Social justice lawyer tells Johns Hopkins University graduates to go 'change the world'

When 1,500 Johns Hopkins University students crossed the stage Thursday at Royal Farms Arena, their commencement speaker told them they were receiving more than a piece of paper.

“Your degree now authorizes you to change the world,” said Bryan Stevenson, an activist and lawyer who founded the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama nonprofit that provides legal help to indigent defendants and prisoners.

Stevenson told the graduates they must take what they’ve learned at the research university and funnel it into struggling neighborhoods in this city and others.

He urged them not to become “indifferent to the problems that surround them,” citing issues of mass incarceration, sexual harassment and violence.

Stevenson — a MacArthur Foundation “genius” whose organization has freed or reduced the sentences of 125 death row inmates — told graduates that the path toward changing the world can be distilled into four steps.

First, he said, the graduates must entrench themselves in communities that have been historically disenfranchised, much as Hopkins, an elite institution, sits in the center of a city plagued by poverty, addiction and homicides.

“If we get proximate to people who are suffering, who are excluded, who are neglected, then we don’t have to know all of the answers. We don’t have to understand all the complexities,” he said. “Sometimes, we just have to be close enough to those who are struggling and wrap our arms around them and let them know their humanity is recognized.”

Next, Stevenson said, the graduates must work to rewrite narratives, challenging the deep-rooted stereotypes that disempower certain groups of people.

“It breaks my heart to look out at this amazing class of graduates and have to say, to the black and brown graduates, even though you have a Johns Hopkins degree, even though you’ve done remarkable work … if you are black and brown, you will go places in this country where you may be presumed dangerous,” he said. “We change the world by changing these narratives.”

In the face of this reality, Stevenson said, the graduates must find ways to remain hopeful because “hope is your superpower.”

And finally, he said, graduates must be willing to put themselves in uncomfortable and inconvenient situations. He drew from the story of an elderly man in a wheelchair who once approached him after he spoke at a church.

The man pointed out scars on his face and neck — reminders of his time on the front lines of the civil rights movement, when he tried to help people register to vote.

Stevenson said the man told him: “These are not bruises, not scars. These are my medals of honor.”

As he prepared to leave the podium, Stevenson urged the graduates to heed his four pieces of advice. If they do, he said, “you can put that degree on the wall, and in a few years that degree won’t just be a degree, it will be your medal of honor as a Hopkins graduate who is changing the world.”

Class president Kwame Alston’s remarks at the graduation mirrored Stevenson’s.

“We owe it to everyone in this room, the university and the city to make the most of the privilege of a Johns Hopkins degree,” he said.

Rushabh Doshi, who graduated with a degree in public health, said he was glad the university invited a speaker who is “genuinely inspiring.” At 19 years old, Doshi is the youngest person to graduate from Hopkins in seven years. He will soon be heading to Oxford to study for a master’s degree in medical anthropology.

For Doshi, his path toward changing the world involves becoming a doctor and addressing the “socioeconomic determinants of health care.”

Stevenson was “what we needed in a graduation speaker,” Doshi said. “We need someone to inspire us to move forward and make an impact on the world.”

Also at Hopkins’ graduation was “Star Wars” creator George Lucas. The university gave him an honorary doctorate of humane letters in recognition of his work “igniting our imaginations.”

Other schools in the region are also in the midst of graduation season. At one of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s commencement ceremonies, Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, addressed graduates.

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