“Passover is my favorite holiday,” said Susan Gzesh, director of the Human Rights Program and lecturer in the Law School, between sips of tea and bites of sushi in Thursday’s session of the Rockefeller sponsored series “What is Important to Me and Why.”
Gzesh commented on her dedication to bridging law and social activism in an intimate lunchtime gathering of ten students and faculty members in the South Reynolds Lounge. She also spoke candidly about her experiences, in college and as an attorney, bridging her pursuit for justice with her leanings as a socially aware activist.
Growing up with parents who identified themselves as “Jewish labor Zionists,” instilled Gzesh with a sensitivity for social injustice. Gzesh, who grew up on Chicago’s south side in a culturally diverse neighborhood, said she became cognizant of the racial tensions in Chicago at a very young age.
Singing “We Shall Not Be Moved” as a child at day camp, Gzesh admitted that she had always thought they were camp songs.
“I was the dupe of the Communist party at the age of eight,” she joked.
Gzesh described her childhood as a “polyglot experience in a multiethnic community.” It was not until she matriculated at the University in 1968, at the age of 16, that she met adults who spoke English without accents.
Attending the University in the socially active years of 1968 through 1972, Gzesh remembered a sit-in where the University allowed the students to take control of the Administration building without a protest. The sit-in lasted weeks and became virtually “boring,” she said. But the experience itself was crucial.
Only 17 at the time, Gzesh said that it made her realize the virtue of social activism while simultaneously showing her its disconnection with the world.
Moving past the political naivete of her youth, Gzesh spoke of her years as a lawyer. During this time, she strove to link law and activism and, in the 1980s, worked with an advocacy group for civil justice.
“Lawyers might win a case,” she explained, “but no one is self-monitoring.”
Gzesh’s main goals were to help people, work hard, play hard, and teach.
“Activism is no excuse for sloppiness,” she cautioned, but softened the statement with a parable. “It is a challenge to do well by doing good.”
With the birth of her son in 1988, Gzesh said that it was difficult to divide demands and mediate between her child and clients. She struck a balance between the two equally serious obligations by blending teaching into her routine.
The informal setting of the discussion allowed time for participant discussion. Though it was not part of her notes, Gzesh responded to a question regarding the importance of her Jewish faith and upbringing admitting that, for her, “it is as much a religious sense as a consciousness of people of a social and intellectual history.”
“I love Passover because it’s the Exodus from Egypt, but there is no notion of God as part of what I do,” she said.