(P1) Community, Perspective and Hope: Keeping Your Eyes on the Prize, A Story from Bryan Stevenson, Attorney and Social Activist

I was representing a group of kids and went to see them in jail. They were 13 and 14 year olds who had been certified adults and – as “adults” – received very harsh sentences.  I asked myself, how could this happen? How could a judge turn you into something you’re not?

My next thought: If a judge can turn you into something you’re not, he must have magic power – and I should ask him for some of it.  And because I was up too late and wasn’t thinking straight, I started working on a motion, headed: “Motion to try my poor 14 year old black client as a privileged white 75 year old corporate executive.”

In the motion, I said there had been prosecutorial misconduct, police misconduct and judicial misconduct.  There was even a crazy line, in there, that in this county there was no conduct at all – just misconduct.  The next morning I woke up and said, “did I dream that crazy motion or did I actually write it?” And to my horror, I had not only written it, I had sent it to court.

A couple of months went by and, finally, I had to go to court to present this crazy case.  I was feeling overwhelmed.  This was going to be so difficult; so painful.

When I got out of the car and was walking up to the courthouse there was this older black man, a janitor, and when he saw me he said, “who are you?”  I said, “I’m a lawyer.” And he said, “you’re a lawyer?” I said, “yes sir.” And this man came over to me, hugged me, and whispered in my ear “I’m so proud of you.”

I have to tell you, it was energizing.  It connected deeply with something in me about identity; about the capacity of every person to contribute to community, and perspective,  and hope.

As soon as I walked into the courtroom, the judge saw me and said, “Mr. Stevenson, did you write this crazy motion?” I said, “yes sir I did,” and we started arguing. And people started coming in because they were outraged that I had written these crazy things – police, and assistant prosecutors, and court workers.  Before I knew it the courtroom was filled with people who were angry because we were talking about race – and poverty – and inequality.

As all this was going on, out of the corner of my eye, I could see the janitor pacing back and forth, and that he kept looking through the window and could hear all this hollering.  Finally, with a very worried look on his face, he came into the courtroom and sat down behind me, almost at counsel’s table.

About 10 minutes later the judge said we would take a break.  And during the break a deputy sheriff, offended that the janitor had come into court, ran over and said, “Jimmy, what are you doing in this courtroom?”  The older black man stood up.  He looked at the deputy, looked at me, and said, “I came into this courtroom to tell this young men, ‘keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.’ ”


I am here today because many of you understand that the moral arc of the universe is long but that it bends toward justice; that we cannot be fully evolved human beings until we care about human rights and basic dignity; that all of our survival is tied to the survival of everyone; and that our visions of technology and design and entertainment and creativity have to be married with a vision of humanity, compassion and justice. And more than anything – for those of you who share this vision – I have simply come to tell you this: Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.

Watch the TED video from which this story is excerpted.

(P2) Loved to Death by Money, A Story from Jeff Garson, Psychotherapist and Attorney

In 1984, the celebration of the Bicentennial of the Constitution was a hot topic in Philadelphia. And, as a reward for my hard work on his campaign, the new Mayor appointed me to the committee that was planning the event. From my perspective, it was a pretty dismal affair, mostly a bunch of rich people throwing a party for themselves.

At one sparsely attended meeting, however, a committee member suggested that we create an event legacy, perhaps a museum. Speaking in its favor, I was soon drafted to chair a subcommittee to develop the idea.

That was the beginning of an amazing 7-year journey. Working closely with my partner on project, Craig Eisendrath, we saw a unique opportunity to develop a Center that would teach the values implicit in the Constitution.

The moment was just right. In no time at all, we had a planning grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts, the attention of key political leaders and the best Constitutional scholars, and operational funding from Congress. Today, the National Constitution Center stands at the north end of Independence Mall, here in Philadelphia.

But here – from a Radical Decency perspective – is the real story of the Constitution Center’s creation as I see it.

Craig and I started with a radical vision. We would use the country’s origin story to teach the real meaning of a set of values, honored in theory but, all too seldom, in fact: Justice, civil rights and civil liberties, a respectful public dialogue. In the end, however, our dream died, supplanted by mainstream museum that reinforces our status quo ways of doing business – by retelling a politically safe story of triumph and American exceptionalism.

What I find most interesting is how this happened. As money flooded in, substantive control of the project migrated – seamlessly and imperceptibly – to a generous and well-intentioned group of donors. And what confused and disarmed Craig and me, for far too long, is that most of these donors actually liked our “radical” vision – at least in theory.

What we failed to realize, however, was that these people became wealthy playing by the rules of the mainstream culture – and that “that” was their true bottom line. So as one smart decision and compromise followed another – all in the name of attracting more funds and strategic support – a radical programmatic mission morphed into the mainstream museum that exists today.

For me, this is a paradigmatic story for our times: How radical initiatives – instead of being persecuted and quashed – are domesticated, marginalized and derailed; loved to death by money.

Am I bitter about what happened? No. Do I visit the National Constitution Center? Almost never. Hopefully, lessons learned from this experience will serve my ongoing efforts to contribute to a better, more decent world.

(P3) Dilemmas of Public Service: Inspiration, Disillusion, Perplexity, A Story from Craig Eisendrath

As a young Foreign Service officer, assigned to work with the US delegation to the United Nations, I begin to learn about its Secretary-General, a man named Dag Hammarskjold.  He had resolved differences between the United States and China which might have led to war, and just a few years ago had set up the United Nations Emergency Force, which had separated Israel from the Arab states, and so had created a peace when both sides were ready for war. He seems so quintessentially the international civil servant.  Totally focused on the issues, with almost no concern for himself.  The story is that when he set up the UN Emergency Force, he didn’t sleep for thirteen nights, and he saved tens of thousands of lives.  While we in the State Department are pursuing our national interest, he is working for the interests of all nations, without distinction

It is his vision that inspires me to work with others to create an international law for outer space. It is 1960 and the US and Russia are beginning to develop satellites for orbiting bombs and for locating the positions of rocket launchers, ships, and planes.  We are also using satellites to pick up immediately when the Russians might attempt to launch a preemptive strike against the United States.  The satellites will give us time to respond, which sets up the nuclear the standoff which is called Mutual Assured Destruction, or MAD.  But if we or the Soviets attempt to shoot down satellites, all the satellites we are developing for peaceful purposes will be knocked out as well.  Now is the time when the United States and the rest of the world need to sign on to a treaty preserving outer space for peaceful purposes.

I help set up a United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. It’s still too early for nations to make a definitive commitment, but the time is right to begin to draw up the framework for such a commitment, to have nations represented in a political process that can lead to a set of agreements or treaties governing outer space.

But then . . . my two-year assignment to State Department’s UN Political Office comes to an end and all my work is suspended.  How can I leave at a time like this?  But there’s no flexibility. I must go where the Department sends me


[Two years later, when Eisendrath’s assignment as vice-consul in Naples, Italy ends, the story resumes]


I go back to the United Nations Political Office, to my old job. But now the danger of outer space being weaponized is vastly increased.  We and the Soviets can now orbit nuclear bombs, which, unlike ICBMs in silos on the ground, will be almost impossible to knock out. Yes, we now face the real possibility of total annihilation raining down from the heavens!

So I begin to work again with the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, and help draft a treaty which will eliminate all weapons in outer space.  But it soon becomes clear that the Department of Defense will not accept a total ban, will only reluctantly accept a treaty banning weapons of mass destruction, and refuses to accept any verification.  Clearly they want to keep their options open.  International peace is being sacrificed for power and defense contracts, not national security!  We rewrite the treaty to include only weapons of mass destruction; it goes to the United Nations, and is eventually endorsed by the requisite number of countries, including the United States and the Soviet Union.

I receive a medal for my work on the Treaty, but I’m already beginning to back away. How can I revere Dag Hammarskjold, and continue to work just for the interests of the United States?  We and the Soviets have tens of thousands of missiles pointed at each other.  Instead of building up these deadly missiles, shouldn’t we be engaged in the most earnest diplomacy to cut them down?

Instead the Department of Defense blocks our signing of the Comprehensive Nuclear Treaty Ban Treaty.  The excuse: The Soviets can cheat without our knowing it.

I don’t believe it.  We have ringed the Soviet Union with seismic arrays which we can pick up a nuclear pin drop.   So now I not only see the Treaty defeated but, in addition, am being asked to lie in public.

What am I to do?  If I lie now on an issue so important, I know I will never stop. I’ll spend my entire career tainted with this lack of integrity.  It’s over. I fill out all the requisite forms, I say goodbye to my office mates in the UN Political Office, attend one last cocktail party, and walk away from my diplomatic career!

But for years, I will wonder if this was the right decision, if despite such difficulties, I could not have done a substantial amount of good for the world by staying in the Foreign Service, rising to an ambassador or Assistant Secretary of State, actually helping to create the policies that would make the world a safer place.