Mayor Invoice DeBlasio Appoints Choose Karen Gopee — A Win for Indo-Caribbean Women In every single place

6th min read

“Realizing your dreams and making a difference in this world should be available to women and men alike.” – Judge Karen Gopee

In 2015, Mayor Bill DeBlasio named Judge Karen Gopee as a judge, making it a historic year for Indo-Caribbean women across the country. For the first time, an Indo-Trinidad woman has been selected to sit in the New York criminal courts, an honor.

Indo-Caribbean people are rarely represented in many professional fields, but especially in the legal field. As a law student myself, it is difficult for me to find my place in a field dominated by whites. DeBlasio made more than one choice, Judge Gopee’s appointment shows thousands of Indo-Caribbean little girls that they matter, that representation is important.

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I sat down with Judge Gopee to learn more about her journey to the bank and hear her story of overcoming the struggles of women of color in the legal field. As I stared at the zoom screen, I felt like I was staring at myself years later. At 25 I can finally say that I’ve seen a lawyer who looks like me.

At the age of 1, Judge Gopee and her family left Trinidad to come to New York for a better life. She graduated from St. John’s Law School in 1997. Like many Indo-Caribbean people, Judge Gopee is a first generation professional. There is pride in being a first generation attorney – it means you made it through. Your family made it. Your family’s hard work coming to America and supporting you meant something. It also means parents have the eternal right to brag. Whether it’s a wedding, a puja, or a family outing, people today know they are proud parents of the lawyer. They raised you well.

“My family is very, very proud. They have pictures of me in the robe in their house. My mother went around telling everyone who heard her that her daughter was a judge. We did a puja to ask for blessings and to celebrate after my appointment. My parents will tell the people on the street, the people in the stores, the people in the temple, everyone who listens to them. A woman owned an Indian clothing store who also proudly announced that her daughter was a lawyer and knew me. It makes me smile. “

But like everything in life, the first generation lawyer is also associated with criticism.

“Because I was the first, there was a lot of controversy. Questions about my career, the choice of criminal law, the public prosecutor, over and over again. School counselors, friends, family, and supervisors, so many people suggested that I settle, that this school was good enough, that the choice of a safe cause, a job over a career, or an easier field of law [was ideal]. I realized that you need to get over this, don’t let your doubts about yourself doubt you. Use your negativity as additional motivation to learn and work harder. “

She graduated that same year, and just three months after passing the bar exam, Judge Gopee married. As any working married woman knows, marriage is a balance. Women, especially Indo-Caribbean women, are typically asked to give up their careers so that they can better achieve this balance. Judge Gopee was no stranger to that.

“Funny story, when I was 19 I went to Trinidad. At the time I was with someone whose parents lived in Trinidad. His parents invited me to dinner. After dinner, his mother made tea and asked me to sit with her in the gallery. There she began to ask me about my intentions towards her son and whether I would give up ‘the law’ if I had children. I wasn’t prepared for these questions because at the time I wasn’t thinking about marriage or family. All I knew was that I was in college, a couple of years away from law school, and my dream was to be a lawyer.

Without being disrespectful, although I’m pretty sure she saw it that way, I told her the truth that I didn’t go to school for 19 years, meet my goals and stay home. I also told her that I didn’t think I was right for her son. Ironically, he and I got married three months after I graduated from law school. The day I returned to New York and told him about the conversation with his mother, he told me that it was not up to her to say what he wanted. “

Judge Gopee also had some excellent advice for women torn between choosing to be at the forefront of their industry and settling down.

“… I criticize the fact that women often feel that they have to make a decision. It’s an impossible choice. Realizing your dreams and making a difference in this world should be available to women and men alike. The truth, sadly, is that the expectations of our society and our own family members of women, especially West Indian women, make it difficult to have both a career and a family life.

Fortunately, we live in a completely different world today. Women are making great career steps. Women are no longer seen as just staying home mothers or wives. Women demand an equal voice and a career. We have so many mentors to look to, the best example is our new Vice President, who has had an extraordinary career and a family.

It can be done, but that includes finding the right person who will accept you for who you are, value and promote your career, and work at home as a team. Life is always about balancing and juggling, it’s not easy to have it all. Sometimes it’s about perspective and prioritization and assistance. [For example] sometimes take away, household help or an afternoon program for the kids and more. Don’t feel guilty or compromise who you are or who you should be. “

Just four months after their wedding, Judge Gopee began her career in the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, one of the largest prosecutors in New York City. For seven years she followed specific casualties, including domestic violence, a common issue in the Indo-Caribbean community.

“… It was still not very varied. I was the only person in my eight years there who looked or sounded like me. It was a challenge, but I learned a lot. I would advise anyone interested in criminal law to start with a prosecutor, because then you will be thrown into the courtroom. It is an eye-opening experience. “

She then served as Attorney General for the Hon. Alex M. Calabrese, then presiding judge of the Red Hook Community Judicial Center, from 2005-2015. In 2015 she was appointed to the bank.

“The process to become an appointed judge in New York is for you to go through the mayor’s committee. There are several interviews. The first was about three people, the second was about 20-30 people, and my last interview was about 60 people. You enter the room with people who are leaders in this field and to be able to sit there and be questioned and assert yourself as you measure yourself against other hugely skilled applicants is a combination of exciting, exciting and amazing along with being downright terrifying and completely atypical of the shy girl with the low voice that I was raised to be. ”

Judge Gopee, mother of two, smiled as she remembered the day she was sworn in.

“I took my daughter with me, she was 11 years old at the time. I did not tell my family that I was being appointed as a judge. It was such a competitive process and not guaranteed. I haven’t spoken to anyone but my mentors about it, and I didn’t want to have to explain it if it didn’t work out. I woke her up and said you’d be coming to work with mom. We took the train to Manhattan and she was sitting in the back of the room while I was being sworn in and the look on her face as I repeated the oath and had me sworn in. That was a big deal for me. It was one thing to impress a colleague, but another for a family member. “

She also recognizes that her career is more than just standing up for justice. She is also committed to the Indo-Caribbean representation in the legal field. The South Asian Bar Association (SABA) has different chapters across the country. However, due to the recognized differences between Indo-Caribbean and South Asians as well as the small number of Indo-Caribbean lawyers, there are challenges in obtaining recognition in the legal field.

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Judge Gopee has worked to create the first and only affinity bar association that is indo-carber not only by name but also by philosophy: the South Asian and Indo-Caribbean Bar Associations (SAICBA-Q), where she currently serves as President.

“It was important to me not to found a sole Indo-Caribbean organization, because we are dividing ourselves again. We don’t have the numbers to be meaningful and make changes, be heard, and rise when working alone in an environment. So we have to come together, but we also have to recognize the differences. SAICBA-Q is a big deal because it recognizes both and we are able to play and enjoy both cultures. It is important that we do not operate in a vacuum, that we remain true to ourselves, but rather work with others to advance legal practice and provide opportunities for diversity, inclusion and advancement for all of our brothers and sisters. “

SAICBA-Q holds chai chats, networking events, and zoom panels that are available to all law students.

Judge Gopee’s story is really resolute. It redefines what we think a judge should look like. Indo-Caribbean women need more advocates for diversity, inclusion and gender equality. Judge Karen Gopee does just that.