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‘Just Mercy’ follows a social justice activist. Meet the man behind the movie

Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, doesn’t get much sleep.

‘Just Mercy’ follows a social justice activist. Meet the man behind the movie
[Illustration: Aistė Stancikaitė; source image: Emma McIntyre/E! Entertainment/NBCU Photo Banks via Getty Images]

Most of my day is consumed with meetings. I try to insist that there are a couple of hours reserved to [work on] advancing our agenda—like challenging mandatory sentencing of people with severe disabilities, or changing the way people talk and think about race. We have to protect time to advance those projects.

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We’ve got more than a hundred active death penalty cases, and probably a couple hundred cases involving children sentenced to extreme punishment or life without parole. And we have what we call impact cases, where we’re trying to use a case with a particular narrative that, if we succeed, could help hundreds or thousands of others. We have some class action work where we’re challenging conditions of confinement at a state prison. I think it helps to live and work in Montgomery, Alabama, where you are surrounded by this rich history and the legacy of struggle that has made it possible for us to do what we do. I think about the people who, 60 years ago, were doing what I’m trying to do, and how they frequently had to say, “My head is bloody but not bowed.” I’ve never had to say that. I’m constantly mindful of the fact that I’m standing on the shoulders of people who did so much more with so much less. It doesn’t mean that you don’t get overwhelmed. It doesn’t mean that you don’t sometimes feel really distraught, or that you don’t lose sleep.

Time he gets up: Before 4 a.m. “I don’t even use an alarm, typically.”

First thing he does in the morning: “Check email and make sure no new crisis has emerged in the handful of hours I’ve been asleep.”

Email strategy: “I’ve gotten pretty good at looking at subject lines to assess what’s critical.”

What he does with 15 minutes of free time: Read. “I love to keep learning. I keep a couple of books in my briefcase. [Right now] I’m reading Leif Enger’s new novel, and I just bought Ta-Nehisi Coates’s The Water Dancer. And I usually have some nonfiction, too, like Eric Foner’s The Second Founding.”

Desktop totem: “We put out something called the History of Racial Injustice calendar. I keep it visible to remember that we are part of a long and important struggle for freedom and equality and justice. We’re not the first, and we won’t be the last, but we have a critical role to play.”

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Best habit: “I’ve learned to give things my full focus, even if it’s not the thing I want to be working on but is something I have to do.”

Worst habit: “Sweet tea. If I let myself, I’d drink a lot of hot chocolate in the morning and a lot of sweet tea during the day. That’s not a recipe for fitness.”

Last thing he does at night: “Play the piano. It’s one of the few things I do that kind of gets me out of my head. A great source of comfort and therapy.”

Time he goes to bed: Between 10:30 and 11:30 p.m.

A version of this article appeared in the Winter 2019/2020 issue of Fast Company magazine.

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