I used to commute to work when we lived in D.C. Whether it was riding the metro or driving in the “slugline” (a carpool-type way to get into the city), I would sometimes look around at all those around me and wonder about their stories. They all had them, of course. I wondered about their extended families. I wondered how they grew up and what made them happy. I wondered about what they were worried about whether the thoughts they were thinking on those commutes were likely to overlap with some of mine or whether we were worlds apart.

I think it’s fascinating what different worlds we all come from, and beautiful what we can learn from each other’s stories. As Dave always tells our kids, we can learn something from every single person we come across. And he challenges them to seek that learning.

I love good books to get you into someone else’s story, and this one called Just Mercy does that pretty powerfully:

It is the memoir of Bryan Stevenson, a young lawyer who works to defend the poor and wrongly condemned in the criminal justice system. He takes us deep into many of their stories, and compassionately makes a pretty inspiring argument for the need for mercy. And the need for some serious criminal justice system reform.

I found a little summary online: “Between the 1970s and 2014, when Stevenson’s memoir was published, the U.S. prison population increased from 300,000 to 2,300,000 – the highest incarceration rate in the world. Of those incarcerated, 58 percent identify as Black or Hispanic. The War on Drugs and “Tough on Crime” policing policies disproportionately target juveniles, women, people of color, the poor, and individuals with mental health issues, all too often the victims of inflated sentences and wrongful convictions resulting in the death penalty. Stevenson animates these harrowing statistics with stories from his years as a criminal defense lawyer, personalizing the political through a powerful series of cases.” –(I found that quote over here with lots more summary of the book if you want to check it out.)

The stories were frustrating and insightful and beautiful and horrible all wrapped up together, and gave so much insight into a world I that is so important to be aware of.

Two stories that stuck out the most to me:

Stevenson tells a story about how one evening he hits a bump in the road while driving home from work which serendipitously causes his broken radio to start working. He sits outside his apartment enjoying the music in his car when police pull up and shine a light on him. He does such a good job explaining how he felt, an African American fully immersed in studying many cases of police brutality and racial profiling, frozen with trepidation as he tries to diffuse the situation with the police, trying to explain to them that all he was doing was listening to music.

I was moved by the story of the horribly racist correction officer who treated Stevenson with such distain when he came to speak with one of the prisoners about his upcoming trial. And how that officer changed dramatically after sitting through the trial where Stevenson explained the convict’s mental illness and frequent foster care He explained to Stevenson that he had been brought up in a similar way, making his way through multiple abusive foster care home situations. “I had it pretty rough. But listening to what you were saying [in the court] made me realize that there are people who had it as bad as I did. I guess maybe even worse” Stevenson replies empathetically, “Bad things that happen to us don’t define us, it’s just important sometimes that people understand where we’re coming from….you know, sometimes I forget how we all need mitigation at some point.”

I’m just so curious to be pulled into stories like that. To try to reach to understand what our justice system is up against. He talks about the poor and the mentally ill, how corrections officers aren’t trained to those with handle mental health issues (which makes up for more than half of those incarcerated). He talks about impoverished women, behaviorally disabled children who are put in jail, the abuse, how it is so difficult to “come back” after serving a prison sentence.

I don’t know what the answers are. I don’t think anyone does. But I’m so glad for things like this book to bring to light so many different things to help us work together for solutions. Awareness leads to compassion which leads to ideas which lead to action. I love Stevenson’s thoughts at the end: “I realized that I do all this to help the brokenness of others because I’m broken too.”

We all are, right? He encourages us at the end to use our own brokenness help us connect with each other and be more careful with those who are suffering. Mercy is a beautiful thing. Check out that book HERE.

Speaking of being pulled into the lives of others, Before We Were Yours is a good one too:

Whoa. Speaking of being taken on a journey into the lives of others, this one is based around a real-life scandal where poor children were kidnapped and sold to wealthy families. It is unfathomable to think of how many families were affected by this and to get an inside peek into all the complicated emotions, past and present, that are involved. So much more to say about this one but I’m out of time so check it out HERE.

There you go, your book reports from 71 toes for the week. 🙂

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  1. You should listen to Serial season 3 if you haven’t already. It discusses the court system after she observed a courtroom in Ohio for a year. It was really eye opening to me and helped me realize how fortunate I am.

  2. I had the honor of hearing Bryan Stevenson speak at a Teach For America event. Words escape me for what an incredible honor it was. Also, a plug for the audiobook version of Just Mercy- Bryan Stevenson reads it himself which makes it even more incredible.

  3. Before We Were Yours was a fantastic book. Heartbreaking and hard to read at times but so well written. I had no idea that any of this had happened before I read it. Worth the time!

  4. “I don’t know what the answers are. I don’t think anyone does.”
    You can vote! Vote locally for district attorneys and judges that are trying to change the system. I live in a city with a progressive DA and he is making a difference. Keep on top of your state and federal reps and senators about the criminal justice system.
    Also, speak up when people around you claim that anyone in jail or stopped or killed by the cops is guilty. If someone says that Stevenson shouldn’t have been sitting in his car listening to music, challenge them! Hold people accountable for their thoughts and actions.

    1. Good points, voting is a great start! And so is communication. It’s so important to start somewhere rather than just sit and wring our hands or turn a blind eye. I just added a couple lines there to clarify what I was thinking.

  5. I just finished reading Tending Roses by Lisa Wingate. I can’t wait to read this book and more by her. She is a great writer. Your book recommendations have been my very favorite. Thank you so much!!

  6. Oh my gosh, I was beyond disturbed and haunted by Before We Were Yours. It was one of those books where you try to tell yourself, “this is fiction,” but then you have to acknowledge that it is based on a true story that was just as horrifying as the book. I was so horrified that this woman wouldn’t have gotten away with what she did but for the cooperation of so many people around her. If only people around her with power and influence such as the judge and police officers who helped her had stood up for good instead of going along with evil. The only person in the book who stood up to her was someone who didn’t have the clout to do so, and she suffered greatly as a result. That was heartbreaking.

    1. Yes I agree with all these thoughts. It sure brings you into those situations in such a poignant way! So sad that so many children in our world have to go through such horrifying experiences. I loved that the author put us right in her shoes to bring it even more fully into the reader’s heart. I loved the different vantage points past and present as well to help with context.

  7. I loved Just Mercy too! I read it several years ago but it’s one I think of often. One of the lines that I loved was when he said we all need to be “stone catchers” rather than “stone throwers,” referencing the story in the Bible where Jesus said he who is free of sin should cast the first stone. It has reminded me not to judge others but to try and love and be supportive, and understanding. Did you know they are making it into a movie? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GVQbeG5yW78

  8. Lisa Wingate has co-written a non-fiction book that tells the true story of the some of the Georgia Tamm children. It is called Before and After. The authors were spoke on the NPR show On Point this week (October 22). I heard part of the show.

    American Public Media’s podcast In the Dark, Season 2 details the case of Curtis Flowers. Flowers has been prosecuted six times for the same crime. His case went before the US Supreme Court last year. This case provides another look at the Justice system.

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