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Books in Common Program Brings Author Bryan Stevenson to Chico State University

03/22/2016 11:00AM ● By Melissa Mendonca

Open Book

April 2016

Story by Melissa Mendonca

New efforts to bring cohesiveness to a community can take a while to catch on. When the spark of an effort becomes a fire, however, the results can be sweet indeed. The team that organizes Butte County’s Book in Common program is basking in the warm glow of the fire that has become of this year’s selection, “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson.

“‘Just Mercy’ is maybe the best Book in Common we’ve had so far,” says Bill Loker, dean of undergraduate education at Chico State University and committee member for the project. “It’s a combination of issue, timeliness, the author himself, the writing style of a topic that is so difficult. The topic is difficult but the writing is so accessible. It’s very human and humane.”

The topic is the criminal justice system of the United States. Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala., and a professor of law at New York University School of Law, has become a voice so powerful for reform that Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Desmond Tutu has described his book as “gripping. What hangs in the balance is no less than the soul of a great nation.” More than one reviewer has likened Stevenson to a real-life Atticus Finch. 

While “Just Mercy” is in itself a vehicle to greater understanding of the criminal justice system and the need for reform, the active engagement of reading it as a community and engaging in
the programming developed around the book helps readers connect more deeply. 

“One of the messages we’re trying to get across with ‘Just Mercy’ is that this is not just an Alabama problem, it’s not just a southern problem,” says Loker. “There are real issues in California and across the United States. It’s a California problem, it’s a national problem.”

The message is being expressed through ancillary activities such as panel discussions with ex-offenders, various book club conversations and the decision to feature the death penalty as the topic of Chico’s annual Great Debate. All are open to the public and are promoted to Chico State and Butte College students.

“We were really lucky to get him,” says Loker of Stevenson. “He’s really dedicated to his work; he doesn’t leave Montgomery, Ala., that much.” Stevenson’s profile has also risen significantly since he was booked by Chico State. Starbucks picked up the paperback version of “Just Mercy” to sell in its stores nationwide, and he’s had media appearances on 60 Minutes and the Daily Show. His TED Talk, “We Need to Talk About Injustice,” continues to gain viewership.

“Personally, I think he’ll win the Nobel Peace Prize one day,” says Loker.

“We’re trying to do as much as we can prior to his (Stevenson’s) coming,” says Daniel Beaky, a third-year criminal justice major from Orange County, who has been instrumental in developing activities for the Book in Common. 

Not only has Beaky developed his leadership skills through the Book in Common—“I’ve gotten to carry the load on my shoulders a little bit and it’s been nice,” he says – he’s also challenged his own opinions through engagement in the activities and study of the book.

“It’s definitely spread the boundaries,” he says. “This has allowed me to get a perspective of the other side. Being able to agree and disagree with both sides has given me a deeper perspective of the overall system as a whole.”

The Book in Common program started in 2000 as an effort to broaden the experience and cohesiveness of the freshman class at Chico State. Considered a moderate success as a freshman read opportunity, the project has gained power since opening up to the wider community in ensuing years. “I think that the broader reach has been successful,” says Loker, noting that endorsements now come from Butte County, Butte College and the City of Chico, as well as Chico State.

To that effect, a wide coalition of community members meet each year to select the featured book. The rubric is broad, as they seek a read that is timely, engaging, programmable, of interest to a wider audience as well as college students, and with linkages to California or Northern California. Popular past selections have included “The Distance Between Us” by Reyna Grande (immigration) and “Unquenchable” by Robert Glennon (America's water crisis).

For Beaky, a young man setting out on a career in criminal justice with aspirations to join the Navy, the opportunity to meet Stevenson when he arrives in Chico would be a dream come true. “I would love to get him alone and just pick his brain apart,” he says. “But I'll definitely take a handshake and a chance to say ‘thank you’ and any quick words of advice he may have.”

Lecture by Bryan Stevenson

Laxson Auditorium • Chico State University • April 19