‘Despair Is the Enemy of Justice’: Vanita Gupta on Voting, Marching, and Staying in the Fight

Mattie Kahn
·8 mins read

Within one week this summer, Vanita Gupta testified in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. “That’s not the norm,” she says, and she would know. Now the president and CEO of the storied Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Gupta is a veteran of the kind of work that entails appearing before our legislative branch to answer pointed questions on a rather frequent basis. In June she called on lawmakers to commit to policies that would mandate police be more accountable to the communities they serve. Then she did it again.  

Gupta kicked off her legal career with stints at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the ACLU. From October 2014 until the final hours of the Obama administration in 2017, she served as the head of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. When she was offered that job, she was just 39. She started it a little over two months after a police officer killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. She didn’t leave until around 48 hours before Donald Trump was set to be sworn in.

Now she is tasked with leading the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights coalition in a moment of incredible change; she is the first to celebrate the new leaders that the movement for racial justice has minted not just in the last decade but in the last several months. She is also the first to offer her expertise, whether in helping to write a federal bill that aims to reform policing nationwide or in enacting a battle plan to protect the vote in the next election. Vanita Gupta is—as a general rule—at our service. 

After rescheduling this interview once so that she could appear at a congressional hearing on police reform (fair!), Gupta spoke to Glamour about finding her place in the movement, learning from her peers, and the privilege of working toward a better America.

Know what you’re fighting for.

I became an activist in high school; there are no lawyers in my family, but I went to law school focused on what was happening in our criminal justice system. I had spent two years before law school working on youth violence prevention, and I was seeing young Black and brown kids getting funneled into the criminal justice system. I was just distraught about the dehumanization of so many of our children, and at a really early age, I realized this was one of the greatest civil rights travesties of our time; this was the mid-’90s. So I went to law school with a keen sense that I wanted to focus on justice reform issues and racial equality, and my energy for this work only grew the more time I spent working on these issues. It didn’t even feel like making a choice; it just felt like the path I was on.

I have felt really good about the path that I’ve been on because as hard as the hardest days are—and there have been a lot of hard days—I have never had to question why I do this work. It is just evident to me, and that has been really motivating.

Learn from your peers—not just your mentors.

I’ve had incredible mentors in this work, and so many people have helped me throughout my career. But a lot of my greatest advisers are peers. I have leaned on other leaders of organizations in this moment more than ever before, because we all know that we don’t have all the answers. We’re all in this unprecedented time, hoping to figure out what leadership means in this moment and what is required of us in this moment. We all know what it’s like at times to feel insufficient as leaders in this moment.

In just the last few years, I have gotten a lot of guidance from other leaders, and particularly from other women-of-color leaders, some of whom are newer leaders in the movement. That kind of community of support has been essential to me.

You don’t have to be a full-time activist to get involved in the movement.

To me, civil rights work is the ultimate form of patriotism, because it takes a patriot to spend this much time working for the realization of the ideals of this nation. We recognize how imperfect the place we are is, but we are committed to actually fighting for change.

I cannot imagine sitting on the sidelines of this moment.

You can be involved too, whether it’s giving to organizations that are at the front lines of this work or whether it is becoming a poll worker or helping to register people to vote or participating in protest. At a time like this, where we are witnessing our core values getting challenged, the need to show up for your community and your priorities in whatever form you can is imperative.

Not everyone has the luxury or the ability to do this work full-time, but there are so many ways to be a part of the change right now. Some of it is committing to pure acts of civic engagement: filling out the census, registering to vote, exercising your vote, showing up at a protest. And some of it may be more involved: becoming a poll worker or, from the private sector, supporting organizations that are doing this work.

I have always believed that despair is the enemy of justice, and a feeling of complacency is the enemy of justice. Everyone can find a path to show up right now. There are things for everyone to do.

Whether you’re on the inside or the outside, learn how to be a better advocate.

When I was head of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, I was on the inside and in government, but I was still a civil rights advocate. I still had to advocate for the civil rights position; for instance, what position the United States government would take in the Supreme Court on issues that matter so much in people’s lives. I never stopped being a civil rights activist, whether I had subpoena power, which I did at the Department of Justice, or not.

The role that I had meant advocating for change and for pushing the envelope. I served a president and two attorneys general who were leaning more forward into police reform, criminal justice reform, LGBTQ rights, and voting rights. But it was never enough, and it never felt like enough. Still, the position that I had allowed me to be true to myself and the principles that I had. Those are the same principles that I had at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the ACLU and now at the Leadership Conference.

When it all feels like too much, that’s when change happens.

The recent weeks and months have been among the most intense in my adult career. We were in high gear to protect the election and voting rights, regardless, and then we had to deal with the challenge of the pandemic on the election and then the challenge of fighting voter suppression and then the challenge of ensuring a fair and accurate census when the census is the basis for political and economic power in communities nationwide, and we’re leading the 50-state effort to get an accurate count. And then to be hit with the pain and the rage and grief over George Floyd’s killing and Ahmaud Arbery’s killing and Tony McDade’s killing and so many others? It’s a lot.

We then jumped in to help shape a major federal bill—the Justice in Policing Act. I testified in the House of Representatives and the Senate within a week, which is a fairly unusual thing to do. And then because of our work at the Leadership Conference, I’ve never had so much incoming from activists and mayors and progressive leaders. It’s both overwhelming and intense and yet also hopeful about what could be achieved. My team has been amazing and is exhausted, but there’s also a sense of how lucky we are to uplift the movement for Black lives and people who’ve been working on the Black Lives Matter movement for years.

So many of our issues right now are kind of A1 stories—issues around voting rights, the census, police reform, the protection of Dreamers. It feels so meaningful and important to be doing this work, as hard as it is and and as emotional as the backdrop and context is for all of this. Everything is at stake right now; that’s been so energizing.

But the harm for real people for communities of color is always what is sobering, so we place this moment in a broader backdrop of history and what people have had to fight for to get here and how people have lost their lives for the fragile progress that we’ve made.

Be there for your team. Let your team be there for you.

It’s been hard; I won’t lie. It’s been really hard, but I have an amazing team that supports each other and is there for each other to give people that space, because we all need it, and I have a family. I have two kids who are 8 and 10 years old; they are wonderful and grounding. They let me work too much but also put things in perspective and are a real priority. I don’t think that I do it in a balanced way, and I think it’s really hard in this moment, but I work as part of a team. We are there for each other and try to give each other space for some respite. Between that and my family, that’s how I manage it.

Mattie Kahn is the culture director of Glamour.

Originally Appeared on Glamour