included a Legal Aid panel discussion, “Mercy, Justice, and Redemption: the Local Reality of Stevenson’s work,” on Sept. 28 in the STEM auditorium, moderated by Keeley Mitchell, director of paralegal studies at DCCC.

The event included local experts on criminal defense, parole, re-entry, post-conviction employment, and education behind the walls of correction facilities. Panelists shared their viewpoints on mental health issues, barriers to jobs, and the school-to-prison pipeline.

“Justice and equality are our goal, but they’re nowhere close to reality,” said panelist Guy Smith, Esq., a criminal defense attorney for the past 50 years.

Alyssa Tino, 22, a liberal arts student and secretary of Phi Theta Kappa honor society, attended the panel with her copy of the book in hand. She said she heard about the program through Campus Life and was able to get one of the free books handed out at the beginning of the semester. Tino said she enjoyed hearing the diverse panel discuss the same issues.

“I feel like the system shouldn’t be so black and white—that if you are this age and have that past record, that it constitutes what you’re going to do with the rest of your life,” Tino added.

On Sept. 29, Benavidez, Gray, and history professor Jeff LaMonica, led 15 students on a school field trip to Eastern State Penitentiary to view the award-winning exhibit “Prisons Today: Mass Incarceration in America.” The trip was sponsored by the College-Wide Reading Program, in partnership with Campus Life.

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“I think they got a lot out of it. Just seeing the actual conditions…they didn’t fix it up…rusted bars, broken chairs, cots with no cushions on them, trees growing into the cells,” Benavidez said, adding that students asked their guide complex questions about the architecture and treatment of the prisoners.

Upcoming College-Wide Reading events for “Just Mercy” include a viewing of “Vocabulary of Change: Angela Davis and Tim Wise in Conversation” on Nov. 9 at Marple’s Large Auditorium, followed by a discussion on today’s societal problems, such as institutional racism. Adriana Leela Bohm, associate professor of sociology and co-chair of the IDC, will moderate the event.

English professor David Robson will moderate the Nov. 30 screening of excerpts from the 1915 version of “Birth of a Nation,” guiding discussion about where misconceptions about African Americans and justice started.

“By taking a book and reading it in different classes, students can make connections to themselves, to the text, and to the world,” said Bohm, expressing her excitement for this year’s selection. She echoes Gray’s wishes for the program to have enough funds to give each student a free copy. “It’s important for them to see how inter-connected the world is.”

Contact Linda Pang at communitarian@mail.dccc.edu