Justice Advocate Bryan Stevenson Urges GW Graduates to ‘Do the Uncomfortable Things’

The renowned social justice lawyer headlined the Commencement on the National Mall ceremony for GW’s Class of 2023.

May 21, 2023

Bryan Stevenson

Commencement speaker Bryan Stevenson told graduates that “hopelessness is the enemy of justice.”(Joy Asico/GW Today)

The dominant theme of George Washington University’s Commencement of 2023 sounded loud and clear: Graduates must use what they have learned to make the world a better place—the same mindset that Commencement speaker Bryan Stevenson has used to guide his storied, professional life as an advocate for justice.

Stevenson told graduates Sunday that their identity will change. “For the rest of your life,” he said, “there will be these letters behind your name,” adding that he hoped graduates would further identify themselves by being compassionate and kind.

“You can be a teacher, but if you are a compassionate teacher, if you are a dedicated teacher, you will change lives,” he said, and the same applies to nurses, lawyers, engineers and other professions.

“Proximity is key to our capacity to understand things we need to understand to make the world healthier,” he said. “When you're proximate to the poor and the excluded, the neglected, the disfavored, you will hear things you won't otherwise hear. You'll see things you won't otherwise see.”

Stevenson, the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a human rights organization, and author of “Just Mercy,” has been representing capital defendants and death row prisoners since 1985.

When he first went to law school, he said, he struggled until he took a course that required him to interact with prisoners.

“I discovered that in too many parts of this country, we have a legal system that treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent,” he said.

Commencement 2023
Commencement speaker Bryan Stevenson is surrounded by GW Law graduate Maxie Lawton (left) and President Wrighton as he receives his honorary degree. (William Atkins/GW Today)

But proximity is not enough, he said, urging graduates to push back against narratives rooted in fear and anger. He mentioned the harmful narratives surrounding race in the United States, which have too often encouraged the privileged to blight the lives of Indigenous, Black and other people.

“The greatest evil of American slavery was the narrative that we created to justify slavery,” he said. “Enslavers didn’t want to feel immoral or unjust or un-Christian, so they made up this false narrative that Black people aren’t as good as white people.

“You can be a doctor or a lawyer, a nurse, a teacher, an engineer, a business leader,” Stevenson said, “but if you are Black or brown, you will go places in this country where you have to navigate a presumption of dangerousness and guilt.”

It is not possible to ignore the truth and heal the injuries caused by a history of injustice, he said. “You cannot skip the truth and get to reconciliation.” He pointed to other societies, such as today’s Germany, where reckoning with dark aspects of history (in Germany, the Holocaust) is compulsory for schoolchildren.

Human nature being what it is, he acknowledged, we must work against the instinct to retreat into the comfort of our own groups. And it is important to stay hopeful, he added, because “hopelessness is the enemy of justice.”

Apart from being alumni of a “great university,” Stevenson told graduates, “I think you can do more, if you work on an identity rooted in love and compassion, if you create proximity to those who are suffering, if you change narratives, if you stay hopeful, if you do the uncomfortable things.”

Congratulatory remarks

Comments from university leaders preceded Stevenson’s remarks. Provost Christopher Alan Bracey welcomed graduates and their families and friends as well as faculty and staff members.

Bracey spoke of the commitment expected from GW students, beginning with the commitment to take full advantage of the university’s resources to get the maximum impact from their learning.

“But there is an even greater commitment you made when you became a student here,” Bracey said, “which is to apply the mastery of your discipline, and the fruits of your experience, to your lives beyond GW, in order to fight for a more just society and a better world.”

The provost also expressed his confidence—in fact, he said, a demand—that graduates would maintain a student’s curiosity and continue to learn throughout their lives as they face whatever challenges life may bring.

Board of Trustees Chair Grace Speights, J.D. ’82, praised graduates for their commitment to growing intellectually and to building relationships with peers and mentors.

“You have made the most of many opportunities afforded you by your GW education, and…you are now a leader and a lifelong learner destined to make a positive impact on the world,” Speights said, before reminding graduates they are not alone. “There are hundreds of thousands of GW alumni across the globe, willing to support and encourage you every step of the way. You will find one of us anywhere you look.”

Speights gave special thanks to President Mark S. Wrighton for his service to the university.

Mark Wrighton commencement 2023
GW Board Chair Grace Speights gave special thanks to President Mark S. Wrighton for his service to the university. (William Atkins/GW Today)

In his remarks, Will Alexander, B.S. ’04, M.B.A. ’06, president of the GW Alumni Association, welcomed graduates into the fold and recognized emeriti alumni who graduated 50 years ago. 

Alexander expressed two hopes for graduates: first, that they would maintain a strong connection with GW even if they might have concerns about some university decisions.

“My second hope is that you fully enjoy the complete alumni experience,” he said, including reaching out to each other to ask for or offer support when needed. “We are talented, capable and ambitious human beings. You can be all those things and still need help from time to time.”

Special recognition

Alexander introduced the class of 2023 Student Commencement Speaker, criminal justice major Giselle Elisa Garcia, who also had a double minor in psychology and STEM teaching.

“As you move forward, I urge you to rock the boat,” Garcia said. “I am angered and saddened by the injustice and hatred seeping through every corner of our nation, but also proud and inspired by the humans before me who I know will try to change that.

“You have already accomplished the dream playing out in this very moment,” Garcia said. She encouraged graduates, who were reaping the reward for achieving an educational dream, to become “disruptors” and dream bigger.

“Rock every boat you are in, in a world that would rather keep the ocean still,” Garcia said.

Giselle Elisa Garcia
Student speaker Giselle Elisa Garcia. (Joy Asico/GW Today)

Earlier in the program, Wrighton bestowed President’s Medals on three faculty members. The medal is the highest honor GW’s president can confer.

The first recipient, Mary Ellsberg, a leading expert on violence against women and girls, joined GW in 2012 as founding director of the Global Women’s Institute, seeking to advance gender equity through research, education and action.

After expressing pride in her daughter, Ana Martinez, who was in the audience as a graduating master’s degree student, Ellsberg acknowledged her father, Daniel Ellsberg, who released the Pentagon Papers exposing the secret history of the war in Vietnam. She said her father has pancreatic cancer and that she would be leaving the ceremony to spend time with him during his last days.

“One of the key lessons my father taught me is the value of information—that oppression works through ignorance and secrecy; and that information and knowledge is a right of all people,” Ellsberg said.

The second medal recipient was Walter Reich, Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Professor of International Affairs, Ethics and Human Behavior. Reich is a champion of global human rights whose many achievements include serving as co-chair of the Committee of Concerned Scientists and leading the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Reich remarked that in 2001 he had nominated alumnus Carl Lutz, B.A. ’24, for a posthumous Alumnus of the Year award. Lutz was a Swiss diplomat who protected tens of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust. Having died in 1975, Lutz was ineligible for the award, intended to recognize living alumni, but was awarded a posthumous Presidential Medal, presented in 2014 to Lutz’s daughter.

Reich thanked President Wrighton for placing him in the company of Lutz, “a beacon of humanity” whose story should be told whenever there is an occasion to do so. Reich also thanked his students, from whom he has learned much.

The third medal recipient, Frank Sesno, is professor and director of strategic initiatives in the School of Media and Public Affairs. In 2009, he created Planet Forward, a multimedia storytelling project designed to showcase innovations in sustainability.

Sesno dedicated his medal to graduates, “the renewable energy that moves us and impels us.

“Climate change has dumped on our doorstep so many challenges—record heat, droughts, extreme weather, melting glaciers, species loss and hardship that hits the poorest, the hardest. But there is also so much research, commitment and innovation.”

Planet Forward, he said, is an effort to foreground the stories that can motivate action around climate issues and inspire hope.

Honorary degrees

Three honorary degrees were awarded this year. The first, to Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser, was awarded Saturday at a celebration of the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences. Bowser was recognized with a Doctor of Public Service “for all she has done to make the District a more inclusive and prosperous place for all.”

Honorary degree recipient Mike Milken was recognized as a Doctor of Science. Milken was cited as “a visionary philanthropist and innovator who has been dramatically furthering knowledge and improving lives for more than 50 years.” Graduating Ph.D. student Sukyoung Jung assisted Wrighton in introducing Milken.

Mike Milken
Honorary degree recipient Mike Milken was recognized as a Doctor of Science. (William Atkins/GW Today)

Wrighton acknowledged Milken’s generosity in giving transformative gifts to GW, where the Milken Institute School of Public Health is named in his honor, and where the School of Business offers graduate certificates through the IFC-Milken Institute Capital Markets Program to educate the next generation of leaders in financial policy.

“Mike’s impact has led to new therapies and treatments for disease,” Wrighton said.

Milken expressed high hopes for graduates, saying, “My parents’ generation lived through the Spanish flu, the Great Depression and World War II. They were known as the Greatest Generation. With the challenges you will face, and I am sure you will overcome, you may earn a similar nickname.”

Another graduating student, J.D. candidate Maxie Lawton, assisted Wrighton in honoring Stevenson, this year’s final honorary degree candidate, who was named a Doctor of Laws.

The main event

When the big moment for the Class of 2023 arrived, family members and friends applauded as the academic milestones of their loved ones were recognized. Wrighton acknowledged graduates for their intellectual, emotional and social maturation during their time at GW. 

“You have taken bold risks,” Wrighton said. “Through your scholarship, you have built bridges and crossed borders.”

Wrighton charged graduates with the task of being lifetime learners, using their GW education to serve the public good and proceed with ever greater empathy as they move through their lives.

“Your George Washington University experience has added to your potential to contribute to society and to make the world a better place,” Wrighton said. “We are eager to see all that you do.”