Bryan Stevenson is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative and one of the most acclaimed and respected lawyers in the nation. His memoir, Just Mercy, is the story of a young lawyer fighting on the frontlines of a country in thrall to extreme punishments and careless justice. It is an inspiring story of unbreakable humanity in the most desperate circumstances, and a powerful indictment of our broken justice system and the twisted values that allow it to continue.
Nobel Peace Laureate Desmond Tutu has called Stevenson “America’s young Nelson Mandela.” His work on individual cases has generated national attention and his efforts have reversed death penalties for dozens of condemned prisoners. Stevenson’s remarkable twenty-minute TED Talk on the subject of injustice has been viewed over 2.35 million times on the TED website and another 299k times on YouTube; The New Yorker named it one of five essential TED Talks.
After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1985, Stevenson moved to the South, a region on the verge of a crisis: the states were speeding up executions, but many of the condemned lacked anyone to represent them. On a shoestring budget he started the Equal Justice Initiative, a law practice dedicated to defending some of America’s most rejected and marginalized people. The cases he took on would change Stevenson’s life and transform his understanding of justice and mercy forever.
Stevenson is the recipient of numerous awards, including the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant and the NAACP Image Award for Best Non-Fiction, and was named one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People for 2015. Stevenson is a tenured law professor at New York University School of Law.
Sponsored by StratéGenius
John Palmer is the chair of the department of educational studies at Colgate University and the author of The Dance of Identities: Korean Adult Adoptees Reflect Upon Their Identity Journeys. His specialties include racial and ethnic identity development and social and cultural foundations of education.
The Dance of Identities is an honest look at the complex nature of race and how we can begin to address race and racism from a fresh perspective. It will be well received by not only members of the Korean adoption community and transracial parents, but also Asian American scholars, educators, and social workers.
Rinku Sen is the President and Executive Director of Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation and the Publisher of the award-winning news site Colorlines. Race Forward brings systemic analysis and an innovative approach to complex race issues to help people take effective action toward racial equity through research, media, and practice.
Under Sen’s leadership, Race Forward has generated some of the most impactful racial justice successes. One example is the groundbreaking Shattered Families report, which changed the immigration debate with investigative research on how record deportations of parents were leading to the placement of thousands of children in foster care, often separating them permanently and legally from their families. Sen was the architect of Drop the I-Word, a campaign for media outlets to stop referring to immigrants as “illegal,” resulting in the Associated Press, USA Today, LA Times, and many more outlets dropping the i-word, affecting millions of readers every day.
A visionary and a pragmatist, Sen is one of the leading voices in the racial justice movement, building upon the legacy of civil rights by transforming the way we talk about race, from something that is individual, intentional, and overt to something that is systemic, unconscious, and hidden. Sen’s cutting edge book Stir it Up, read widely by community organizers and taught on campuses across the country, theorized a model of community organizing that integrates a political analysis of race, gender, class, poverty, sexuality, and other issues.
Sen’s second book The Accidental American: Immigration and Citizenship in the Age of Globalization told the story of Moroccan immigrant Fekkak Mamdouh, who co-founded the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York in the aftermath of September 11.
Sen received a B.A. in Women's Studies from Brown University and an M.S. in Journalism at Columbia University. A native of India, Rinku grew up in northeastern factory towns, and learned to speak English in a two-room schoolhouse.
Sponsored by Educator's Ally
David J. Johns is the executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans. The Initiative works across federal agencies and with partners and communities nationwide to produce a more effective continuum of education programs for African American students. Prior to joining the Department, Johns was a senior education policy advisor to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) under the leadership of Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. Before working for the Senate HELP committee under Chairman Harkin, Johns served under the leadership of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. Johns also was a Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Fellow in the office of Congressman Charles Rangel, D-N.Y. Johns has worked on issues affecting low-income and minority students, neglected youth and early childhood education and with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). His research as an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow served as a catalyst to identify, disrupt and supplant negative perceptions of black males within academia and society. Johns is committed to volunteer services and maintains an active commitment to improve literacy among adolescent minority males. Johns obtained a master’s degree in sociology and education policy at Teachers College, Columbia University, where he graduated summa cum laude while simultaneously teaching elementary school in New York City. He graduated with honors from Columbia University in 2004 with a triple major in English, creative writing and African American studies. Johns was named to the Root100 in both 2014 and 2013, selected as a member of the Ebony Power 100 in 2015 and received an early career award from Columbia University, Teachers College in 2016.
Richard Blanco is the fifth inaugural poet in US history—the youngest, first Latino, immigrant, and gay person to serve in such a role. Born in Madrid to Cuban-exiled parents and raised in Miami, the negotiation of cultural identity and place characterize his body of work. He is the author of three poetry collections: Looking for the Gulf Motel, Directions to the Beach of the Dead, and City of a Hundred Fires; and two memoirs: The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood and For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet’s Journey. The University of Pittsburgh Press has published the commemorative chapbooks One Today, Boston Strong, and Matters of the Sea, the last of which Blanco read at the historic reopening of the US Embassy in Havana. In 2015, the inaugural poem One Today was released as a children’s book, in collaboration with the renowned illustrator, Dav Pilkey.
Blanco’s many awards include the Agnes Starrett Poetry Prize from the University of Pittsburgh Press, the Beyond Margins Award from the PEN American Center, the Paterson Poetry Prize, the Thom Gunn Award, a Lambda Literary Award, and two Maine Literary Awards. He is a Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow, a Phi Beta Kappa Alumnus Member, and has received honorary doctorates from Macalester College, Colby College, and the University of Rhode Island. In 2015, The Academy of American Poets named him its first Education Ambassador. He has taught at Central Connecticut State University, Georgetown University, American University, and Wesleyan University. A builder of cities as well as poems, Blanco holds a B.S. in Civil Engineering and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing. He shares his time between Bethel, Maine and Concord, Massachusetts.
Whether speaking as the Cuban Blanco or the American Richard, the homebody or the world traveler, the scared boy or the openly gay man, the engineer or the inaugural poet, Blanco’s writings possess a story-rich quality that easily illuminates the human spirit. His captivating images and accessible narratives invite readers and audiences to see themselves in his poems, which for him are like mirrors in front of which we stand side by side with him—each one of us gazing into our respective lives blurred together with his, connecting us all across social, political, and cultural gaps. For in the end, his work asks himself those universal questions we all ask ourselves on our own journeys: Where am I from? Where do I belong? Who am I in this world?
Sponsored by Gene Batiste Consulting.
Zak Ebrahim was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on March 24, 1983, the son of an Egyptian industrial engineer and an American school teacher. When Ebrahim was seven, his father shot and killed the founder of the Jewish Defense League, Rabbi Meir Kahane. From behind bars his father, El-Sayyid Nosair, co-masterminded the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. Ebrahim spent the rest of his childhood moving from city to city, hiding his identity from those who knew of his father. He now dedicates his life to speaking out against terrorism and spreading his message of peace and nonviolence.
In 2013, he participated in TED's talent search in New York City, and was selected to speak at the main conference, TED2014, in Vancouver, BC. His TED talk was released on Sept 9, 2014, in conjunction with his TED Book, The Terrorist's Son: A Story of Choice.
Cristina Henríquez is the author of Come Together, Fall Apart, a collection of stories; The World in Half; and most recently The Book of Unknown Americans — one of the New York Times’ Notable Books of 2014.
The hardships and legal battles of immigration are in the headlines every day, yet the nitty-gritty, humor, and heart behind them have rarely been brought to the page. In writing The Book of Unknown Americans Cristina Henríquez was inspired her father’s Panamà-to-U.S. immigration story and other experiences of real people in Delaware, where she grew up. The novel, which has been called, “a flawlessly written book about immigration,” brings to life the varied human stories behind the ongoing debate about immigration through the eyes of characters from all over Latin America.
Cristina Henríquez grew up half-American, half-Panamanian, and she draws on this experience to speak about identity and address common narratives about immigration.
Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere, and she has been a guest on National Public Radio. She earned her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and currently teaches at Northwestern University.
Brittany Packnett, a St. Louis native and proud graduate of John Burroughs School, was raised in a tradition of social justice. Today she is a national leader on educational equity, youth leadership development, service, and equity in marginalized communities. A former elementary school teacher and Capitol Hill staffer, she serves as Teach For America’s vice president of national community alliances.
Packnett has committed her life and career to justice. In Ferguson, Missouri, and beyond, she is an active protestor, activist, and organizer. She serves as a stalwart community voice to the Ferguson Commission and President Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing. She continues to advocate for urgent systemic change at critical decision-making tables and through national and international media.
A sought-after speaker, she has addressed crowds from Detroit to New Zealand. She has been named one of Time magazine’s 12 New Faces of Black Leadership and featured in The Root and The Ebony 100. She also shares the 2015 Peter Jennings Award for Civic Leadership and the No. 3 spot on Politico’s 2016 50 Most Influential list with DeRay Mckesson.
Packnett believes that the arc of the universe does indeed bend toward justice — but that it is our job to bend it.