Brown Girl Bosses: Meet Lawyer and Human Rights Advocate Denera Pope-Ragoonanan
Written by: Priya Balakumar
Denera Pope-Ragoonanan is a Lawyer, Human Rights Advocate and beloved dog mom. Denera’s parents immigrated from Trinidad and she was born and raised in New York. Denera’s dad took every opportunity to remind her of the traits and practices he insisted on maintaining in “the Indian way.” The term “Indo-Caribbean” was not familiar to her until she had the opportunity to work within the community during law school. Denera explains, “I immediately embraced the term because it felt like, to an extent, that it addressed some of the cultural ambiguities I had known as an “Indian" child. I always knew I was a woman, whatever that meant. This did leave a lot of room for confusion especially spending time in Queens where just being Indian is a loaded identity.”
Indo-Caribbean women come from a long line of strong, powerful and resilient people. They have overcome many hardships, been the backbone of their families for generations and continue to fight battles everyday. When we asked Denera what it meant to her to be Indo-Caribbean she responded, “ It means to be proud of your Indian heritage and celebrate that culture, while embracing the enhancements that Caribbean culture has added to the cultural norms. It is to celebrate the coexistence of both cultures while understanding the nuances of never being fully one specific identity. It’s also being able to understand and address the traumas and legacies of indentured servitude and colonialism.”
As a Lawyer that strives to serve the Indo-Caribbean community, Denera works to support and uplift those who get unfair representation. When we are proud of who we are and where we come from, we shatter glass ceilings, we make a difference and we accomplish the unthinkable. Though our women have faced generations of trauma and hardship, we are stronger than ever. Denera shares, “I am proud of our women's desire and audacity to stand up more and more for our rights and push our people to limits our ancestors couldn't even think of in dreams. I like to say although my ancestors would probably have a lot to say about my lifestyle choices, they would know that I am everything for which they made the sacrifice."
" I am the fire for which they boarded that boat and worked years under rough conditions.”
A common struggle that we face as Indo-Caribbean women and women of colour, is that we are often looked down upon and lack the mentorship and leadership that we deserve. Our young Brown Girl Bosses, are breaking down barriers everyday and showing the world how amazing and talented we truly are. In many male and caucasion dominated fields, we are often surrounded by double standards and doubts of our capabilities and professionalism. Often, the discrimination and stereotyping that we face in the workplace can negatively impact our experiences and opportunities to progress. An example that Denera gave from her own experience was, “Interviewers spend too much time guessing ‘where you’re from from,’ ‘why English could be my native language and that of my family,’ and ‘why my name is the way it is.’ I did have to explain to one interviewer what the difference between indentured servitude and slavery was, while interviewing for a completely unrelated job. It was quite a humiliating experience.”
Like many of us Indo-Caribbean women, Denera has had to accept these situations while also learning to make the best of each circumstance. However, it is important to voice these obstacles and address them by educating yourself, the younger generation and your extended network. This helps to end the cycle and ensure that in the future, the next generation will have more opportunities and be valued for all that they bring to the table.
Throughout Law School and her career, Denera overcame many barriers that are all too common to the Indo-Caribbean Community. The lack of representation and support she faced as a student has only lit the fire to make her work harder. Denera shares that she hopes to end this cycle by providing the representation and resources that her community lacks. She explains, “ I like to think we are only as strong as our weakest links, but when our people aren’t even there, we as a whole are to be left broken and unheard. We need to work together to lift our people. Currently, we live in some of the most underfunded districts that can’t get proper testing despite having abnormally high COVID rates. We don’t have enough representatives to care and advocate for us, despite having a somewhat affluent community. The only way to fix this is to stand up for each other, share information, and help our people go into more places of power so we can take care of our community.” Denera’s passion and advocacy for the Indo-Caribbean community is admirable.
She wants the girls of the next generation to know that it is okay to stand up for what they believe in.
Denera is a Brown Girl Boss of action and has accomplished some amazing milestones. The first was working in South-Eastern Turkey, where most people speak Kurdish and the political climate is vastly different from the United States. With her strong adaptability and resilience skills, she completed a work term in South-Eastern Turkey. Despite being a young woman, she took this opportunity to work with local NGOs and political groups addressing poverty issues, government violence, and the many factors surrounding contentious Turkish-Kurdish relations. Her accomplishments do not stop there. Denera also spent time in Guantanamo Bay, where she served as an NGO observer to the Hadi Al Iraqi trials, as a co-author to an article that examined America’s Guantanamo Bay torture program, and as a defense counsel assistant to Guantanamo detainees. Denera shares, “These both were notable to me because it pushed the limits of where I could have ever dreamed to be as a kid. Frankly speaking, until recently, very few of our people went into these spaces."
"However, specifically in my family, I normalized being a woman who thinks outside of the box, and does daring and at times unusual things, despite facing backlash in the moment from people in the community.”
The example that Denera is setting for her community and the generation to come, is that of a leader. Denera uses her platform to give underrepresented communities, not just her own, a voice. She works to help people who fight for their rights to live and exist in dignity. Whether it is Syrian refugees, Turkish and Kurdish activists, human trafficking victims, Guantanamo bay detainees, or people at risk of eviction in New Jersey, Denera works hard to help them attain their goals, or in the least, have their stories told. As Indo-Caribbean women slowly start to enter and gain recognition in the Law field, we are excited to see changes to the justice system. Denera plans on venturing into politics and using her law and human rights background to give more people a voice. She also hopes to obtain the credentials needed to do some academic/professorial work in International Relations and perhaps, South Asian/Indo-Caribbean history and economic development.
A piece of advice that she wanted to share to young girls who are interested in the Law field is, “I’d say please go for it. We need you. Don’t let anyone put you down or make you feel like you don't belong or haven’t earned your spot. I assure you that you just surviving and making it to the point of debating about one day being a lawyer shows you are most definitely ready. Everything else is easy compared to existing as an Indo-Caribbean woman, in my opinion.”
A true Brown Girl Boss is someone who embraces 100% of themselves, the good, the bad, the culture and the generational trauma, but continues to fight to reach their goals.
As Indo-Caribbean women it is important to understand that you can always lean on one another and work together to get to where you want to be. Our ancestors fought hard for us to have the opportunities that we have, and we should never let anyone stand in our way.
We are the change that our community needs.
Denera shares her experience, “There is a strength that comes in resilience and a sense of responsibility when you are the first or the few that are present in the room that decisions are being made. My resilience in becoming a lawyer and persisting in the field gives me strength. My sense of responsibility is to my community and getting more people who look like me to become successful whether it is guiding them to go into law or working together to improve ourselves. This sense of responsibility is fulfilling on a personal level because of how important it is to be the voice for a community that is often left voiceless.”
As we continue to grow and learn as women of colour, it is our responsibility to turn back and help our community. We are the leaders of tomorrow and we are raising the leaders of the future.