Just a few miles from Independence Hall, 2015’s TEDxPhiladelphia explored the idea of “And Justice for All” — the closing line of the Pledge of Allegiance — at the Temple Performing Arts Center.
Speakers discussed the triumphs and tragedies that define our nation. Out of the 14 speakers who took the stage last Thursday, here are just a few highlights. (You can watch the whole event here.)
1. Michelle Johnson
As a child, Michelle Johnson came to the United States from Jamaica with her grandmother. Her life changed drastically when her grandmother had a stroke and lost the ability to use her right arm and leg. While doctors and physical therapists did what they could to aid Johnson’s grandmother, the young girl asked herself one question: “How can I help?”
She found an answer in her education and chose to study rehabilitation robotics. At university she found a whole world of robotics built to help the sick. The technology existed, but its expense limited its use to the rich. That’s when Johnson’s question changed: “How can we make therapy robots more inexpensive and accessible?”
After working on a number of robotics projects in the U.S., Johnson moved to Mexico.
“Affordability has to be defined in the context of a country,” Johnson, who works in Penn Medicine’s Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation department, said.
She and her team created TheraDrive, a robotics gym meant to expedite the recovery of stroke victims. After she helped bring accessible rehabilitation robotics to the U.S. and Mexico, she focused her operations on the African country of Botswana, one of the poorest nations on earth. Today, Johnson has modified her project to become accessible to the very poorest, resulting in her latest creation: Rehab Cares in a Crate.
As a child, she wanted to help her grandmother. Each future endeavor inspired her to help a larger audience of stroke victims. Each endeavor inspired justice for all.
2. Stacy Holland
Stacy Holland is a schoolteacher and the chief of strategic partnerships for the School District of Philadelphia.
Her TEDx story begins on the sidewalk, where she heard the call of a former student as he approached her with open arms. It was Michael, whom she had taught 10 years earlier, and as he spoke, she realized he was working the same job she helped him get a decade ago. She felt a depression that betrayed Michael’s enthusiasm. She wondered if he thought this was how his life was supposed to be. She thought, “Have I helped sell him this lie?”
Holland presented a photo of students from the 9th grade class she taught. Then to the audience she broke down some stark numbers:
- 35 percent of the students wouldn’t graduate, she said.
- 32 percent would go on to college but just 10 percent would earn four-year college degrees.
- In that way, she said, it seemed that 90 percent had been condemned to poverty by a broken education system.
“I won’t be a critic if I’m not willing to do something about it,” she said, explaining her move to the School District of Philadelphia, an epicenter of educational adversity.
At the core of the problem, she explained three possible solutions:
- “Have an aspiration.” Teachers need to believe in students so they can believe in themselves.
- “Change your behavior.” Parents and teachers become role models whether they like it or not. Set a positive example.
- “Don’t quit.” Teaching is for the toughest of the tough, people who won’t give up on their students despite extreme circumstances.
Justice for all is hard to fathom without education for all.
3. Marsha Levick
Children’s rights lawyer Marsha Levick opened her talk with an observation: Children are those who perform the Pledge of Allegiance most regularly, yet they know the least about the meaning of justice.
Set that aside for a moment.
Levick dove into history and told the audience that the first juvenile court was established in 1899 to prevent the imprisonment of children. A picture of an early 1900s juvenile court appeared on the screen behind her. In the picture, a judge sits next to two young children. That and only that is the trial.
No lawyers, no prosecutors, no court reporters, no jury.
This is a trial behind closed doors, which the juvenile justice system got away with until the 1960s when the case of a 15-year-old boy, Gerald Gault, reached the Supreme Court. Gault was confined in a juvenile facility for six years after making a prank phone call to a neighbor. When the case reached the Supreme Court, the judges ruled that juvenile court must share the proceedings of regular court. Juvenile court is still far from perfect. Look no further than 2008’s “kids for cash” scandal.
“The Pledge of Allegiance is a collective promise,” Levick said. “A collective promise that we can make justice for all. Systems don’t break promises. People do.”
4. Charles H. Ramsey
Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey continued the conversation of liberty with some history and insights on the American police force. There needs to be a sense of trust between a community and its police officers.
“Police have not always stood on the right side of justice as we define justice today,” Ramsey said.
He referred to role of police during the time of slavery in the United States as well as the enforcement of Jim Crow laws.
Ramsey said that the average police officer will tell you their role is to “enforce the law,” which he refuted. “It’s about the Constitution,” he said. “It’s about protecting people’s rights.”
He spoke about the current situation the United States, where we’re at our lowest level of crime in most states since the 1950s, but there has never been more distrust between the community and its police force.
“Don’t measure success solely by the absence of crime, but instead the presence of justice in communities,” Ramsey said.