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David’s Desk: Here’s What I’m Reading, Watching, and Listening to

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By David Stern, executive director of Equal Justice Works

Photo of Executive Director David Stern with Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson, and In the Sanctuary of Outcasts, by Neil White

I love my job. It suits me perfectly—building support for amazing law students and lawyers who want to devote themselves to public interest law. I am so passionate about it—even after 28 years—that it is difficult for me to turn it off.

I recognize, however, that to bring my best self to work, seeking out inspiration, education, and entertainment from outside sources can boost my creativity and my productivity. So, I’m sharing my short list of what I’m reading, watching, and listening to, and how they are keeping me inspired, informed, and engaged. If there’s a TV show, podcast, and/or article I should know about, be sure to send me a note—I want to hear about it!

 

Books

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

Bryan Stevenson, the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, exposes the blatant and entrenched racism in our justice system with his compelling memoir. While Bryan describes many moments in his journey, the through line is a story about one of his clients, Walter McMillian, a black man who was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of a young white woman in Monroeville, Alabama. I have known Bryan since I came to work at Equal Justice Works in 1992. I consider him to be a trailblazer—he has inspired hundreds of students to take low-paying difficult public interest jobs.

Bryan chose our Conference and Career Fair and Leadership Development Training as the kickoff for the “Just Mercy” book tour. What I love about the book is that I can hear Bryan’s voice in the pages as he finds his calling to do post-conviction capital defense work in Alabama. I cannot imagine a more difficult job and the impossible odds to challenge the racist criminal justice system in Alabama. While the recently released movie is good for public consumption, the book describes Bryan’s thinking and his evolution into the most remarkable civil rights lawyer of our day. Bryan and his work at Equal Justice Initiative serve as a source of ongoing inspiration to me. I visited the organization’s Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice during my sabbatical in 2018, and cannot recommend them more highly!

In the Sanctuary of Outcasts

Neil White’s, “In the Sanctuary of Outcasts,” describes his time at a minimum-security prison that housed the last leper colony in the country. Neil tells a story about personal transformation and the valuable lessons he learned from the patients and inmates at Carville National Leprosarium. Neil is a superb writer—you feel you are there with him and he has a knack for touching on the very things you are curious to know. He is both hysterically funny and authentic in describing his time in this unusual prison. My wife and I met Neil and his wife Debbie Bell (a professor at the University of Mississippi Law School) in Oxford, Mississippi during my sabbatical in 2018.

Podcasts

Hidden Brain

I am an avid podcast listener, especially while driving or walking my dog. One of the podcasts I enjoy is NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast hosted by Shankar Vedantam. Each episode sheds light on fascinating unconscious patterns that drive human behavior. Shankar is such an enthusiastic and excited host as he shares research that is often counter-intuitive. In January, there was a great episode describing how to keep New Year’s Resolutions. Essentially, research shows that stand-alone resolutions (e.g., more sleep, better fitness, weight loss, better work-life balance) don’t work no matter your determination. The most effective strategy is to build in routines (habits) that you do every day.

The podcast’s “You 2.0” series is also worthwhile because it focuses on how to improve the decisions you make. One of my favorite episodes, “You 2.0 Deep Work,” explores ways to immerse yourself in meaningful work and how to create a structured day that can better allow you to focus on your work without distractions.

In the Dark Season 2

Holy Smoke! This podcast blew me away! APM Reports’ “In the Dark” Season 2 podcast, hosted by Madeleine Baran, is an extraordinary piece of investigative journalism focused on the case against Curtis Flowers, a Mississippi man who spent 23 years behind bars, despite his six murder trials resulting in mistrials or convictions later vacated by higher courts. For those who liked “Serial,” produced by Sarah Koenig, this is definitely a podcast for you! With each episode, the reporters dissect the evidence and raise many questions about how the case was handled. My blood was boiling throughout many episodes. And while the injustices and misconduct in that case are outrageous, I could not help but think about the thousands of cases with similar injustices that have not received the attention this case received.  It is a powerful example of racial bias that pervades our criminal justice system. (And if you are interested in learning more about Batson, the Supreme Court decision prohibiting prosecutors from using race in their peremptory challenges, I recommend Object Anyway, a WNYC Studios produced podcast on the case and how difficult it is to win a Batson challenge.)

Film

Trial by Fire

“Trial by Fire” is based on a 2009 New Yorker piece on Cameron Todd Willingham and his conviction and death sentence for the murder of his three young daughters in a house fire.  Elizabeth Gilbert, a playwright, became a pen pal to Willingham, and eventually advocated to overturn his conviction. The movie is raw and difficult to watch at times, but I appreciated the performances of Laura Dern and especially Jack O’Connell, who does not hold back from showing the ugly side of Willingham. Unlike other Hollywood death penalty movies, this one feels more authentic, and definitely leaves you with serious doubts about Willingham’s guilt.

Little Women

Greta Gerwig’s presentation of this classic story was a favorite of mine from this past holiday season. I’m grateful to my family for encouraging me to take a break from work and spend time at the movies with them to watch this enjoyable film. I particularly liked Saoirse Ronan as Jo and Florence Pugh as Amy.

As executive director of Equal Justice Works, I am a bit of a workaholic and don’t have a lot of time to read books, listen to podcasts, or watch movies. And when I do, I clearly tend toward nonfiction related to legal issues! Be on the lookout for my summer recommendations.

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