Though never the loudest voice in the room, Hope Lewis had a presence that was felt everywhere she went.
Immersing herself in communities around the globe, she used any avenue to advocate for human rights and highlight the pieces of her identity that inspired and challenged her.
“As an African-American feminist law professor who is visually impaired and the daughter of immigrants, I am often torn as to which social justice organizing conference to attend first on any given day,” she wrote in a 1998 paper published in the Maine Law Review.
“I learn more each day about survival in the intersection of racism, sexism, able-ism, and nativism,” she continued. “Perhaps that is the basis for my attraction to the international human rights movement. Despite its limitations, that movement is at its best when it undermines the isolation that oppressed peoples and individuals can experience.”
Ms. Lewis, a law professor at Northeastern University School of Law for nearly 25 years, died Dec. 6 in Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center from complications of diabetes. She was 54 and lived in Brookline.
Passionate about bettering humanity, Ms. Lewis never let her fervor get in the way of her ability to listen to other people and understand their perspectives, friends and colleagues said.
After graduating from Harvard University in 1983 with a bachelor’s degree in English and American literature and language, she continued on to Harvard Law School, where one of her professors, Randall Kennedy, said she brought a “dignified, gentle, humane face” to class discussions.
“She was a person who had a deep commitment to social justice and all of its various dimensions, but she was a gentle person,” he said. “When people are trying to battle against the viciousness of the world, you’ve got to put your dukes up. You’ve got to raise your voice. You’ve got to push and shove. And she would be part of that campaign . . . but she did it in a quiet way.”
Louise Hope Lewis, who was known by friends and colleagues as Hope, was born in New York, the only child of Blossom Stephenson and Stuart Lewis.
She attended schools in New York and graduated from the Bronx High School of Science.
After her years at Harvard, Ms. Lewis moved to Washington, D.C., where she completed a fellowship with the TransAfrica Forum, a nonprofit foreign policy organization. She then became an attorney-adviser at the US Securities and Exchange Commission.
She moved back to Boston in 1991 and began teaching at Northeastern University School of Law as a visiting professor of law. Ms. Lewis received several promotions within her first decade of teaching and had been a tenured professor of law since 1998, teaching several classes about international human rights and the intersection of race, gender, and culture.
In 1995, she published an essay in the Globe recounting her difficulties hailing a cab after arriving home in Boston by train from a conference on class, race, and gender. While she waited first in line at a cab stand at 2 a.m., three drivers drove past “to pick up white college students who were standing behind me,” Ms. Lewis wrote.
African-Americans are often ignored by cabs, she added, and the significance “is more pressing and complex than just whether well-dressed black people can get home by cab late at night. These events expose the fallacy of believing that racism will simply disappear once minorities attain the right educational status, the right job, or the right clothes.”
At Northeastern, Ms. Lewis founded the law school’s distinguished lecture series, the Valerie Gordon Human Rights Lecture, and ran it for its first 13 years. She also founded and formerly chaired the faculty and student Working Group on Human Rights.
“She was a real workhorse,” said Margaret Burnham, a law professor at Northeastern and one of Ms. Lewis’s colleagues. “In all global issues at the law school, Hope was really the one to whom we turned, and we now have a stellar program with connections with human rights organizations and advocacy groups that use human rights principles all around the globe.”
Outside of Northeastern, Ms. Lewis was a visiting scholar and fellow at several universities, including Harvard, Harvard Law School, Boston College, and American University.
Ms. Lewis was recognized for her work through awards over the past two decades, including the 2012 Mayre Rasmussen Award for the Advancement of Women in International Law, from the American Bar Association; the 2011 Thomas J. Carroll Award from the Carroll Center for the Blind and Massachusetts Commission for the Blind; and the 2001 Haywood Burns/Shanara Gilbert Teaching and Service Award from the Northeast Regional People of Color Legal Scholarship Conference.
Throughout her career, Ms. Lewis persevered through health challenges that included juvenile diabetes, which was diagnosed in the 1980s while she was in college. The disease left her visually impaired, said Ibrahim Gassama, a law professor at the University of Oregon who met Ms. Lewis while in law school at Harvard.
“Whenever she could, she worked, but in the last year or so, it was a daily grind just to stay alive,” Gassama said. “She was in and out of the hospital all the time, but she never complained.”
About 10 years ago, Ms. Lewis had a double transplant of a kidney and pancreas, an announcement she shared with Harvard classmates in the class’s 25th anniversary report. She urged her classmates at the time to give “serious thought to the need for organ donation.”
The organs began failing several years ago, and she had been on the list for another transplant when she died, Gassama said.
Despite her health, Ms. Lewis was energetic and sharp, even toward the end of her life, when she was optimistic and invigorated to return to work as soon as possible, Gassama said.
“She was just a person who if you need to have the job done, you turn to Hope, and she’s going to have it done no matter what it took,” he said. “She was a fighter.”
A service has been held for Ms. Lewis, whose only immediate survivors are her mother, with whom she lived in Brookline, and her father, of New York.
Contributions Ms. Lewis made to academia and the international human rights movement have inspired generations of human rights activists and educators across the world, colleagues said.
Her poise in working with others and determination to work through any challenge she faced made her the teacher she was, Burnham said.
“She was a brilliant thinker, but not just a thinker,” Burnham said. “She had a practical attitude and approach to what could be done.”