Defining Humanity

For the past 20 years, I've lived in the Bay Area working first for technology start-ups and now for large philanthropies fueled by technology successes — but my roots are in Montgomery, Alabama. It was there that I first met Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). Though it was 26 years ago that I first stepped foot into EJI’s initial, tiny office, today Bryan remains a hero that has shaped so much of how I see the world and what I do in it.

From the start, working for Bryan wasn’t just about providing post-conviction appeals for the Alabama death row population.  That was needed, as Alabama had no public defender system at the time and most inmates on death row had no representation. To Bryan, the death penalty is a lens to examine much larger issues in our society: issues about race, about poverty, about gender, about justice and the failings of our criminal justice system.

Since then, Bryan and EJI have expanded their mandate to work on youth incarceration and prison conditions. On a shoestring budget, they have been wildly successful in freeing folks from death row, getting more just sentences, changing prison conditions.   

Bryan Stevenson, 1989

Bryan Stevenson, 1989

Bryan and EJI have given us the vocabulary, the stories, the language that help us fathom complex and difficult issues. These are issues that define our country and our humanity, issues of race and poverty and fairness.  EJI recently unveiled a seminal report, documenting all of the lynchings that occurred in the American South.  Moreover, they offered a categorization system for these lynchings, revealing a wide range of "social purposes" that various types of lynchings served.  Bryan's memoir, Just Mercy, is more than a captivating story. It lends us more language, vital ways to explore and understand the state of the American criminal justice system.  And if you have not seen it, spend 15 minutes to watch Bryan's TED talk.  I've watched it over and over again, whenever I need inspiration and clarity of purpose.

Finally, Bryan has built EJI into one of the most sought-after civil rights work opportunities in the country -- and he has done it on a remarkably small budget.  No penny goes wasted.  I attended EJI's 25th anniversary a year ago in New York. Some several hundred lawyers showed up, each of us having worked for EJI over the past 25 years.  A shockingly high percentage of them -- easily 25% -- now lead their own civil rights, human rights and social change organizations. That's the kind of influence that Bryan has, and the kind of ripple effect EJI creates: well beyond any specific lawyering, to change the path of a career, of a movement, of a nation.

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As the principal of Will Fitzpatrick PC, Will supports several of Pam and Pierre Omidyar’s philanthropic endeavors around the world, including serving as general counsel and secretary of the board of Omidyar Network.

He was instrumental in conceiving and implementing Omidyar Network’s novel legal structure.  Comprised of both a private foundation and a for-profit entity, Omidyar Network functions with an integrated governance structure, a singular mission, and one staff.  In addition, Will oversaw the establishment of Omidyar Network’s international offices.

Will began his career as a clerk for Judge Myron Thompson of the U.S. District Court in Alabama, and prior to law school he worked for the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit providing post-conviction legal assistance to death row inmates.  He earned his JD from Columbia University and graduated with honors from Harvard College with an AB in American history and literature.