June 16, 2016
As part of a yearlong, universitywide Common Book initiative, thousands of incoming Virginia Commonwealth University students will read “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” a 2014 book that tells the true account of an idealistic, gifted young lawyer’s coming of age, provides a window into the lives of those he has defended, and makes an argument for compassion in the pursuit of true justice.
“Just Mercy” is by Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children in need facing the criminal justice system. It tells the story of one of Stevenson’s first cases, that of Walter McMillian, a young man who had been convicted and sentenced to death for a murder he insisted he did not commit.
“The selection committee thought the compelling and powerful story that Stevenson tells of his path from an undergraduate student to a Harvard Law School graduate’s dedication to serving marginalized communities would engage first-year students, who are on the front end of their own academic journeys and discoveries,” said initiative director Shelli Fowler, Ph.D., interim dean of University College and associate professor in the Department of English in the College of Humanities and Sciences.
The selection committee was also struck by Stevenson’s ability to invite all readers to explore the complexities of mercy and justice in society, and students and faculty alike felt that the book supported VCU’s ongoing commitment to inclusive excellence and creating a welcoming campus for all, Fowler said.
“I feel like ‘Just Mercy’ was a very genuine and powerful narrative about finding justice in our legal system for those without a voice,” said Tammie Goode, a member of the selection committee and a junior in the School of Business double majoring in international management and marketing. “Many times, students come to university without understanding the privilege that they have in so many aspects of their life, so I hope that this book will be a great catalyst for conversation and initiatives to work with VCU and Richmond on how we can learn about how to use privilege toward something positive.”
The university will distribute more than 3,500 copies of “Just Mercy” to incoming first-year students while they attend new student orientation, which gets underway this month. The students will be invited to take part in Welcome Week discussion groups about the book facilitated by faculty, staff, graduate students and administrators, and the discussion groups will be followed by a more in-depth curricular engagement with the book in UNIV 111, as well as additional campus and community events throughout the fall and early spring semesters.
The Common Book is not just for the incoming first-year students, however. The entire VCU community, across both campuses, and the wider community is being encouraged to read it, and then to take part in a variety of public events.
This year our Common Book provides us a unique opportunity to connect the VCU and Richmond communities.
“This year our Common Book provides us a unique opportunity to connect the VCU and Richmond communities,” Fowler said. “The Common Book committee and planning team are hoping to generate opportunities for campus and community reading groups and Richmond community events that offer real-world learning experiences for interested students. It is not every year that the Common Book selection offers so much potential for students to also learn from and with the Richmond community. We hope to leverage that potential throughout this year.”
Copies of “Just Mercy” are available to be checked out from both the James Branch Cabell Library on the Monroe Park campus and the Tompkins-McCaw Library for the Health Sciences on the MCV campus. Copies also will be available for purchase at the campus Barnes & Noble bookstores and other area book shops.
“Just Mercy” is not only an engaging and eye-opening read, it also deals with topics that are relevant today, said Caitlin Liberatore, a selection committee member and a senior studying health, physical education, and exercise science with a concentration in exercise science in the College of Humanities and Sciences.
“It’s a great book to relate to when talking about the Black Lives Matter movement,” she said. “However, racism isn’t the only issue that is brought to light in the book. Homelessness and poverty, gender prejudice, health consequences of solitary confinement and child incarceration are also displayed throughout the book.”
Libertore added that she thinks the book will encourage students to volunteer and give back to the VCU and Richmond communities.
“I think this will spark a lot of discussion and critical thinking among the incoming freshmen and others who read it,” she said. “I am hoping this would be a story they could relate to throughout their entire college experience.”
The Common Book initiative is meant to bring new VCU students together as a cohort by reading and discussing a common text, and also to welcome them into the vibrant intellectual culture of the university.
“Each year, the selection committee works to choose a text that asks students to engage with complex, interdisciplinary topics and social issues as they begin to explore and discover how their academic interests align with their professional goals and aspirations,” Fowler said. “The transition from high school to college necessitates an emphasis on active and engaged learning that will set the stage for success at VCU and beyond. The Common Book is one of many opportunities VCU offers to welcome the newest members into our academic community.”
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