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Lauren Sampson was a ‘bright light’ of Boston’s civil rights lawyers

An ‘intellectual giant’ of boundless compassion, she ended her life amid mental health struggles

Lauren Sampson in Eden Mills, Vt., in 2016.Family Photo

With passionate eloquence Lauren Sampson argued civil rights cases that ranged from ensuring diversity in Boston’s exam school admissions, to preventing racial profiling in the suburbs, to keeping antidiscrimination provisions in place for housing nationally.

A senior attorney at Lawyers for Civil Rights in Boston, she believed that simply having laws “on the books isn’t sufficient. What you need are advocates, allies, fighters — people who can stand up and say, ‘This law exists to protect our most vulnerable people, and we will champion their causes.’ "

At the age of 30, she was one of the region’s most ardent civil rights champions, and one of the liveliest, too — possessing lightning wit that she formerly displayed in improvisational and stand-up comedy.

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Behind her tireless advocacy and endless compassion, though, Ms. Sampson struggled with mental health issues known only to a few with whom she was closest.

On Jan. 30 she ended her life, leaving colleagues in Greater Boston’s legal community shaken — grateful for having known Ms. Sampson and wondering what, if anything, anyone could have done to dissuade her.

In her deeds as a lawyer and her actions in every part of life, she also left what those who knew her well described as a nearly impossible yardstick against which to measure their own contributions.

“You can think of yourself as a good person,” said her husband, John Slinkman of Somerville, “and then you meet Lauren and you think, ‘Wow, I’ve got to step my game up.’ "

Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director at Lawyers for Civil Rights, said Ms. Sampson “was such a bright light. She died at 30 with all of these accomplishments. I keep thinking about what the universe would have had in store for her in the decades to come.”

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Though she only joined the organization in 2018, Ms. Sampson had assumed leading roles in many high-profile cases handled by Lawyers for Civil Rights, which traces its history to 1960s civil rights legal advocacy.

“She was absolutely brilliant,” said Janelle Dempsey, who shared an office with Ms. Sampson. “And she was incredibly passionate about the work, helping communities.”

In a January 2020 interview for the University of Chicago’s public policy podcasts, Ms. Sampson said her goals, and those of the organization, went beyond winning cases.

Lauren Sampson and her husband, John Slinkman, during their honeymoon in 2018 on the Napali coast of the Hawaiian island of Kauai.Family Photo

“With impact litigation,” she said, “the focus is more on trying to change the law.”

At Lawyers for Civil Rights, “we talk about the fact that laws are not enough,” she said.

“We see the ways in which the mere presence of, for example, an antidiscrimination law doesn’t stop someone from being fired because of their race, or doesn’t stop someone from being mistreated in the workplace,” Ms. Sampson added.

What many who listened to Ms. Sampson on podcasts, watched her TV appearances, or read her legal filings and essays didn’t know, however, was that she zealously argued on behalf of constitutional protections for US citizens, even though she herself was not one.

A Canadian-born daughter of immigrants, Ms. Sampson held a green card and had lived in the United States since entering Duke University School of Law a decade ago. Her husband, whom she married in 2017, grew up in Vermont.

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Nevertheless, Ms. Sampson embraced her efforts as if the US Constitution had been her legal north star her entire life.

“She was just a natural at this sort of advocacy,” Slinkman said.

A generous colleague and mentor, Ms. Sampson also made time to share her knowledge with aspiring attorneys, teaching a class on race relations and the law at Boston College Law School.

Having earned a master’s in English literature simultaneously with her law degree, she also was crafting a course that she hoped to teach on literature and the law.

Ms. Sampson’s intellectual and professional range was such that friends and colleagues thought her future prospects were endless.

“She was somebody who I fully anticipated someday becoming a judge or a political adviser to a big campaign,” said Kienan Christianson, who met Ms. Sampson when they both were clerks for Vermont Supreme Court justices. “Lauren was just a rock star in so many ways, loved by so many people from across the country and internationally.”

Sarah Tishler, a close friend since they were law school classmates at Duke, called Ms. Sampson “an intellectual giant,” and added she was sure that “Lauren could have gone on to any other higher office or public service that she wanted. She was just that gifted.”

Born in Mississauga, Ontario, outside of Toronto on April 18, 1991, Lauren Alexa Sampson was the daughter of Nisreen Khanbhai Sampson, a pharmacist in Mississauga, and Clifford Sampson of Hamilton, Ontario, a former chemistry teacher.

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“She came into the world with her eyes wide open,” her mother said. “She was one of those children who couldn’t wait to know what was there for her.”

Bright already in early childhood, “you could never say, as parents do, ‘because I said so,’ ” her mother added, “because she would have a debate ready.”

Though always first in her class academically, Ms. Sampson was already adept at talents she would use in comedic settings. “She could recount a story and have you in stitches,” her mother said.

Ms. Sampson graduated from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in English and history.

As a law student at Duke, “Lauren was a genius — truly one of the smartest people I’ve ever interacted with in my life,” Tishler said. “There was nothing she wasn’t curious about. She had her passions, like everyone does, but she had an intellectual curiosity that was insatiable.”

John Slinkman quickly noticed Ms. Sampson’s sharp mind and “funny and charming” nature when they met in Vermont about one month after she arrived in Vermont.

“We were almost immediately inseparable,” he said. “She was exciting to be around and lots of fun.”

While in Vermont, Ms. Sampson became involved in politics and spoke at the 2018 graduation of Emerge Vermont, which recruits, trains, and offers a support network to women who run for office in the Democratic Party.

A video of her speech shows her seamlessly weaving details about the program’s training amid perfectly timed lines that turned on a dime from warm recollections to comedic quips that filled the room with laughter.

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“These women support each other,” Ms. Sampson said. “They can do anything, go anywhere, be anyone. Nothing can stop them — except maybe gluten and dairy.”

Intellectually voracious, Ms. Sampson, was “the fastest reader you’ve ever met,” Slinkman said, and just as studious about comedy.

“She would pause stand-up specials on Netflix to explain jokes and explain what made those jokes work,” he said. “She’s in it for the fun, but also for what it means at the same time.”

Though Slinkman wasn’t eager to trade Vermont for city life, he didn’t hesitate to move when Lawyers for Civil Rights hired Ms. Sampson.

“She had so much potential,” he said. “I really want to see her go do her thing and make an impact.”

Quickly making her mark, Ms. Sampson “was a powerhouse of a writer,” Espinoza-Madrigal said, “and that yielded powerful results for her clients and the communities we serve.”

In addition to her husband, mother, and father, Ms. Sampson leaves her brother, David of Toronto.

A funeral Mass has been said in Canada and a celebration of her life in Greater Boston will be announced.

”Lauren was everybody’s friend,” Slinkman said, “and it was so easy for her to be around people and get them to lighten up.”

When the pandemic cut into in-person visits with everyone she cared about, Ms. Sampson augmented FaceTime, phone calls, Zoom, e-mail, and texts with old-fashioned handwritten postcards.

The last one she sent to Tishler arrived two weeks before Ms. Sampson ended her life. The postcard concluded: “I know COVID is wreaking havoc on every aspect of your life,” she wrote. “I remain in awe of everything you are doing and how you are handling it with grace, love, empathy, and bitchiness. Love you, Samps.”

“It made me laugh the first time I read it and it will always make me laugh,” Tishler said. “It’s just so her.”

After Ms. Sampson ended her life, Christianson said, “You keep replaying: ‘What could I have done? What did I miss?’ "

Such questions ultimately are unanswerable.

“She gave so much of herself,” Slinkman said, “and unfortunately, didn’t ask for enough help in return.”

The Samaritans 24-seven crisis helpline can be reached by calling or texting 877-870-4673. People experiencing a crisis can call also the Disaster Distress Helpline: 1-800-985-5990, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255, or the Crisis Text Line: Text CRISIS to 741741.


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.