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Break the Bias: A Conversation with Judge Karen Ackerson Gauff

Judge Karen Ackerson Gauff

On International Women’s Day, March 8th, Judge Karen Ackerson Gauff shared an inspiring presentation with the OWA. You can watch the complete recording here

After her remarks, we spoke further about the women who have supported her and have helped her break the bias. 


Who empowered you as you found your authentic voice as a woman? You named a lot of women that were behind you, but what were some of those key moments?

Some of the key moments had to do with seeing myself through the haze of things. Once I got into foster care, one of my foster family’s daughters, Claudia, was in law school when I came into the family. She authenticated and validated that the big mouth that I have would serve a greater purpose and come in handy someday. She would always say, “You’re going to be a great criminal defense attorney.” And, I’d say, “Oh no, I don’t want to do that because I’ll just end up defending my brothers.” She always found a way to say, “No, there’s a use for your mouth and we’ll figure out how it’s going to be used.”


She was the one who through the cloud of things was that light for me. To see that there was a use for what I brought to the table. 


Judge Sandra Brown Armstrong is a federal judge up in the Oakland area and she illuminated a different light for me because she loves to serve the community. That helped me because I had been told along the way that I might be too outgoing, being a judge is very reserved, and I would need to tone it down. I didn’t know how to do that. She showed me I can serve in the community, be connected to the community I am in, wear the black robe, and serve people on the bench. 


Along the way, there were different people at pivotal places, but the two of them were two women, who were in big places in my life.


You, you mentioned in your remarks about using failures as foundation for success. What are some of those failures that became your foundation?

I spent a lot of time pointing out, you know you’re here for a reason, so now let’s find something you can do with that. And most of it is helping others find a detour from going down this same road. For me personally, it could be anything from failures and divorce to just being caught up in other people’s issues. 


But, I will use the most recent life thing that happened to me. That’s so huge, which is the transition of my 21 year old son, Brandon. As with any mother, I wanted to just die because I didn’t want to be here because I didn’t see my life without him until I found a connection between why I’m still here. And the fact that I can allow his legacy to go on inside of me and through me. That allowed me to start ministry and to use my big mouth as Brandon would. I started a new ministry in response to Brandon’s passing. It is to share God’s word. Not only in a written form, but audibly. So people hear that God wants to talk to them.


You mentioned right after was when you were invited to be part of the mental health court, can you tell us about that?

When I first got appointed, I had a drug court and I had a misdemeanor court. I’ll make it quick, but to give you some lessons in the difference, our United States judicial system is based on an adversarial process. There are two sides, two parties. There is a defense, and there is a prosecution. The judge is the one who decides who wins. That’s our adversarial system. 


In 1994, the drug court system started in the United States, it came to Los Angeles and here in Compton as one of the first places. It really flourished in Los Angeles county. That system is that you have a judge, a defense attorney, a prosecutor, and other people on the team that are professionals. They come together to help the judge make the decision that’s best for this defendant, and that’s going to accrue to the benefit of the community. How is this addiction and how is this person’s life off course because of this addiction? Now everybody’s forming a community to help this person and identify who they victimized, help them accept responsibility for that,  and find a way to help them put their lives back together so that in the future it is going to help them and help the community. 


After I went out on bereavement leave, when I came back, I was given a call and asked if I would expand the drug court model with the community collaborative court. The difference is now it’s more team focused. So it is not only drugs, but it is sexual exploitation, chronic homelessness… it has so many more parts of trauma that we look at and not just drug addiction.


What advice would you give to working mothers who want to grow their career without sacrificing family and children?

Thank you for that question. I was one of those women because I was a single mother for 13 years, from the time I divorced to the time I remarried. So I know that in having a child with differences was an extra added component I had to get used to and had to gain support. Some of the women I named in my list were the women who were there to support me. You need a sisterhood around you if you’re going to do this. 


You also need to have workarounds. One of the workarounds I had to learn had to do with mentoring, because mentoring was my life. It was my life before I had Brandon and I didn’t want it to stop, but with him having differences, I had to learn that my mentoring had to be a part of my work. Anytime I mentored someone, they had to come to my job, watch me work, or go to events with me so that it wasn’t taking extra time away from my son. You just have to figure out some workarounds. It is going to feel like you need more than 24 hours in a day, but if you do some workarounds and incorporate some of those things in your day it’ll be less stressful for you. 


Self-care is really important. My self-care had to come in weird kind of ways. Like get a couple of girlfriends and go to Chuck-E-Cheese so that our children can have a great day and we can sit there and let it all out. So, it’s finding workarounds that give you balance and also allow your children to get what they need, your spouses to get what they need, but that you also can continue matriculating your career as well.


Do you want to tell us a little bit about your book?

Yes, Courting with Chance Reconciling Memoirs, is because I found my mother’s 96-page manuscript. I could not write my book without considering her, the fact that I’m a judge or I’m anything is a miracle coming from that story of her life and how her life and my father’s life came about. I wrote that book for my 50th birthday thinking that, I’m putting it all out there now, all passed away. And it’s been a rollercoaster in that way ever since, but it’s been an adventure.

Written by: Courtney Myers

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