The summer before college was an exciting time, yet it was so full of unknowns. I didn't have high school activities filling my summer days anymore, but I was attending freshmen orientations, meeting new people, and getting somewhat of an idea about what my college experience was going to look like.
I made the decision to live in the Honors Living Learning Community for my freshman year (and later my sophomore year as well) because I wanted to surround myself with other academically-focused students. In order to live in this LLC, I was required to take a one-credit hour course in my first semester. I was informed over the summer that I would need to read "Just Mercy" by Bryan Stevenson during this course and that it might be worthwhile to get started on the book. Eager as I was to start college, I ordered the book and planned to read as much as I could before the semester began.
While I didn't finish the book that summer, I did read some of it... and I could not figure out for the life of me why we were reading this book to be the Honors LLC. I had seen the cover of this book before and I assumed it to be about improving yourself. So when I opened the book and discovered I was reading about a lawyer who works to get the innocent off of death row, I was pretty confused.
I got to the LLC orientation and I learned that the pillars of the community are Inquiry, Civic Engagement, and Leadership. The book started to make a little more sense here, but I still didn't get it. Shouldn't we be volunteering in the community and learning leadership skills for this class? Why are we reading about this one lawyer? I came from a small town, and I hadn't met many people with a different background than me yet. I couldn't really imagine a world where this book was applicable enough to warrant an entire course, even with more knowledge about the goals of the community.
When the class started, I was pretty reluctant to grasp the concept of mass incarceration and its relevance to MY life. I chose this LLC because I felt it related to me and I would be able to improve myself. I didn't pick it to learn about others. As selfish as that may sound, it was the truth for me at the time, simply because I didn't know any better.
As the semester went on and I read more of the book, I slowly began to get it. There is a massive group of people in this country that are being demonized for the color of their skin. Young Black kids and teenagers were not given the same opportunities at their schools as me and were put into a school to prison pipeline, while I had been put on a track to succeed at a highly-ranked university.
Finally, it all clicked: being a leader isn't about me. Being engaged with the world around me isn't about me. Learning something new isn't about me. These things are about understanding my privilege and why my life is the way that it is, on top of addressing that not everyone has the same opportunities I do. Sure, I was taught to look at my privilege through the lens of Bryan Stevenson's life story as a lawyer, but studying this point of view taught me how to look at other issues, such as LGBTQ rights and women's issues, from a broader perspective than my own experiences as a young white female that has never had to worry about anything.
During this time in which there are protests simply to assert a fact—that Black lives do indeed matter—I've done a lot of introspection in the way I learned to do so in my Honors LLC class. I know the facts and stats that prove this discrimination because I studied them for a whole semester, but I also know how to find more information from legitimate news sources (I can thank my high school teachers for that one too). Without this class though, I don't know that I would have the same perspective I have now—I don't know that I would believe in the seriousness of this problem... and I am disappointed by that. This memoir (and its movie adaptation) was essential in forming who I am today, and if that's all I get out of college, I'm very okay with that.
"Just Mercy" (2019 film) is available for free for the month of June 2020.