When Vanita Gupta ’96 saw that one-tenth of the black population of Tulia, Texas, had been arrested on drug charges based solely on the unsubstantiated testimony of one undercover police officer with a history of disciplinary problems, she knew something had to be done.
Gupta, a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, worked tirelessly as a lead counselor for the defense to exonerate those convicted. Her hard work resulted in victory earlier this month when a Texas judge recommended that all the convictions be overturned.
“The case has been my life practically for the last year and a half,” Gupta said. “It’s been pretty overwhelming.”
When Gupta first came to Yale nearly 11 years ago, she said she had no idea what she wanted to do with her life. She said she discovered her passion for social activism during her sophomore year, when she served as president of the South Asian Society and moderator for the Asian-American Student Organization.
“My politics and activism were shaped at Yale,” Gupta said. “What I’m doing today is a continuation of what I did there. The seeds for all of this were planted during my sophomore year.”
Though Gupta came to Yale with a course of study already in mind, her plans soon changed.
“I was going to be an English major,” Gupta said. “But I majored in history and women’s studies because they gave me a kind of grounding and a lens into various contemporary issues.”
Gupta, who went on to serve as chairwoman of the Asian-American Student Organization and co-chairwoman of the Women’s Center, said that being a student at Yale exposed her to a wide range of social justice issues.
“My relationships with my peers and professors at Yale, coupled with having the freedom to work on a variety of issues, led me to become highly involved in the community,” Gupta said.
Gupta became involved with issues ranging from affirmative action to immigrant rights to the labor conflict at Yale. She was even arrested during her senior year for participating in a demonstration on Beinecke Plaza protesting what she called “a history of bad relations between Yale and its workers.”
“In my senior year it was interesting because there was a confluence between my classes and my activism,” Gupta said. “My senior year really inspired me to go to law school.”
Gupta’s fierce convictions about social justice issues lasted through her final day as a Yale student, when she and a group of like-minded activists walked out on graduation to meet civil rights leader Jesse Jackson in an act of protest against the University’s labor policies at the time. Gupta said such actions were representative of a philosophy of confronting issues she embraces to this day.
“I learned to work within the system, but also to approach it creatively and think outside the box,” Gupta said.
According to Gupta, her ability to think creatively was key to achieving a legal victory in the Tulia case. She and her colleagues sought a recusal of the presiding judge because he had already been long involved in the case and appeared to be partial to the accused officer.
“It is important to get new players to adjudicate over these cases in order to ensure fairness to the defendants,” Gupta said.
After graduating from Yale, Gupta spent two years at the Harvard School of Public Health working on youth violence prevention. She then attended New York University Law School and graduated in 2001 with a Soros Justice Fellowship to focus on criminal justice and civil rights.
Gupta said she currently has no plans to leave her position as a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, a law firm focused on defending civil rights. She said she is still hard at work on the Tulia case and expressed her frustration with a painfully slow legal system that has to date kept all of the defendants behind bars. She said she hopes to use Tulia as a model for wide-sweeping reforms of race-biased drug sentencing laws.
“We’re hoping that this won’t take very long,” Gupta said. “The next stage is to push for policy reform on a state and federal level. Tulia is a vehicle for systemic reform.”
Gupta encouraged Yale students not to limit themselves and to try and make a difference in the world.
“I really think college is a time to dream and reflect on the world and the possibility for change,” Gupta said. “It is so worthwhile and important to continue that work beyond college. It’s so amazing to feel good about what you do with your life. Working in the public interest will fuel that.”