A Little Happier: Bryan Stevenson Points Out a Question: Are We There to Speak, or Are We There to Listen?

Bryan Stevenson is a renowned lawyer, social justice activist, and founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, and as you’d expect, he’s much in demand as a speaker. In his brilliant memoir Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (Amazon, Bookshop), Bryan Stevenson tells a story that I’ve been thinking about a lot.

He explained that he’d been befriended by Johnnie Carr, a woman in her late 70s whom he described as “charismatic, powerful, and inspiring.” She’d been one of the chief architects of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and succeeded Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as the president of the Montgomery Improvement Association.

He recounts the kind of conversation they would have:

“Bryan, Rosa Parks is coming to town, and we’re going to meet over at Virginia Durr’s house to talk. Do you want to come over and listen?”

When Ms. Carr called me, she either wanted me to go some place to “speak” or to go some place to “listen.” Whenever Ms. Parks came to town, I’d be invited to listen.

“Oh, yes, ma’am. I’d love to come over and listen,” I’d always say, affirming that I understood what to do when I arrived.

I love thinking about this distinction, as I head into various conversations of my own. Am I there to speak, or am I there to listen?

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