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Queen of the Hill

Deborah Vagins ’91 helps shape and create federal policy to enhance American civil rights

By Carrie Compton

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“We have civil rights setbacks, but if you look at the arc of history, it always bends toward more expansive rights,” says Deborah Vagins ’91. “That makes me believe that we will ultimately be successful.” Photo by Lisa Helfert"

Deborah Vagins ’91 was compelled to run from class to her Roberts residence hall phone one day during her junior year. Energized and enthusiastic, she dialed her parents, and announced, “I think I want to be a lawyer.” The law and social policy class she’d just left was exploring reproductive rights. It was the first time Vagins connected her socially conscious upbringing with real-world action.

After graduating with distinction in psychology with a concentration in women’s studies, Vagins became a staff assistant with the Washington, D.C.-based EMILY’s List, an advocacy group that champions pro-choice female Democratic candidates. By the time she left, she was writing political material to help women raise money for federal office. At the time, Vagins was still considering a career as psychologist or lawyer.

“I realized that, through psychology, I’d be helping one person at a time fit into their environment.” says Vagins. “But through law or civil rights, I could change the environment to fit people.”

After law school, Vagins was in private practice litigating national class-action lawsuits, like Dukes v. Wal-Mart, a suit against Wal-Mart for alleged gender discrimination, before transitioning to federal policy work. For the last nine years, she’s been with the American Civil Liberties Union Washington Legislative Office, now as senior legislative counsel, designing and executing strategies on issues related to voting rights, pay equity for women, and racial disparities in school discipline. She presses for new bills on Capitol Hill or pushes for executive action in the White House for civil-rights policy change.

“We’re nonprofit lobbyists,” she explains. “The Constitution is my client. All that I have to present to lawmakers are the strengths of my ideas. There’s no other leverage aside from the Constitution, persuasiveness, and the fact that we, hopefully, have the arc of history on our side.”

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President Barack Obama greets Deborah Vagins ’91 at the White House, April 8, 2014. Vagins was invited to join the President as he signed two executive actions on equal pay for women, on which she had been advocating for years. Official White House photo by Chuck Kennedy.

In a rare convergence, her three cornerstone issues achieved milestones in January. The Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014, introduced Jan. 16., is legislation Vagins had been advocating to shore up the loss of voting rights protections in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision. By invalidating a section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, that verdict allows states with well-documented histories of racially motivated voter disenfranchisement to make voting changes without Department of Justice or court preclearance.

“With other types of discrimination, you can get justice through remedies after the fact, but voting is different,” Vagins says. “You cannot re-ring the election bell.”

On Jan. 30, to honor the five-year anniversary of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, Vagins spent the day escorting Ledbetter around Washington to support new federal action to help achieve pay equity. Vagins fought for the 2009 legislation, the first official bill President Obama signed into law.

Also in January, Vagins pressed the Department of Education to expand its data collection on corporal punishment in schools, still legal in 19 states. She says 250,000 students were hit in public schools by school personnel at least once in the 2006 school year. She expects that once the comprehensive analysis she fought for is complete, those numbers will expose realities grim enough to foster a federally mandated ban. Amid the successes, Vagins admits, are plenty of frustrations. Political maneuvering and Congressional gridlock often derail her efforts.

“I’ve been working on this ban on corporal punishment in schools, and we’ve not yet been successful in getting it passed,” Vagins says. “But I think about those kids, and that motivates me to keep going.”

Vagins laughs at the suggestion that she seems surprisingly optimistic in light of the injustices she works to fix every day—it’s a comment she says she often gets.

“You have these dreams when you’re younger that might seem naïve, but in doing this work I’ve actually been able to achieve mine, so I feel very lucky,” says Vagins. “It’s taken a lot of work from those before me to get where we are [with civil rights], and the work will go on long after me. Mostly, I just feel fortunate to be passing through this moment in history.”

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