Vanita Gupta was awarded the Richman Distinguished Fellow in Public Life award Tuesday, March 6 to an audience of faculty and students. After a brief introduction by President Ron Liebowitz, Gupta gave a talk on fighting for hope and social justice
The Richman prize is awarded by the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life on behalf of the Office of the President and created by Brandeis alumna Carol Richman Saivetz ’69 and her children, in honor of her parents. The award is funded through the Richman and Saivetz families.
After the presentation of the award, Gupta thanked the Brandeis community, Profesor Marya Levenson (ED) and President Liebowitz. She said she was “touched and humbled” by the award. Gupta’s talk focused on social justice and the theme of the night: hope in perilous times.
Gupta cited the dangers of the present political climate, including the rescinding of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, the rollback of protections for LGBTQ individuals and the white supremacy march in Charlottesville, VA earlier this year. Gupta continued, however, to say that she was “not here to read a parade of these horribles,” and moved on to make her “case for hope.”
Gupta described hope as “a discipline” and a “muscle we have to exercise.” Though she initially expressed concern about the political climate, Gupta quickly moved on to a discussion of movements such as the abolition, suffrage and the more recent movement for gun control as examples of a “profound reservoir of hope.”
Gupta described her relationship with hope as a civil rights lawyer and told the story of her first case after her graduating from New York University’s School of Law. Gupta began, “I’d like…to talk about hope, and about my own personal experience with it. About the stories that have kept my faith strong during trying times,” she said, “I received… a crude lesson of the necessity of hope as a 26-year-old attorney starting out at the NAACP legal defense initiative fund…looking into a series of cases in a small town of Tulia, Texas.”
Gupta investigated a drug sting that occurred in the town of Tulia where 46 people were arrested and charged with possession of small amounts of cocaine—40 of whom were African American, based on the testimony of one officer with no corroborative evidence. Gupta took the case with a team of attorneys, and worked on the case through 2004, when Texas governor Rick Perry pardoned all the defendants. For her work on the case, Gupta was awarded the 2004 Reebok Human Rights Award.
Gupta’s experience in Texas shaped her work at the Department of Justice’s civil rights division, she said. “I watched that small seed of hope that was planted in me at Tulia grow as I worked with the division’s amazing career lawyers and investigators on the path to realizing unprecedented police and criminal justice reform during the last two and a half years during the Obama administration,” she said.
Gupta then praised how the movement for criminal justice reform grew from local activism, stating that hope “has always been built from the ground up,” again citing the movement for criminal justice reform as an example of why she remains “deeply hopeful…about the progress this country has made.”
In her final remarks, Gupta gave the audience her reasons for hope, despite the “anxiety and fear” inspired by recent government actions, including the rescinding of the DACA program. “My hope for democracy is also grounded in the fact that millions of people in this country who never saw themselves as activists before, are suddenly taking it upon themselves to protect the fragile process that this nation has made since its founding,” Gupta said.
She continued, “And it’s really the hope that men and women today can build a more just, a more inclusive, and more fair future for the children of tomorrow. It’s the hope that people will reap the benefits of this work for generations to come. And it’s the hope that despite all the zigs and the zags of our nation’s history that we are going to continue that America marches forward, imperfectly but inexorably.”
Gupta noted Brandeis University’s founding as a reason for hope as well, saying, “it was then, and it is now, an institution that is built on hope.” Finally, Gupta advised the audience not just to hope, but to act. “Our hope has to be coupled with action, with the courage to act, the courage to stand up for what we know is right, the courage to raise our voices when we know something is wrong, the courage to keep our faith and our will to fight for the America that we deserve.”
Gupta is the president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and has served as principal deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights for the Department of Justice. She is known for her work prosecuting human trafficking and hate crimes and protecting LGBTQ rights.
Prior to working at the Justice Department, Gupta worked as an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education fund and helped develop the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) criminal justice reform project.
As part of the Justice department, Gupta has worked on investigations into racial profiling and
police shootings of African Americans and lead a discrimination lawsuit against North Carolina for infringing on rights of gay and transgender people. She has also worked on voter ID cases in Texas and North Carolina.
After her speech, Gupta led a question and answer session with Levenson and took questions from the audience. Earlier that day, Gupta attended and spoke at the class “Civil Rights and Civil Liberties: Constitutional Debates” with Professor Daniel Breen.