Addressing racial and economic inequity: A personal connection to a powerful film

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By Lata Reddy

A powerful new film opened recently. “Just Mercy” tells the story of Walter McMillian who was convicted and sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit. The film is based on a memoir written by the man who represented Mr. McMillian — the renowned public interest attorney and social justice advocate Bryan Stevenson.

In reading the book and now watching the film, I was taken back to my experience as a legal intern representing death row inmates in the deep South. At the time, I was a law student and had taken an internship with a public interest law firm called Southern Prisoners Defense Committee. Bryan Stevenson was my supervisor.

During my three years of interning with the committee, I made many trips to the federal prison in Talladega, Alabama. There I sat across from our clients, the men on death row. Each one told story after story tracking a similar pattern that led to being wrongfully convicted or denied a fair trial. Most of the men I met were African American, the result of a criminal justice system built on a legacy of racial injustice.

Their searing stories made a lasting impact on me. They influenced my career and how I try to live my life. The experience also built on lessons my father taught me, like about how too many people are being sidelined by a system intended to hold them back.

My father, Nallapu Reddy, grew up in extreme poverty in rural India. From that humble beginning, he would distinguish himself, becoming a professor of economics and chairing the Economics Department at the University of Michigan-Flint. It was there he spent his career educating first-generation college-goers like himself.

Growing up as he did, in a society where being poor meant being marginalized, my father could easily have gone down a different path. He credited many people who extended help at critical moments with enabling him to pursue his dream of an education which he knew would open doors of opportunity. There was the family friend who helped my father transition from his village school, which stopped at fourth grade, to the school in the next town over; the big city university official who agreed to provide him with room and board in exchange for tutoring services for his children, allowing him to further continue his studies. There was the friend of an acquaintance who drove my father to work every day when he didn’t have the means for his own transportation.

My father taught me what it’s like to face systemic barriers and what it takes to overcome them. It takes hard work, sure, but it also requires people who believe in you and recognize your humanity. My father was fortunate. People like Walter McMillian and the men I met on death row were not so lucky. They were caught in a web of racial bias and discrimination against the poor with devastating outcomes.

My experience at the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee reinforced this lesson and gave me a sense of purpose — to eliminate systemic barriers and help level the playing field.

This is what eventually drew me to Prudential, a company that was founded on the principle of equity. More than 140 years ago, we were the first U.S. company to make life insurance affordable to working-class families. We have strived since then to live our values. We affirmatively chose to stay in our hometown and headquarters city of Newark, New Jersey, following the civil unrest of 1967 and have been committed to revitalizing this great city. More than 10 years ago, we were an early adopter of a “ban the box” policy, removing the checkbox that asks applicants if they have a criminal record. And more recently, we committed $180 million to help young people around the globe secure quality jobs. These are just some examples of how we are building equity into our business practices.

As a legacy company, we have seen firsthand how America’s complicated history plays out. There were times when we lost our way, caught up in prevailing views of the moment. But we acknowledge it and most importantly we changed. I am proud that today we recognize the importance of confronting injustice in all its forms.

“Just Mercy” is a call to action to each of us to address racial and economic inequity. It’s a call to action that I learned from my father’s stories and one that is reinforced every day whether it’s in conversations I have with Newark residents or with young people in the favelas of Brazil. There is endless potential that resides in all of us — sometimes it just needs someone to open the door of opportunity.

Lata Reddy is senior vice president, Diversity, Inclusion & Impact, at Prudential.

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