Saturday, April 8, 2017 – On a beautiful spring afternoon, hundreds of Rhode Islanders poured into McVinney Auditorium in Providence for the 15th annual Reading Across Rhode Island program with Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. Honorary Co-Chair Judge Judith Colenback Savage opened the event commenting that this program touches our communities in deeply personal ways – forcing us to ask uncomfortable questions about our justice system: “Taking Just Mercy and the criminal justice conversation about injustice in criminal justice out to our schools and communities as part of Reading Across Rhode Island has been so meaningful for me. I will never forget the student who held up this book, Just Mercy, and asked why don’t our parents know anything about any of this? Or the student who visited the prison with her class, was scared to talk with an inmate, and learned much to her surprise that he was human. Or the the student who asked, why do those who condemn violence find it acceptable to punish with violence?” Judge Savage thanked the Rhode Island Center for the Book and the Humanities Council for “putting this book in lights.”
After a rousing introduction from Reading Across Rhode Island Honorary Co-Chair Judge Edward C. Clifton, the audience welcomed Stevenson to the stage with a standing ovation. Mr. Stevenson spoke in a humbling, personal manner about the power of becoming proximate and the need to walk in each other’s shoes so that we can see each other as fully human. He noted that the process often causes discomfort because we must let go of familiar preconceptions and step back from systems which often dehumanize participants. By getting to know each other and listening to a person’s whole story, we are able to begin changing the narrative of American slavery and its long legacy. This is a process that takes time and suffers occasional setbacks and even failures, but Stevenson left the audience with a sense of hope offering an inspired call to action for each of the hundreds of individuals in the auditorium: step outside your comfort zones, be willing to have difficult, civil conversations and listen deeply to make positive changes in your own communities.
This record breaking Reading Across Rhode Island event is not the end of the conversation, but rather a celebration of the momentum of this civil dialogue around issues of justice and equity and a call to continue the work together. If you want to get involved, check out our calendar for information about upcoming EnRICHment events and book club discussions continuing across the state and seek out our #Proximity Partners to get involved with this movement.
We gratefully acknowledge the partnership of the National Endowment for the Humanities and our generous sponsors: Barrington Books, Barton Gilman, LLP, Roger Williams University, Roger Williams University School of Law, School Librarians of Rhode Island, Savoy Bookshop & Cafe, The Justinian Law Society, Rhode Island Library Association, Office of Library & Information Services, Grimshaw-Gudewicz Charitable Foundation, Washington Trust Wealth Management, AAA Northeast, the RI State Legislative Grant, and The Institute for the Study & Practice of Nonviolence. This program would not have been possible without the dedicated support of the Reading Across Rhode Island Committee and the countless volunteers who help ensure access to books and programs that spark civic dialogue and engage readers across the state.
Photos by: Amy Barrett