George Barrett Social Justice Program

George Barrett Annual Lecture

The Barrett Lecture, along with the Social Justice Program, was named, endowed, and expanded in honor of George Barrett (VLS ’57) in August 2015. “Citizen George,” as he was widely known, was a civil rights pioneer. He represented student protesters in the Nashville sit-in movement, labor unions working to protect workers’ rights, and shareholders and consumers wronged by corporate malfeasance. He was best known for leading a decades-long and ultimately successful legal battle to desegregate Tennessee’s public institutions of higher learning.

Past Lectures

  • The Strengths and Limits of Democracy as a Tool to Advance Social Justice with Judge Allison Riggs

    In Judge Riggs’ lecture, she will address two “truisms” that are mentioned frequently in voting rights spaces: (1) democracy works best when more people participate; and (2) political issues are better addressed in the state political process rather than in the federal courts. It is nearly impossible to practice voting rights law and not encounter these “truisms,” and yet for their frequent incantations, neither is universally agreed upon – far from it. And as different as these “truisms” are, both are fundamentally intertwined.

  • Fulfilling the Unfulfilled Promise of Racial and Economic Justice

    Julie Su was appointed by President Biden to serve as the deputy secretary of labor and confirmed by the Senate on July 13, 2021. The deputy secretary serves as the de-facto chief operating officer for the department, overseeing its workforce, managing its budget and executing the priorities of the secretary of labor.

    Su is a nationally recognized expert on workers' rights and civil rights who has dedicated her distinguished legal career to advancing justice on behalf of poor and disenfranchised communities and is a past recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant.

  • Political Activism, Legal Advocacy, and Labor Organizing: A Conversation on Creating Change with Danny Glover, David Cole and Bruce Raynor

    The George Barrett Social Justice Program hosted the annual Barrett Lecture October 10, 2019 featuring a discussion of three different perspectives/experiences of social justice advocacy – Danny Glover as an actor turned activist, David Cole as a public interest lawyer, and Bruce Raynor as a labor leader.

  • Challenging Family Separation in the Courts

    The George Barrett Social Justice Program welcomed Lee Gelernt as the 2018-19 Barrett Lecturer. Mr. Gelernt is the lead attorney for the families in the Ms. L litigation in San Diego challenging the federal government’s practice of forcibly separating parents and children at the border. He spoke about this high-profile ongoing civil rights litigation, which resulted in the district court’s June 2018 issuance of a nationwide injunction prohibiting the federal government from separating migrant and asylum-seeking families at the border and requiring reunification of separated families.

  • Democracy Under Attack: Race, Rights and Resistance

    In the 2018 George Barrett Social Justice Lecture at Vanderbilt Law School on April 5, Kristen Clarke challenged VLS students to use their legal skills to address a “national assault” on civil rights that has included voter suppression, mass incarceration and police brutality.

    Clarke, president and executive director of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, began her talk by recalling a meeting convened in June 1963 by President John F. Kennedy, who invited attorneys from throughout the U.S. to Washington and challenged them to fight for civil rights in their hometowns and states. The late George Barrett ’57, for whom Vanderbilt’s George Barrett Social Justice Program is named, was one of 244 attorneys who attended the meeting. Barrett responded to Kennedy’s charge with a 50-year legacy of civil rights work, including Geier v. Tennessee, a landmark case that desegregated Tennessee’s institutions of higher education.

Distinguished Practitioner in Residence

Founder & Managing Attorney Partner at Greater Waco Legal Services

Kent McKeever '12

Kent founded Greater Waco Legal Services in 2017 with a passion for providing folks in Waco-McLennan County and surrounding areas access to the justice system through affordable legal representation, advice and resources. Kent serves as the Managing Attorney Partner & works with clients on cases involving immigration, wills, probate, & property. Kent graduated from Baylor University in 2001 & Princeton Theological Seminary in 2004. After serving as the Executive Director & Pastor of a non-profit ministry, Kent saw the need for legal advocacy on many levels & attended Vanderbilt Law School (J.D., 2012).

Previous Distinguished Residents

  • 2022-23: Kalpana Kotagal

    Ms. Kotagal is a highly acclaimed employment and civil rights litigator and partner with the plaintiffs’ firm Cohen Milstein. She represents women and other disenfranchised people in employment and civil rights class actions, often involving cutting-edge issues related to the Title VII, Equal Pay Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, Family Medical Leave Act, as well as wage and hour issues.  She is also the co-author of the Inclusion Rider. Ms. Kotagal was nominated by President Biden in April 2022 for Commissioner on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

  • 2021-22: Aisha McWeay '09

    Aisha McWeay is a career public defender who currently serves as executive director at Still She Rises Tulsa, a legal nonprofit based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that focuses exclusively on representing mothers in the criminal and civil legal systems. Before joining Still She Rises in 2019, Professor McWeay worked with the Nashville Defenders, where she rose from assistant public defender to general sessions division chief and ultimately to deputy public defender. At Still She Rises, she leads a team that includes criminal, civil and family defense attorneys, investigators, attorneys focused on impact litigation and client advocates. She also serves in a number of training and mentoring capacities to support indigent defense and community organizations nationally. She was honored in 2017 for her career contributions to indigent defense with the Gideon’s Promise Stephen B. Bright Award.

  • 2019-20: Nina Perales

    Nina Perales is vice president of Lltigation for MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. In that role, she supervises the legal staff and litigation docket in MALDEF’s offices throughout the United States. Perales is best known for her work in voting rights, including redistricting and vote dilution cases. Her litigation has included successful statewide redistricting cases in Texas and Arizona as well as LULAC v. Perry (2006), a Voting Rights Act challenge to Texas congressional redistricting which Perales led through trial and argued successfully in the U.S. Supreme Court. She also led the challenge under the National Voter Registration Act to an Arizona voter law and secured a favorable ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court in Arizona v. ITCA (2013). In addition, Perales specializes in immigrants’ rights litigation, including leading the case striking down an anti-immigrant housing ordinance in Farmers Branch, Texas.

  • 2018-19: Jameel Jaffer

    The George Barrett Social Justice Program welcomed Jameel Jaffer as the 2018-19 George Barrett Distinguished Practitioner in Residence.

    What we once called the “public square” is now controlled to a large extent by social media companies and other transnational private corporations which have an immense, if poorly understood, influence on who can speak, what can be said, and what speech gets heard. Because these corporations shape public discourse (and thereby shape our societies), we should recognize that research and journalism that focuses on them is of special social value. What would it mean for the law to reflect this recognition? The law affords special protection to journalism and research focused on the government. Should it afford analogous protection to journalism and research focused on the social media platforms?

  • 2017-18: Ahilan Arulanantham

    The George Barrett Social Justice Program welcomed Ahilan Arulanantham as the 2017-18 George Barrett Distinguished Practitioner in Residence on Tuesday, January 30, 2018.
    Reflecting on his own family history and his career at the ACLU, Ahilan discussed lessons learned from his work representing immigrants for the last 15 years. Among other topics, he talked of his experiences with individuals detained in New York after 9/11, his litigation on behalf of Central American children, and his advocacy on behalf of detained immigrants at the Supreme Court.

  • 2015-16: Derwyn Bunton

    Vanderbilt's 2015-16 Social Justice Fellow, Derwyn Bunton, is the chief district defender for Orleans Parish (New Orleans), Louisiana, where he leads the Orleans Public Defenders Office, which represents the vast majority of persons charged with crimes – misdemeanors, felonies, and capital offenses – in Orleans Parish. Bunton delivered a talk focusing on the challenges of on-the-ground defense work. In his talk, "Public Defense in an Era of Mass Incarceration," drawing connections between the daily struggle to provide indigent clients with the competent defense the constitution requires and the reality of skyrocketing caseloads and overcrowded prisons.

  • 2015: Stephen A. Sanders '78

    Stephen A. Sanders '78, the 2015 Social Justice Fellow and director of the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, delivered a talk about his work with the ACLC. His talk focused on his work representing Kentucky coal miners seeking in cases involving black lung disease, caused by inhaling coal dust over a long period of time. His talk addressed the case of Gary Fox, a now-deceased coal miner whose claim for federal disability benefits was denied twice. The Fox case was among those featured in a Pulitzer Prize-winning series by the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity, "Breathless and Burdened: Dying from Black Lung, Buried by Law and Medicine," which alleged that coal industry lawyers and doctors had colluded to block disabled miners from receiving federal black lung benefits.

  • 2014: James Esseks

    As Director of the LGBT and AIDS Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, James Esseks, the 2014 Social Justice Fellow, has helped shape the legal strategy that in the space of just over a decade has moved LGBT persons from extreme subordination to the brink of full legal equality. With US v. Windsor, the 2013 landmark case striking down crucial portions of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, he achieved the win of a lifetime — a victory that immediately and dramatically changed the lives of all LGBT Americans, the ripple effects of which promise to be even more transformative.

  • 2013: Oona Chatterjee

    Oona Chatterjee, associate director of New York City Organizing with the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, visited VLS in February as the 2013 Social Justice Fellow. In her lecture, "The Young Lawyer as Social Justice Entrepreneur," Chatterjee examined the critical role that lawyers play in building organized power in low-income communities.

  • 2012: Stephen B. Bright

    Stephen B. Bright is president and senior counsel of the Southern Center for Human Rights and teaches at Yale Law School. He served as director of the Center from 1982 through 2005, and has been in his present position since the start of 2006. He has taught at Yale since 1993. View a slideshow of the event.

  • 2011: Cecilia Wang

    Cecilia Wang, who is the Director of the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project, was Vanderbilt's inaugural Social Justice Fellow in 2011. Wang spent several days at the law school meeting with students and sharing her experiences as a social justice attorney.

VLS Community Book and Film Club on Racial Justice and Civil Rights

Open to all members of the VLS community, the Book and Film Club on Racial Justice and Civil Rights guides investigation into thought-provoking works to analyze their ideas and perspectives with a goal of developing greater depth of understanding on themes of racial justice and civil rights. Facilitated by a member of our faculty, each meeting encourages open and wide-ranging conversation on the themes raised in each work, connecting them to our own thinking, experiences and areas of study and research.

The Office of Diversity, Equity and Community, along with the George Barrett Social Justice Program welcome members of the law school community to these discussions, even if they have not fully read the assigned book. 

Covered Topics

  • "My Name is Pauli Murray" directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West

    This critically acclaimed 2021 documentary spotlights the life and legacy of an often overlooked - but extraordinarily influential - figure in the history of civil rights. Dr. Murray’s writings, described by Justice Thurgood Marshall as essential reading for civil rights lawyers, have powerfully shaped the fight for racial justice and civil rights. Dr. Murray was also instrumental in fighting for gender equality and doing so from an intersectional lens. Their impact on jurisprudence, institutions, and public thought has been singularly important – and yet little is known about who Dr. Murray was, their life and contributions to the world we inhabit today.

    Co-sponsored by the Office of Equity, Diversity and Community and the George Barrett Social Justice Program.
    Co-hosted by Black Law Students Association, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Council, Law Students for Social Justice, OUTlaw, and Women Law Students Association.

  • Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

    Beyond race, class, or other factors, there is a powerful caste system that influences people's lives and behavior and the nation's fate. Linking the caste systems of America, India, and Nazi Germany, Wilkerson explores eight pillars that underlie caste systems across civilizations, including divine will, bloodlines, stigma, and more. Using riveting stories about people—including Martin Luther King, Jr., baseball's Satchel Paige, a single father and his toddler son, Wilkerson herself, and many others—she shows the ways that the insidious undertow of caste is experienced every day.

  • Choke Hold by Paul Butler

    Cops, politicians, and ordinary people are afraid of black men. The result is the Choke Hold: laws and practices that treat every African American man like a thug. In this explosive new book, an African American former federal prosecutor shows that the system is working exactly the way it's supposed to. Black men are always under watch, and police violence is widespread—all with the support of judges and politicians. In his no-holds-barred style, Butler, whose scholarship has been featured on 60 Minutes, uses new data to demonstrate that white men commit the majority of violent crime in the United States.

  • Representing the Race by Kenneth Mack

    Representing the Race tells the story of an enduring paradox of American race relations through the prism of a collective biography of African American lawyers who worked in the era of segregation. Practicing the law and seeking justice for diverse clients, they confronted a tension between their racial identity as black men and women and their professional identity as lawyers. Both blacks and whites demanded that these attorneys stand apart from their racial community as members of the legal fraternity. Yet, at the same time, they were expected to be "authentic"—that is, in sympathy with the black masses. This conundrum, as Kenneth W. Mack shows, continues to reverberate through American politics today.

  • Fatal Invention by Dorothy E. Roberts

    This groundbreaking book by the acclaimed Dorothy Roberts examines how the myth of the biological concept of race—revived by purportedly cutting-edge science, race-specific drugs, genetic testing, and DNA databases—continues to undermine a just society and promote inequality in a supposedly “post-racial” era. Named one of the ten best black nonfiction books 2011 by, Fatal Invention offers a timely and “provocative analysis” (Nature) of race, science, and politics by one of the nation’s leading legal scholars and social critics.

Social Justice and the Legal Profession Panel Series

The George Barrett Social Justice Program and the Public Interest Office are pleased to offer the Social Justice and the Legal Profession lunchtime panel series. The series will expose students to a diverse range of career paths that allow attorneys to put into practice their social justice and public service values. It will also explore the special responsibility all attorneys have for the quality of our justice system.

Previous Panels

  • From Idealists to Hired Guns? An Empirical Analysis of Public Interest Drift in Law School

    Featuring John Bliss of University of Denver Sturm College of Law. Professor Bliss will discuss his five-year qualitative study of the experiences of more than 50 elite law students who entered law school with stated preferences for public sector work but decided to pursue private sector positions by the beginning of their 2L year. Professor Bliss studied the students’ experiences through interviews, ethnographic observations, and identity mapping. His findings indicate that law student “public interest drift” is a far more complex and nuanced process than traditional accounts suggest.

  • Technology and Civil Liberties Law in the Public Interest

    This event featured three panelist—Laura Moy, Executive Director of the Georgetown Law Center on Privacy & Technology; Matt Cagle, Technology & Civil Liberties attorney at the ACLU of Northern California; and Sophia Cope, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. They discussed current legal issues involving new and developing technologies and how they intersect with other areas of law such as immigration and policing, as well as how the panelists have pursued their public interest careers. G.S. Hans, Assistant Clinical Professor of Law at Vanderbilt Law School, moderated the panel.

  • LGBTQ+ Advocacy Panel

    The panel will focused on LGBTQ+ rights advocacy and careers and was moderated by Professor Jessica Clarke . Speakers include Tara Borelli, Counsel at Lambda Legal, Dru Levasseur, Deputy Program Officer for the National LGBT Bar Association and Foundation, and David Dinielli, Deputy Legal Director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s LGBT Rights Project.

  • Children’s Advocacy Panel

    The panel explored various areas of children’s rights practice, including: education rights; juvenile justice; and “best interests” advocacy, as well as the range of practice settings – nonprofit, public defender’s offices, government agencies – from which this work can be pursued.

  • VLS Grads Serving Public Interest

    This panel featured three outstanding young VLS alums working the public interest sector. Karen Lindell '12 is an attorney at the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia, which she joined as a Skadden Fellow in 2014. Vidhi Joshi '15 was a Skadden Fellow focusing on re-entry issues at Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands. Darrius Woods '17 is an Equal Justice Works fellow working on predatory lending and housing issues at Atlanta Legal Aid. The panelists will discuss their current work and their paths from VLS into public interest work.

Have Questions?

Contact the George Barrett Social Justice Program coordinator.