For Laura Anderson Wright, changing lives is what it’s all about. The Rockville attorney, educator, historian and museum curator is one of six Montgomery County residents inducted into the 2016 Human Rights Hall of Fame by the county’s Office of Human Rights on Dec. 4.
The awards are intended “to honor individuals who have made great personal sacrifices in contributing to human and civil rights in Montgomery County, either as a trailblazer of the past or as current light bearers in the struggle.”
According to Office of Human Rights Director Jim Stowe, a selection committee, comprised of Hall of Fame members, used agreed-upon criteria to review all the nominations and conduct informal interviews with the nominees. They “saw Dr. Wrights’ work as pioneering and significant. Her efforts over time to revitalize places of cultural importance for the African American community as an educational vehicle for the entire community enriches the understanding of each in a far broader sense for generations to come,” he said. “Through art and historic artifacts housed at the Sandy Spring Slave Museum and the African Art Gallery, the story of African people unfolds and its intersection with the African American communities here in Montgomery County comes to life.”
“The selection committee felt that this contribution to the betterment of all of us in Montgomery County was deserving of recognition,” Wright concluded.
This is Wright’s second prize this year. She also won the 2016 Maryland Sustainable Growth Award for Leadership and Service, cited for her “activism in cultural and heritage preservation and race relations, and leading the renovation and re-use of the historically significant Odd Fellows Lodge in Sandy Spring” and for having dedicated the last 20 years to celebrating the multicultural society in which we live and narrowing the cultural gap among all ethnic groups.“
She has served as executive director of the Sandy Spring Slave Museum and African Art Gallery as well as on the boards of the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County, the Montgomery County Historical Society (now Montgomery History) and Heritage Montgomery.
Education is part of Wright’s family legacy; she credited it with transforming her parents’ lives. “My mother, originally from Kansas City, Mo., was the first in her family to graduate from college, let alone earn a master of science degree and a doctorate. My father, who came to this country at age 17 from Jamaica, came to the U.S. precisely for education;” he earned bachelor and master of science degrees and a doctorate here.
Wright’s parents—her mother, an economist for the Federal Reserve Board, and her father, a Howard University biology professor–served as her role models. “I saw firsthand that going to school meant changing your life. More generally, helping others, meant changing lives,” she observed. “My time in prep school, college and law school was all about preparing myself in some way to help others. That’s how I found myself in higher education. And that’s how I found myself working with a variety of nonprofits in the area.”
Independence was a trait Wright’s parents encouraged as well. As the eldest of their two children—her sister is seven years younger—she was an only child “for my youngest years,” with both parents working full-time. Wright and her husband Darien, a vice president at Marriott International, continue that tradition with their children, Kendall and Kennedy.
Born in Boston, Mass., Wright moved to Silver Spring at age 5. Since then, she has “only left Maryland for my undergraduate (University of North Carolina Chapel Hill) and professional degrees (Washington and Lee University School of Law).”
“My time in prep school, college and law school was all about preparing myself in some way to help others. That’s how I found myself in higher education. And that’s how I found myself working with a variety of nonprofits in the area,” she said.
An attorney for the University of Maryland, College Park, since 1995, Wright’s current title is associate general counsel. The university’s President’s Commission on Women’s Issues celebrated her as the university’s Outstanding Woman of Color in 2014.
Wright is pleased with the recognition she received. Considering “everyone is so busy these days, just (for someone) to notice what work I might be doing and to take the time to prepare the materials” to nominate her for the Hall of Fame is an honor, she said. She deemed it “humbling…to be reviewed among many others who have made some amazing contributions to the County and State” and “inspiring…to come out at the end of this process as an awardee.”
Nevertheless, she remains modest. “I don’t think I’m doing anything special or difficult,” Wright said. “When I see a group that needs help, or they reach out to me, I try to help.” Why? “I know I’ve been given an outstanding set of gifts and was raised in a family with amazing privilege. I’ve never wanted for a thing: food, money, a warm bed or a hot meal. I still don’t. But I know there are people out there who have to think about those very basic things on a daily basis.”
Finding ways “to give back” has been easy because, she said, “there are such a range of area nonprofits that need help. Whether it is direct human services–food, clothing, shelter, the arts, politics, government service, education-K-12 or higher education, I don’t think there is any excuse not to find something that moves you.” As she is an aficionado of the arts and history, she chose “to connect with groups in those areas and tried to help with whatever talents I have.”
Wright is also grateful to reap the personal benefits of such service. “You have no idea (of) the impact you may have on someone or something. Even the smallest things that are nothing to you, could be very significant to another. The reward for me is knowing that my kids–and other children–are watching me.”
Just as Wright learned from her parents’ example, she hopes her 14- and 8-year-old children emulate her. “I don’t preach to them about the importance of service. Instead, I hope they are watching me and will follow my lead as they grow older. If that kind of energy could go viral, we’d all be much better off.”