When Aisha McWeay set out to go to law school, she had plans to earn the income that we see prominent corporate or entertainment lawyers make, but an internship with the Nashville public defender’s office during her time at Vanderbilt University’s Law School exposed her to a new path to help people. Now, this Birmingham native is embarking on a new journey in Tulsa, Oklahoma as Executive Director of Still She Rises, the first holistic defense organization to represent mothers in the criminal legal system. This new location and job role have presented McWeay, a unique aspect to her journey in criminal justice reform. According to Wall Street Journal, Oklahoma, incarcerates more women per capita than any other state—double the national average and she’s committed to change it and make a long-lasting impact to Tulsa, a city still bruised from the trauma of the 1921 Race Massacre. We spoke with McWeay about her criminal justice career, how she manages self-care while dealing with the trauma of others and why new lawyers should consider a public defender role.
ESSENCE: How did you get your start with the Nashville public defender’s office?
Aisha McWeay: One day after my first year of law school, I remember looking at a news story covering something happening in the court system, and I found myself pretty confused about what was happening. I don’t like generally not understanding things. I [thought] I need to be involved with something related to the criminal justice system…I decided to intern with the public defender’s office. I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, and historically Birmingham did not have a public defender services office. They didn’t get a PDS office until after I was practicing. I didn’t know what a public defender’s office was, and I wanted to learn more about the system. I worked there for two days and found myself in an existential crisis of like, ‘Oh crap; I think this was what I was supposed to be doing.’ It was pretty immediate. I was drawn to the work; I felt very fulfilled. Like it was purposeful.
ESSENCE: Was there one particular incident or defining moment that just gave you that “Aha!” moment during that internship that changed the course of your career?
McWeay: The reality of working two days on what we call the jail docket, which you would essentially shadow an attorney who meets clients the morning of and read their warrant, was just one defining moment. Then sort of go into a room, talk to an Assistant District Attorney about the warrants and blindly negotiate on behalf of like a stack of clients with the ADA. Seeing the sort of callousness…how the judges and prosecutors wanted to speed along that process without any recognition of how this decision, that doesn’t seem like a big deal to them, affected the person’s life. It was so striking to me that everybody just acted like going to jail was not a big deal. That someone got out of jail that day but had a permanent criminal conviction, [as if it] was a gift instead of a consequence that would forever remain with them. Explaining to this [client] that I think it’s awful what happened to you and that I can’t fix it, but I see you. Having that conversation was much more powerful for me and I knew immediately that this was something that resonated with me.
ESSENCE: Before accepting the job as an Executive Director of Still She Rises and knowing about Tulsa and Oklahoma’s history why was this opportunity something that you wanted to take on?
McWeay: One of the largest components of my previous role was identifying systemic problems and coming up with solutions to address those problems. I’m committed to bringing that to Tulsa and Oklahoma. The state of Oklahoma did not get to where it is overnight. I joined this team because I want to address the dire needs of this community and want to be a part of helping this city, state and ultimately the nation in finding solutions and alternatives to the choice of over-criminalizing poverty. Reform to the legal system is not a headline or hot topic for me, it’s a commitment. I believed that moving to Tulsa meant being a part of a community in great need.
ESSENCE: There are numerous discussions surrounding Cyntoia Brown’s sentence and her upcoming release. What are your thoughts about young Black women like Brown who end up in the criminal justice system? How does this case relate to what you are doing with Still She Rises?
McWeay: I did not work on Cyntoia Brown’s case. I think the conversation we are having around Ms. Brown’s case is wonderful but certainly has not delved deep enough. The message of that case is in the belief in rehabilitation (and redemption) and the principles our justice system should be based on. There are many stories like hers in the system, both male and female. I believe the next step of the conversation is, What can we do as a constituency to change the laws that were used to incarcerate the Cyntoia and Charles Browns of the legal system? I applaud the fact that the will of the people directly produced action on the part of the governor. I applaud the governor for doing the right thing. Nevertheless, imagine what could happen if we exercised that will and voice strategically and consistently. My hope is that Cyntoia Brown’s case highlights the same thing that the numbers in Oklahoma highlight: We cannot turn a blind eye to what is happening to our fellow humans in this legal system. Thoughtful action is a necessary tool of the struggle toward a more just and equitable society that respects the humanity and dignity of all.
ESSENCE: How would you convince a young Black law student to become a public defender or work for a nonprofit that’s involved with criminal justice reform?
McWeay: My mentor says criminal justice reform is the civil rights movement of our era. I believe that. This is the cross section of everything that we saw in the fifties and sixties and it’s just happening differently. I believe that there are layers of ways that folks can contribute. I think you have to be thinking about that as you graduate, that this is the bag this generation has to take up. You’ve got to figure out if you’re going to go to [an esteemed law firm], but you still need to be figuring out how you contribute to ending mass incarceration. How are you adding to the dialogue about policing, implicit bias and the reality of what our criminal justice system looks like—or even reassessing what justice means to you?
ESSENCE: You’re hearing stories of trauma all the time. How do you decompress? How do you maintain a balance of self-care?
McWeay: Whatever your system was before you got into this work or hobbies that existed do not lose that. You have to have a thing that you like outside of this work, and you cannot give it up. If you do give up that thing, you’ve got to replace it with something. You also must have a person, at least one person, in your life who knows you well and is close enough to have free license to check you when you need a break. So when they see you stressed out, they can say, ‘Hey, you need to take a vacation.’ You also have to make space and time to hang out with people who don’t do this work because you can’t discuss heavy stuff all the time.