2019-20 Common reading tells story of criminal justice and civic engagement


Erin O’Neill

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” by Bryan Stevenson is the Common Reading Program book for the 2019-20 academic year.

“Just Mercy” is about the criminal justice system, how it discriminates against those in poverty and Stevenson’s work to reverse that discrimination through his nonprofit organization, Equal Justice Initiative.

Stevenson’s memoir details his experiences as a lawyer with individuals in the criminal justice system who have been wrongly accused, Common Reading Program committee member Heather Lippard said. The book also addresses poverty and racial discrimination in the criminal justice system.

Director of the Common Reading Program Martha McCaughey said the committee chose “Just Mercy” in hopes that the story would expose students to pressing social problems.

“Ideally, the common reading book, and this is one of the reasons we picked ‘Just Mercy’ for next year, will get people talking. It will get them curious and get them introduced to what it means to be a member of an intellectual community,” McCaughey said.

McCaughey said she hopes students will recognize the way Stevenson transformed his education into a life of service and civic engagement.

“He really used his education to make the world a better place, and I think that was a really inspiring message, and the committee thought that was a really inspiring message for people who are starting out their college career,” McCaughey said.

McCaughey also said the committee never chooses a book in an attempt to have all students feel the same after reading.

“We strongly believe in academic freedom, so when we talk about the common reading book we don’t want them to have a common viewpoint,” McCaughey said.

Lippard, who has served on the committee for eight years, said the Common Reading Program provides a common language for incoming students who will read the book and discuss it in their first-year seminars.

Lippard said the Common Reading Program allows students to “engage in meaningful dialogue in a professional way without hostility” and helps students “talk about things that are maybe out of their comfort zone.”

The program is in its 22nd year, and McCaughey said common reading programs are considered a national best practice.

“The idea behind it is that students can get engaged in their studies and that’s when they can really learn a lot and have that transformational, educational experience that we’re offering at App State,” McCaughey said.

One of the most important criteria for selecting a book is that the author is alive, so they can come to campus and speak to students, McCaughey said.

Stevenson will address students on Aug. 27 at the Black and Gold Convocation.