Independent Sector to Honor Equal Justice Initiative Founder Bryan Stevenson with John W. Gardner Leadership Award

Stevenson receiving award for his transformative contributions championing the poor, the incarcerated, and the condemned

(WASHINGTON, July 14, 2016) – Independent Sector is proud to announce that it will honor Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), with the 2016 John W. Gardner Leadership Award.

Stevenson is being recognized for his visionary and transformative leadership in criminal justice and as champion for those denied fair and just treatment under the law. He founded the Alabama-based nonprofit, Equal Justice Initiative, in 1989 to provide legal services to low-income defendants and prisoners who have been wrongly convicted, denied effective representation, or whose trials have been marked by racial bias or prosecutorial misconduct.

“Bryan Stevenson’s impact on our society is prophetic,” said Daniel J. Cardinali, president and CEO of Independent Sector. “His commitment to stand with young people and the poor to demand justice in our criminal justice system has helped to improve the lives of individuals, communities, and our nation.”

Independent Sector’s John W. Gardner Leadership Award recognizes an American visionary whose body of work has empowered constituencies, strengthened participation, inspired movements, and improved the community of life on our planet. It is named for the founding chairman of IS, John W. Gardner, a cabinet member in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration and a champion of the charitable sector’s role in driving social change. The award will be presented to Stevenson at the John W. Gardner Leadership Awards Luncheon on November 18 in Washington, DC.

Stevenson’s passionate advocacy for reform in the criminal justice system began years before it became a topic of national debate and discussion. He has argued before the Supreme Court five times and was named one of TIME’s 100 Most Influential People in 2015. He is the author of several books, including the most recent New York Times bestseller, Just Mercy, which focuses on the work of EJI and its clients.

Born in a segregated environment in Delaware, Stevenson was shaped by his family’s quintessential American story. His great grandparents were slaves and his father grew up in a time when there were no schools for black children until the legal system forced desegregation. His family’s story led him to pursue law and while in law school, he had the opportunity to provide legal services for people on death row. The experience shaped his entire career.

In 2012, Stevenson also gave a TED Talk, which, according to TED, “inspired one of the longest and loudest standing ovations in TED’s history.” It also helped raise $1 million for a campaign to end excessive sentencing of children and stop the practice of putting children in adult jails and prisons. Ultimately the effort was successful, as the Supreme Court ruled in early 2016 that teenagers sentenced to mandatory life imprisonment for murder must have a chance to argue that they should be released from prison.

“What Bryan Stevenson has been able to accomplish in his life is truly remarkable,” said Kathy Calvin, president and CEO of the United Nations Foundation and chair of IS’ 2016 John W. Gardner Leadership Award Committee. “He embodies the spirit of John Gardner working tirelessly for social change and strengthening our communities by focusing on our most vulnerable. We are thrilled to honor Bryan as a visionary and transformative leader in the charitable sector.”

Stevenson has also been awarded the prestigious MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Prize and has received 26 honorary degrees. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Eastern University and a law degree from Harvard Law School.

The award is generously supported by the William Randolph Hearst Foundations. Learn more about the award and the 2016 Independent Sector Conference, which takes place November 16-18 in Washington DC.


Independent Sector is the leadership forum for nonprofits, foundations, and corporations whose member networks collectively represent tens of thousands of organizations locally, nationally, and globally. Learn more at

Types: Press Release
Global Topics: Civil Rights, Leadership Development, Race, Equity, and Inclusion, Upswell