Civil rights advocate Vanita Gupta describes the 'momentum to hope' in Richman Lecture

'I firmly believe hope is a discipline. It’s a muscle that we have to exercise.'

Vanita Gupta with Marya LevensonPhoto/Mike Lovett

2018 Richman Fellow Vanita Gupta, right, speaks with Marya Levenson '64.

When she was 26 years old, in an unfamiliar small town in north Texas, a seed of hope was planted in Vanita Gupta.

It was 2001, and Gupta, fresh out of law school, joined the Legal Defense Fund and set out to Tulia, Texas from New York City to look into a police sting that resulted in the arrest of 40 African-Americans — 10 percent of the town’s black population — on drug charges that led to lengthy prison sentences. She oversaw a legal team that shone a light on police misconduct and uncorroborated evidence in the case, leading to the exoneration of those convicted. 

The case received national attention and led to police reform in communities and states across the country. It was the start of a career focused on protecting civil rights and promoting inclusivity that has taken Gupta to the ACLU, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, where she now serves as president.

Gupta participated in a variety of activities and discussions on the Brandeis campus this week as this year’s Richman Distinguished Fellow in Public Life. In a lecture Tuesday afternoon, she focused on the subject of hope, and how she maintains it even in difficult times.

“Although it can feel like it comes from nowhere and nothing, it grows. There’s a momentum to hope,” she said. “There’s a kind of multiplying effect that really can’t be explained. And it is powerful.”

As the leader of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division during President Barack Obama’s second term, Gupta led fights for police reform, transgender rights, voting rights and fair housing. Her time at the Justice Department ended when Donald Trump was sworn in as president. Today, even as she sees much of her work being rolled back, Gupta says she still has hope for progress because of the people, communities and coalitions that continue to fight inequality.

“I firmly believe hope is a discipline. It’s a muscle that we have to exercise,” Gupta said. “The strength of this muscle lies in our history. It lies in the stories of real people and real communities and real leaders who have stared down injustice through some of the most oppressive of times, and decided to fight back, sometimes with the help of government and sometimes without it.”

Before delivering her lecture, Gupta was formally honored by Marya Levenson ’64, the Harry S. Levitan Director of Teacher Education and Professor of the Practice of Education, and Brandeis President Ron Liebowitz.

“Brandeis exemplifies an institution founded on core values that resonate with Ms. Gupta’s accomplishments and action,” Liebowitz said during the ceremony. “Brandeis is dedicated to improving life and opportunity for all. Honoring Vanita Gupta at this time in Brandeis history underscores the profound message that Brandeis stands for: fairness, inclusion and belonging.”

The Richman Fellowship was created by Brandeis alumna Dr. Carol Richman Saivetz ’69, and her children, Michael Saivetz ’97 and Aliza Saivetz Glasser ’01, in honor of her parents, Fred and Rita Richman. The fellowship recognizes individuals active in public life whose contributions have had a significant impact on improving American society, strengthening democratic institutions, advancing social justice or increasing opportunities for all citizens. The fellowship is hosted by the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life on behalf of the Office of the President.

Categories: Alumni, Humanities and Social Sciences

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