“(My daughter) needed to see successful people who looked like her… anyone who was in a position to show her that black people could be whatever they wanted to be…”
After almost 12 years of living in the United States, Gail Boker made it official and became an American citizen in early 2018. The year has brought plenty of other small celebrations, including a new role at Washington University, where she’s worked for 10 years, as well as her daughter’s first year in college.
But Boker’s journey to get to this place in her life was most unconventional: The story begins in the Caribbean, just northeast of Venezuela, in the twin-island Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. Boker was born on Trinidad, in a small village called Princess Town.
“We grew up really poor…there were days we didn’t eat,” she recalled. “I didn’t see a computer until I was 12, there was no TV at home until I was 15—we just played outside more. The things that are considered fancy here—going to the beach, learning to dive, going fishing—those were part of survival for me growing up. I remember killing a chicken at the age of 6. One chicken would feed the house for the entire week. It was very different.”
Boker adds that while her family endured hardships in her younger years, growing up on the island is an indelible experience.
“We grew up with the community and the culture,” she explained. “Most people from Trinidad and Tobago know the islands really well.”
Let’s just say that Boker knew the islands really, really well. In her early 20s, she began working as a tourism research and development officer for the Tobago House of Assembly. Part of her job was to monitor the dive shops throughout the islands—and that is how her path crossed with Kevin Boker, an American who had come to the Tobago for a friend’s wedding, and somehow ended up purchasing a scuba dive shop in the process.
“I conducted best practices for the dive shops, and in one of my reviews, one of the shops fell short,” she recalled. “I knew that it was a shop owned by an American, but I did not know him at the time.”
And while the two parties corresponded back and forth to resolve the issue, it took an overseas business trip for the two to actually meet face-to-face.
“There was a tourism dive show in England…and lo and behold, the American showed up!” Boker said, jokingly adding that it was when Kevin began to “stalk” her. “He started showing up at shows, coming to stakeholders’ meetings… and we started having real conversations. Never in my life did I think I would even have a great conversation with an American—you always heard about the ‘ugly American’ tourist. But for the same reason you can’t judge an entire population of people, I found that Kevin was very much unlike that.”
It was also in London where Boker remembers becoming convinced that her American suitor was the real deal.
“We went to this Greek restaurant, and as soon as we walked in the door, the owner saw him and welcomed him like a son,” she said. “Kevin had lived in London before, but it had been at least five years since he’d been back. It was at that moment that I realized, ‘Wow, you must have done something right…that people remember you by just walking through the door.’”
As if their romance wasn’t atypical enough, the couple’s 2006 wedding offered another interesting twist: They got getting married in Florida one November day, at a courthouse in Orlando, in matching red t-shirts that said “Tobago House of Assembly.”
“He had asked me to marry him—it happened really fast. But I married the person who would become my best friend,” Boker said. “In retrospect, I really didn’t think he would be that person when I originally met him.”
Shortly after tying the knot, the newlyweds moved to St. Louis (where Kevin is from) with Boker’s young daughter, Milli.
“I was going through a child custody case with Milli, who was going on 6. I knew that I wanted to be with my daughter and I wanted her to live with me. I also knew that Trinidad and Tobago wasn’t where I needed to be…I was thinking about college and doing all these other things that I wanted to do,” she explained.
One of the first things on Boker’s to-do list was to get her daughter into a school.
“We got her into (a private girls’ school in St. Louis), but we had to pull her out of the school—for diversity reasons, or lack thereof,” she explained. “The school was commemorating Black History Month by showing clips of Dr. Martin Luther King and what happened to blacks during the civil rights movement…
“For an international black kid—seeing what people who looked just like her classmates did to somebody who looked just like her—that was incredibly traumatic.”
Boker says while the incident left her shocked and taken aback, it was even more difficult to have a conversation about it with her 6-year-old daughter.
“In Trinidad and Tobago, we lived in a black-dominated society, but we were also so mixed…we had a cornucopia of people from different regions of the world, all mixed together—mine is East Indian, Arawak, African, Chinese and Spanish—so the issue wasn’t so much black and white,” she said. “Around the time of the 2007 presidential election, things got heated up some more, and she came home and told me her classmates said she can’t be president because she’s black…”
It was then that Boker decided she wanted to create a more supportive environment for her daughter.
“I never experienced such a thing before, and I didn’t know how to make it happen. But it shows how representation matters—she needed to see successful people who looked like her. I tried finding a black pediatrician, a black dentist…anyone who was in a position to show her that black people could be whatever they wanted to be,” she said.
Years later, Boker would find herself in a position to “make it happen.” She wears many hats in her current role at Washington University. In addition to being the associate dean and chief of staff for the School of Law, she is interim chief of staff for the Office of the Vice Provost of Faculty Advancement and Institutional Diversity. Among her responsibilities is to advice on the promotion, as well as recruitment and retention, of faculty members from under-represented backgrounds.
“What I do is not just based on race and ethnicity, but also representation in all fields, such as involving more women in physics or more Asians in humanities. I realized that maybe this is what I was supposed to do. Part of my role is to get more people like my daughter to be part of the environment, in order to be more reflective of the population of the area in which we live.”
Boker’s daughter, now 18, is a first-year student at Washington University. And Boker says those mother-daughter conversations are getting easier.
“I tell her she didn’t get into Washington University because she was black. It was because she was capable, she worked hard…it was more than just her ‘blackness—’ it was her community service, the way she writes, the way she interacts with her teachers…,” Boker noted. “Milli is the first in both our families to have a traditional college education. Yes, we are pretty stoked by this!”