Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, Delivers Commencement Address to Washington College of Law Class of 2017

Bryan Stevenson
Bryan Stevenson addresses the Class of 2017.

On Sunday, May 21, 2017, American University Washington College of Law (AUWCL) welcomed Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), as its 2017 Commencement speaker. Stevenson addressed a packed crowd at Bender Arena gathered to celebrate the Spring 2017 class, which included 346 students graduating with a Juris Doctor (JD), 47 with a Master of Laws (LL.M.), and 2 with a Doctor of Juridical Science (SJD).

As part of the ceremony, Stevenson was presented with an honorary doctor of laws by American University President Neil Kerwin, Provost Scott Bass, and AUWCL Dean Camille Nelson.

“We were honored to have Bryan Stevenson join us to celebrate our 2017 graduates,” said Dean Nelson. “His outstanding work in the areas of social justice and human rights make him an excellent role model for us all. We were delighted to present him with the honorary doctorate.” 

Commencement Speaker
Vice Dean Tony Varona, Dean Camille Nelson, Commencement speaker Bryan Stevenson, AU President Neil Kerwin, Senior Assoc. Dean Lia Epperson.

Stevenson has been representing capital defendants and death row prisoners in the Deep South since 1985, when he was a staff attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia. Since 1989, he has been executive director of the EJI, a private, nonprofit law organization he founded that focuses on social justice and human rights in the context of criminal justice reform in the United States. EJI litigates on behalf of condemned prisoners, juvenile offenders, people wrongly convicted or charged, poor people denied effective representation, and others whose trials are marked by racial bias or prosecutorial misconduct.

In discussing his work, Stevenson told the graduates that they too could use their law degrees to make a difference. “The great challenge we face is that we need to change the world,” he said. “We need to create more justice, and each and every one of you has the power to do that.”

Stevenson passionately conveyed to the audience how “we need to change the narrative about race in America. I need you to be people who are willing to change this narrative of racial injustice.”

Dean Camille Nelson similarly encouraged the graduates to take advantage of their degrees and what they have learned. "How will you use your law degree to amplify your voice, and to speak for those whose voices have been suppressed?” she asked them. “As we know, one person can, and has, made a tremendous difference.”

Dean Nelson, in her first commencement speech as dean of Washington College of Law, encouraged the graduates to go out there and “be adventurous, take risks, and mix it up.”

The student body chose Riley Pagett to give the student commencement speech this year. Pagett spoke of the investment that he and his fellow graduates have made over the last three years and how their hard work and experience will all pay off in the end. “As the world’s newest public defenders, DAs, private counselors, corporate attorneys, small town attorneys, judges and public servants, we’ve been called to pay this [forward] over and over again into the communities in which we live, to the people we represent, and into the world.”

“It has been an honor to share this time with you,” Dean Nelson said in closing her remarks. “We wish you every success.”

View photos from the 2017 Commencement ceremony.