Newman University is one of three groups that have formed individual book clubs. The Wichita State University Office of Diversity and Inclusion and local organization Progency have also formed book clubs of their own.
Each group was provided with complimentary copies of “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption” for each of its members along with dialogue questions and other resources to use.
The Newman group is reading the book during the month of August and is meeting weekly by Zoom to have discussions on the chapters assigned each week.
Shepard said it’s a way for the participants, which include 30 Newman faculty, staff, students and Adorers of the Blood of Christ (ASC) members, to openly share thoughts, stories and perspectives on a topic that is relevant in today’s culture.
The book is a true-story account of lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s journey to defend his clients, individuals who may have been wrongly condemned, and fighting for better treatment of individuals, including children, within the criminal justice system.
The opportunity transpired when Shepard was approached by Storytime Village at the beginning of July to see if Newman University would be interested in partnering with them.
Storytime Village, founded in 2009, is a nonprofit organization advocating for children’s literacy. The organization provides free books and literacy resources to underserved children with the help of community partners.
Founder and CEO Prisca Barnes said being proficient in literacy at a young age promotes a better future.
“Literacy opens up doors for our younger generations and it can change their future,“ said Barnes. “Looking at literacy rates and the connection between literacy and the criminal justice system, we thought it would be a good time right now to explore the topic and have some dialogue around the issue.”
A limited number of books were gifted to Storytime Village in 2018. Barnes said they weren’t quite sure how to use them at the time so they were waiting on shelves in the office.
“Then here came 2020,” exclaimed Barnes. “And we thought, ‘What better time to do something with these books than now?’ We decided on doing the book clubs and then we started looking at partners in the community who might want to participate. We wanted to reach individuals who were interested in reading and having a dialogue but we also looked at the broader picture for us, which is more than just the story.
“We saw the connection between the book’s topic — social injustice — and literacy challenges in our young children. We have all these young people who are in prisons or institutions and they cannot read above a fourth-grade level. The book club provides us an opportunity to find like-minded people with a passion for social justice who may not know of our organization but have the heart and desire to become a part of the solution.”
Shepard said he jumped at the opportunity to partner with Storytime Village. He believes both the nonprofit’s mission and the book’s topic align perfectly with the Newman University code and mission statement.
“The work of creating a better world is part of what Newman is all about,” said Shepard. “It is my hope that our group conversations will energize participants to play an active role, no matter how big or small.”
Shepard added that he hopes those participating in the book club walk away with a renewed passion and desire to intentionally work to see the world from a different point of view, finding their own personal way of making a difference.
Newman senior Gabrielle Altenor is the 2020-21 student body president and a biology major with minors in pre-law and Spanish. She said her career goals align with the book’s topics very well. Her main reason for joining the book club was the opportunity to engage in conversation about the book.
“I had already seen the movie and I’ve watched several documentaries featuring Bryan Stevenson as a speaker,” explained Altenor. “I love his work with the EJI (Equal Justice Initiative) and all he has done to increase awareness about the treatment of society’s often forgotten population, the incarcerated.
“I see great value in entering into dialogue with faculty, staff and fellow students about topics many often never have had true exposure to. Especially in a year like this, there are so many reasons to be talking about the imprisoned, how they got there, and what they may face after sentencing.”
Altenor is looking at law schools in Kansas, where she hopes to build her career. She is still undecided on the type of law she wants to practice but named criminal law, immigration law, health law and civil rights law as several options.
“I intend to use graduate work as a way to gain proximity to the causes that I’m pulled most toward. One insight from the book that I’ve related to my Catholic experience is the idea of proximity being necessary to understand important things. One corporal work of mercy of the Catholic Church is to visit the imprisoned.”
Sister Mary Catherine Clark, ASC, said she relishes the chance for this type of quality interaction with such a variety of people from the Newman community. She believes conversation is important for many reasons but mostly because, as a woman of faith, she believes in the solidarity of all people and of all creation.
“The signs of the times demand it. As a human being, an American citizen, as a person of the Gospel and faith, as an institution that wants to empower others to transform society — it’s so important to get together with our community and have discussions about important issues.”
Associate Professor of English Marguerite Regan loves a well-written story. She had never read the book or seen the movie version but had heard of what the book is about. She said she has enjoyed reading the book, learning more about the deep and widespread injustices of the legal system, and being a part of the discussions during the weekly meetings.
“I really admire Joseph, our moderator. He has such a natural ease of interaction and creates an atmosphere of comfort and trust. He and Christine (Schneikart-Luebbe) have brought together every constituency on campus — students, staff, administrators, faculty and sisters of the ASC — into a heartfelt discussion of the most pressing social matter of our day.”
Many of the book club’s participants at Newman said they would like to be a part of future discussions that focus on books written about a variety of important topics. Current members said they would be interested in similar readings organized by the Newman student life department if the chance was presented.
Jenny Duong, a junior at Newman, was happy to see so many professors and staff members sign up for the book club. Future book clubs on other historical topics, she said, would provide even more ways for students, staff and faculty to educate themselves and would promote personal growth.
“It really pleased me to see that my professors are comfortable with learning more about this topic. They are ready to learn more in order to educate and relate to their students … that’s a great thing to see.”
Shepard said the opportunity to partner with Storytime Village was one he couldn’t pass on and added it has been an honor to partner with the nonprofit in this endeavor.
“Storytime Village was created with the mission to ensure every child has the ability to read. Given their mission and commitment to serving Kansas, I do hope we can partner with them in the future.”