Four Ways to Help Bend the Moral Arc of the Universe toward Justice


When Education Pioneers’ Founder and CEO Scott Morgan opened EP’s 2016 National Conference, he turned to a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”


Together, we can help bend that arc more rapidly, he told the hundreds of education leaders who attended our conference. We must. Never before has our work been as urgent as it is right now.

Our nation still struggles to achieve the compassion, support, inclusion, equity, and equality for all people that Dr. King envisioned.

How do we get there, both in our work in education, and beyond, as a society?

Bryan Stevenson, Founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative and a lauded civil rights attorney, shared in his keynote address at our conference four ways to stand up for justice for all people.

It was an honor for our EP team to hear Stevenson’s moral leadership then, and particularly important to remember his remarks this weekend, as we celebrate the great Dr. King.

It’s easy to see why Desmond Tutu called Stevenson “America’s Mandela.” During his keynote address, Stevenson brought the room to tears, to laughter, and ultimately to hope. And it turns out that if we seek the kind of justice Dr. King advocated for, hope is exactly where we begin.



Here are the four ways Stevenson outlined to move toward justice:



1. GET PROXIMATE. There is power in proximity, Stevenson said. Get close to people and communities who are at risk – and stay close. We don’t have to have the answers; instead, we have to want to get close. From far away, we can’t create meaningful solutions or hear the nuances and the perspectives of people who we want to collaborate with and advocate for. When we step into the places where there is despair, neglect, and abuse, that is where we are informed, energized, and feel the empathy that drives us to change the world.



2. CHANGE THE NARRATIVES THAT CREATE POLICY PROBLEMS. We are submerged in politics of fear and anger, Stevenson noted, and a society ruled by fear will tolerate bigotry and injustice. To combat it, we must change the narrative. Stevenson said, “We’re not a free society. We’re infected by the disease of our history of racial inequality.” Of slavery, he noted that “the great evil of slavery was the narrative of racial difference that arose to justify it,” and gave birth to the ideology of white supremacy. Today, we see that ideology in mass incarceration, bigotry, the school-to-prison pipeline, and the presumption of guilt of people of color – we must change the narrative.



3. STAY HOPEFUL. As Stevenson said, “Hopelessness is the enemy of justice.” We each have a responsibility to protect our own hopefulness – and to believe things are possible that we haven’t yet seen. “Hope is what gets you to stand up when other people say, ‘sit down,’” Stevenson said.



4. BE WILLING TO DO UNCOMFORTABLE THINGS. Change doesn’t come from staying comfortable – and we’re designed to seek out comfort. Stevenson urged us to be uncomfortable and be a witness. And he asked us to look at ourselves and our society – and how we treat those who most need our help. “Why do we want to kill the broken people?” he asked. “Why do we want to throw them away? In brokenness we understand what it means to be human. The broken will teach us how us how to be just. We have to judge our character by how we treat the poor, the excluded, and the marginalized.”



For those of us working in education, Stevenson had some additional recommendations. The first was to make suspension and expulsion rates part of school outcomes. How can we measure our success on behalf of children if we’re not accounting for those who we’ve excluded from school?

Another was to be ready to address trauma, and to create relationships with children so they feel safe – even if it’s just for an hour at school. He urged us to worry about trauma in poor minority communities the way that we worry about other crises. At the school level, we can radically alter outcomes if we provide trauma care to students who need it from day one.

Lastly, he asked us to be mindful that our curriculum must be more honest about racial inequality – and that we must own up to our own history of racial inequality. Until we do, he noted, we’re complicit in a society that accepts bigotry.



As a resource, the Equal Justice Initiative offers A History of Racial Injustice 2017 wall calendars (available at no cost, but donations are appreciated) that include rich information about our nation’s racial history, as well as an online timeline: A History of Racial Injustice with expanded information.

Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, is a powerful read. You can also watch Bryan Stevenson’s TED talk, or learn more about him and his work at the Equal Justice Initiative at

As we celebrate Dr. King’s leadership, let’s acknowledge the huge amount of work left to be done.

Thank you for what you do for our students – and to honor Dr. King’s legacy.

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