Yale Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies
Volume 2, Issue 1
fall 2011
Editor, Geetanjali Singh Chanda
Managing Editor, John-Albert Moseley
Layout Design: Nick Appleby

Alum Spotlight: Vanita Gupta

in conversation with Geetanjali Singh Chanda

Photo by Sarah Le

Vanita Gupta (WS ’96) is a civil rights lawyer and the Deputy Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), where she oversees the ACLU's national criminal and drug law reform advocacy efforts. Gupta is an Indian-American, but was raised in England and France. After Yale, she went to New York University Law School, from which she graduated in 2001.

GSC – At Yale what attracted you to the WS program? 
VG – Going to college at Yale was an intellectual feast. I came to Yale already interested in issues of power and inequality and searched for courses that investigated these issues in greater depth. WS courses gave me the opportunity to think about race and gender and how society structures inequality. The interdisciplinary approach was very exciting and I explored these issues through courses in history, literature, sociology etc. It broadened my horizons.

GSC – How did the program and what you studied shape your worldview?
VG -Yale and the WS major gave me the space to think about all these issues. This was a time of Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” and the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 in California.  At Yale, I had the luxury of reflecting on the current political landscape while also contextualizing it in this nation’s history.

These courses were also a lesson in hope. They taught me the importance of struggle at an individual and community level. Time and time again, it was the efforts of individuals and communities that changed the course of history.  MLK Jr says that the arc of history is long but it bends towards justice. Examining the history of marginalized communities in the US and beyond demonstrated how people can change the course of history and address inequality.  The courses were empowering and a call to action.

GSC – How did you come to be interested in issues of social justice?
VG - No exact time or particular moment as such that I can look back to. But I grew up as a South Asian in Britain in very troubled times when there was a rise of new fascist, Skinhead movements in the late 1970’s. I was conscious of being a minority.  Though I was only 4 years old at the time, I distinctly recall sitting at a McDonalds with my family – parents, sister and my grandmother who was visiting from India – and having two “Skinheads” throwing french fries at us and hurling racial abuses.

I grew up very conscious of being a racial minority.

GSC – What about the Tulia case struck a chord that made you take on the challenge?
VG – In law school (New York University) I had done some criminal justice work. It was impossible to do this work and not be disturbed by the racial disparities and the ease with which the State could deprive a human being of his/her liberty and sometimes even life. 

I went to Tulia 6 weeks after September 11. Tulia is a small town in rural Texas and I did not even know if they had ever seen a South Asian person before.  In 2001, I represented dozens of African-Americans who were charged and convicted of bogus, very low-level cocaine offenses. The only evidence against them was the uncorroborated testimony of one corrupt law enforcement officer, Tom Coleman. That didn't stop my clients from receiving sentences of 20, 40, 60 and even 90 years. While the ending was ultimately a happy one, my clients spent four years in prison for crimes they did not commit while we worked to clear their names against a stubborn backdrop of entrenched racial bias and fear-driven crime and drug war policies that fueled the drug sweep and ensuing convictions.

GSC – How did you manage to translate your sense of outrage and injustice about this case into a collaborative effort that involved 30 top-notch lawyers to work together? And did your youth, gender and ethnicity pose a problem?
VG - The situation was urgent. I could not perseverate too long about the challenges in my way.  Ultimately, I think my age, gender and ethnicity were an asset – they were immediately disarming both with my clients, the Tulia community, and the older, more experienced lawyers I worked with...

The criminal justice system reminds us that we are far from a “post-racial” society.  Racial injustice continues to be an issue in America. And though we were able to win exonerations, my clients had already spent 4 years of their lives in prison. Our victory was limited – they were out of prison but they had no jobs to go to and the prejudice against them continued.

GSC – Can you tell us about the other significant and high profile case that has put your work in the spotlight?
VG – Another case that is near and dear to my heart is the litigation to end the practice of immigrant family detention.  The ACLU investigated and then sued over terrible conditions of confinement of very young children who were being detained in Taylor, Texas in the T. Don Hutto facility run by a for-profit adult prison company for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).  We fought hard and  won a landmark settlement on behalf of the immigrant children. ICE was forced to radically improve conditions in the facility and ultimately halted the pilot program of detaining immigrant families. 

GSC – Tell us a little bit about your personal life. How do you juggle everything? 
I am married now with two sons. The little one is just 3 months old and I am now returning to work. Children are a blessing and force you to be humble. They put everything in perspective.

I am a runner. Right now, I am chasing around after my three year old, but when I have time, I love to go for a good run outside.  Running is for me a stress buster. And along with spending time with family and friends, which I value greatly, running energizes me. [She has run 3 marathons – NY twice and Boston.] I also love reading good fiction when time permits (less so now than before I had kids).  I had long ago contemplated being a writer, but I don’t think I have the discipline to write a book!

Aside from my work at the ACLU [where she is also the Director of the newly formed Center of Justice]. I also continue to teach a racial justice clinic at NYU law school.

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