“We seem to be very comfortable,” author Bryan Stevenson has said. “The politics of fear and anger have led us to believe that there are problems, but they’re not our problems. We’ve been disconnected.”
While these words hold truth in a myriad of areas, what Stevenson was speaking of in his 2012 TED talk — and what he continues to speak about now — is the American justice system. The failures of that system, many of which Stevenson has seen first-hand, became the basis of his memoir Just Mercy, which is this year’s title for UC Berkeley’s On the Same Page program.
The idea behind On the Same Page is simple: if you give every incoming student at UC Berkeley a copy of the same book, you’re also giving them each something in common. With a school as large and diverse as Berkeley, establishing common ground with classmates can be challenging. On the Same Page tries to ease the process for incoming students — but the fact that this year’s title is both challenging and timely is no accident.
“We want the students to be excited and engaged with UC Berkeley from beginning,” says Alix Schwartz, director of undergraduate academic planning. Schwartz has been an integral part of On the Same Page since its 2007 inception. The first book was Steven Hawking’s A Briefer History of Time.
The program is not only designed to create common ground, but also to stimulate incoming students intellectually. Past works include Hawking, The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, Freedom’s Orator by Robert Cohen and Beyond the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo. Stevenson’s book, a more thorough investigation of his TED talk “We need to talk about injustice,” seems certain to deliver.
The result of a rigorous selection process — one that includes both faculty and student input — Just Mercy is a topical selection. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and more than 2 million Americans are in prison, with an additional 7 million on parole. Following a summer of turmoil and tragedy, Stevenson’s work speaks to many important issues about policing and incarceration in America.
“For too long, honest conversations about race in America have been confined to niches and kept far outside the realm of polite conversation,” says undergrad Adora Svitak in an email. Svitak has been part of the On the Same Page selection team for the last two years. “Just Mercy is valuable because it liberates a complex, often deeply politicized subject from these niches. It illustrates racially biased criminal justice as a human story. This is especially powerful in a time when ‘say their names’ — the demand for the simple recognition of the humanity of individual men, women, and children whose lives were lost at the hands of police — is a battle cry.”
Just Mercy has garnered acclaim and praise since its release in 2014 — winning the 2015 Dayton Literary Peace Prize for nonfiction and the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction, and earning a place among Time magazine’s “10 Best Nonfiction Books” of 2015.
Not only has Stevenson been praised for his writing, he is also a graduate of Harvard Law and a member of President Obama’s task force on 21st century policing. Prior to his work with the White House, Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative, received a MacArthur “genius” grant and was dubbed by Nobel Peace Laureate Desmond Tutu as “America’s young Nelson Mandela.”
Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative would eventually win landmark cases like the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision that declared mandatory life-sentence penalties for children 17 or younger unconstitutional. The memoir, however, largely focuses on Stevenson’s early career, particularly his experiences with Walter McMillian, a black man who was on death row for six years in Alabama following a one-day trial before eventually being exonerated.
East Asian studies professor Alan Tansman, also a member of the selection committee, said of Just Mercy, “[It] grips you like the best of novels, bringing you into the lives of the most desperate of people caught in systems of imperfect justice. Stevenson makes us despair that just mercy is beyond our reach, but fills us with glimmers of hope that it is also always within our grasp.”
On the Same Page also offers a number of ways for students to engage with Stevenson, including a Sept. 7 keynote speech and three panel discussions in September.
Additionally, a number of freshman seminar courses are incorporating themes from Just Mercy, such as Ethnic Studies 24: Just Mercy: Within the History of De-Colonial Imagining, Molecular and Cell Biology 90B: Biologists Reading Just Mercy, and L&S 10, which is a one-unit course available to students who attend Stevenson’s speaking engagements and participate in discussions.
Additional information about speaking engagements, course listings and the archive of previous On the Same Page projects are available here.