VCU freshman Melida Bueno (left) leads a discussion about "Just Mercy" at Open High School.

VCU students visit Open High School to lead discussions on common book ‘Just Mercy’

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Sitting in a circle of high schoolers in an Open High School classroom, Virginia Commonwealth University students Mark Antezana and David Ferrufino are leading a discussion of “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” this year’s common book at both VCU and Open High.

Antezana and Ferrufino, both freshman VCU students, ask the high schoolers questions such as: “What is the purpose of prison?” “What would you describe as the nature of prison?” “What do you think about mandatory minimum prison sentencing?” and “Do you think prison works to rehabilitate people?”

One Open High student tells the class about her uncle who is incarcerated. Another says prison seems more interested in punishment than rehabilitation. A third muses how mandatory minimum sentences do not consider intent or mitigating circumstances.

Antezana and Ferrufino were among 19 VCU students, nearly all freshmen, who visited Open High School last week to lead discussion groups about “Just Mercy,” a 2014 book by Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. Stevenson’s book tells the true account of an idealistic 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 justice.

The Open High School discussions centered on the book’s eighth chapter, “All God’s Children,” which looks at the incarceration of children, with several stories showing the impact of mandatory life sentencing, solitary confinement and racial disparities in juvenile justice.

“What do we do with prison?” Ferrufino said. “We lock people away. We remove them from society. Here [in chapter 8] we learn about these kids — one of them shot a woman in the face, one of them was in a high-speed car chase and shootout, and one of them set a house on fire. These are things where normally you’d say, these people should go to prison, right?”

“It depends on what their intent was,” one of the Open High students responded. “Like, the kid in this story didn’t want to kill anyone. But if you didn’t know that, you’d just think the kid was nothing but a dangerous person.”

Through the Common Book Initiative, VCU distributed 3,500 copies “Just Mercy” to first-year students, who then attended discussions about the book facilitated by faculty, staff, graduate students and administrators, 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 spring semesters. Beyond the incoming students, however, the entire university and wider community are being encouraged to read “Just Mercy” this year.

Meanwhile, all of Open High School is reading “Just Mercy” this spring. And, in an event inspired by the book, VCU and Open High hosted a discussion in October about race, the justice system, societal power and the role of community following a screening of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Micol Hutchison, Ph.D., director of program development and student success for VCU’s University College, led the VCU students’ visit to Open High.

VCU student Mark Antezana asks an Open High School class questions about prison and juvenile justice as part of a discussion on "Just Mercy."
VCU student Mark Antezana asks an Open High School class questions about prison and juvenile justice as part of a discussion on "Just Mercy."

For the VCU students, she said, the idea was to give them experience with leading discussions and engaging the Richmond community.

“Most of the VCU students are freshmen, so they’re not that far out of high school themselves, but they have a level of expertise now, with most of them having worked with ‘Just Mercy’ for more than a semester,” she said. “They are sharing their knowledge and expertise, getting out in the city, getting to know Richmond a little better and getting to go out into Richmond Public Schools. I’m hoping it builds their confidence about working in the community and in leading an academic discussion.”

For Open High students, she said, the goal was to spark discussion about the book’s themes, particularly those that pertain to teenagers, and also introduce them to VCU students who could answer questions they might have about the college experience.

“We want them to see this as much of a partnership between Open High and VCU as possible because most Open High students are college-bound and VCU is a common college [for Open High students] to be bound for,” she said. “They can talk to the Open High students about things like, ‘Here’s how you choose a major.’ And, ‘What do you do when you enter college majoring in business, but then realize you love literature?’ But then of course it’s also a nice change-up to have someone other than their teacher come in and lead a discussion about this book they’re all reading.”

Skyler “Sky” Lewis, a freshman in the Department of Forensic Science in the College of Humanities and Sciences, volunteered to take part in the Open High School discussion groups after taking part in an October clean-up of Richmond’s historic African-American East End Cemetery that had been organized by the Common Book Initiative.

“I loved the book and I wanted to give back to the community,” she said. “I thought it would be interesting to see how a community of kids from different age groups and perspectives would connect with this book.”

Jalen Thurman, a freshman English major, volunteered to go to Open High School to give back to the community, and also because he hopes to teach one day, and it provided an opportunity to gain experience with students in a classroom setting.

“I was interested to see how [the Open High students] felt about the dehumanization of prisoners in the American justice system,” he said. “In ‘Just Mercy,’ I noticed that there’s this theme of humanizing people, like criminals, that society often dehumanizes. We often overlook [people’s] humanity based on the crimes that they’ve committed. Another theme is rehabilitation versus punishment, and which one should be pursued by the American public in terms of the way that we handle our prison system.”

Shelli Fowler, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of English and interim dean of University College, said the Open High School discussions of “Just Mercy” are part of a larger aim by VCU’s Common Book Initiative to reach out to the broader Richmond community.

“We are working to provide learning experiences that take our first-year students beyond the walls of a classroom and off campus and into the community,” she said. “Partnering with Open High has been a great experience for VCU students as well as for the high school students with whom they are interacting. Sharing the same common read and talking about ‘Just Mercy’ together creates unique opportunities for peer engagement and peer mentoring, and [meeting Thursday’s] exuberant requests for more sessions before Bryan Stevenson comes to the Siegel Center on April 12 is something we plan to do.”


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