Just Mercy: A Dickinson Common Reading Discussion

On Monday, January 22, 2018, Dickinson College hosted our inaugural Spring into the Semester Common Reading Program. Almost 50 faculty, staff, students and alumni met in the Waidner-Spahr Library to discuss Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson.

Proposed by Jessica Howard (Waidner-Spahr Library) and me, the common reading program is designed to provide shared intellectual experiences, build community, and encourage dialogue and discussion on a timely issue. It is an opportunity for the Dickinson community to come together at the beginning of the spring semester, when there are few broad community-centered programs already scheduled. It also allows students who were abroad in the fall semester to connect with the broader community as part of their reintegration into campus life.

Just Mercy was selected after a nomination process during Fall 2017 that asked members of the Dickinson community to nominate books for consideration that met the following criteria: books that are well written, accessible, and on a timely topic; likely to catalyze interesting discussion; and relevant in some way to students’ lives, education, and experiences. There were 18 nominations made by students, faculty, and staff. A committee representing Student Senate, Academic Affairs, Student Life, and the Waidner-Spahr Library made the final selection.

Bryan Stevenson was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need: the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system. One of his first cases was that of Walter McMillian, a young man who was sentenced to die for a notorious murder he insisted he didn’t commit. The case drew Bryan into a tangle of conspiracy, political machinations, and legal brinksmanship—and transformed his understanding of mercy and justice forever.

Just Mercy is at once an unforgettable account of an idealistic, gifted young lawyer’s coming of age, a moving window into the lives of those he has defended, and an inspiring argument for compassion in the pursuit of justice. —Description from BryanStevenson.com/the-book/

Discussion attendees were divided into three smaller groups, facilitated by Prof. Heather Bedi (Environmental Studies), Prof. Linda Brindeau (French and Francophone Studies), and Prof. Katie Oliverio (Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies) to enable more dialogue and exchange. One attendee shared that she chose to attend the discussion because the book was “too liberal” for her local book club. Other observations about the book included:

  • We often hear about criminal justice statistics, but not about the impact of the prison-industrial complex on the lives of incarcerated people and their communities.
  • It demonstrates the interconnections of race and poverty and the ways in which that affects mass incarceration.
  • It makes visible how prisons operate and what it’s like inside a prison.
  • The book is not only about people on death row who are innocent of the crimes of which they are accused. It makes us ask whether we should have a punitive approach to wrongdoing rather than a rehabilitative approach.
  • Certain people are deemed human, and everyone else (especially people of color) are just Other.
  • This flawed criminal justice system continues because people benefit from it financially.
  • Minimal funding for defense lawyers for indigent defendants results in terrible injustices.
  • It’s not just about do your prison term and then you’re done. There are ongoing consequences in terms of the loss of certain rights and flawed probation systems. Most prisons have few services or rehabilitation programs that would prepare someone for when they get out of prison. This contributes to high recidivism rates.

A post-event survey asked participants to reflect on the most valuable/interesting aspects of the discussion. Comments included:

“The most interesting aspect of the discussion was getting to hear from different people that ranged in race/ethnicity, age, gender, and life experiences in general. I rarely get to have a conversation with this a wide of range of people, let alone a discussion about a book or a controversial topic.”

“I very much enjoyed and benefited from our discussion. It allowed us to share stories from the book and relate them to issues of race, justice, and current events.”

“Just getting together and having space to reflect on the book, which brought up so many emotions and ideas. So it was wonderful to process among a diverse group of students, faculty, staff, alums, and community members.”

Survey respondents exhibited strong interest in continuing to have these kinds of discussion opportunities. This program is sponsored by the Dickinson College Division of Academic Affairs, Division of Student Life, and the Waidner-Spahr Library.

Written by Donna M. Bickford, Ph.D., Director, Women’s and Gender Resource Center
January 26, 2018