Likewise, after more than a decade at the public defender’s office in Nashville, Tenn., she didn’t intend to move to Tulsa.
Yet here she is on a cold Tuesday morning at a coffee shop in the city’s Arts District drinking a chai latte, reflecting on how she abandoned a plan to be a corporate attorney and instead found herself the executive director of Tulsa’s Still She Rises.
“When I was exposed to public defense, it was like ‘Wow, this is what I am supposed to be doing,’” McWeay told The Frontier during a recent interview. “Likewise the discussion to come to Tulsa, at first I just thought ‘It’s not for me.’ But I quickly realized that Oklahoma is where I’m supposed to be.”
Still She Rises grew out of the Bronx Defenders, a New York-based public defender nonprofit that helps tens of thousands of low-income New Yorkers deal with their court cases each year.
Still She Rises was essentially an offshoot of the Bronx Defenders, but has recently filed its own 501(c)(3) paperwork, McWeay said. But the plan remains the same: to bring Bronx Defender-style services “to the women of North Tulsa,” keeping mothers out of jail, with their children and in their jobs.
It was at a national public defenders conference last year that McWeay was first approached by representatives from Still She Rises. At first she was reluctant to leave Nashville, but the same factors that pulled her into criminal defense in the first place — the desire to help people, the desire to make an impact — began to lure her to Green Country.
“Nashville, where I was, you know it has challenges but it’s not the worst place in the world,” McWeay said. “They’re not perfect, but it’s not the worst place.”
But Oklahoma leads the nation in female incarceration. So if the plan was to make an impact, Tulsa was as good a landing spot as any.
“If you’re committed and invested in making the system as a whole better, you got to go where it’s the worst,” she said. “You’ve got to invest in coming up with solutions and really going where the need is.”
***McWeay was in law school at Vanderbilt University when she was watching the news and saw a criminal justice story that left her with more questions than answers.
“I don’t remember the context now, but I was wondering what was happening,” she said.“It was like, I don’t understand this, I don’t like not understanding this. I’m going to find out more.”
She decided to remedy that by interning with the Nashville Public Defender’s Office.
After the end of her second year in law school, she returned to the public defender’s office, splitting time between there and a law firm.
“The kind of corporate law firm thing had always been the plan and up until that point that I had been focused on trying to make that happen,” she said. “I … enjoy working in a firm but it’s different than the kind of meaningful work you do in a public defenders office.
“It activated a different part of my brain. I realized my spirit wasn’t being fulfilled and the public defender’s office did that for me.”
Upon graduating from Vanderbilt she got a job offer handling misdemeanor cases in Nashville.
“It was a traditional kind of public defenders office, a high volume of cases, what they call meet and plead docket, just trying to minimize time in jail for sometimes minor, sometimes ridiculous things,” she said. “After my first year doing it, I just knew it was for me. It resonated with me that so much of the system was built on efficiency and the processing of people. So when you had a caring, empathetic conversation with one of your clients, it was so shocking to them because they were used to just being herded into the system.”
McWeay said these relationships immediately made “such an impact,” that she knew corporate lawyering was not going to cut it.
“It was such a contrast from law school and what I had originally planned on doing, it just felt so much more fulfilling and rewarding in a different way,” she said. “I don’t think I’m noble, I think I just believe in really genuine human interaction and there’s not a more genuine place to interact with people that those being processed through the legal system.”
***During her time in Nashville, McWeay, who ultimately rose to deputy chief public defender, grew more attached to public defense as she learned more about how the system worked.
“I had always had a macro understanding that the legal system is extremely problematic,” she said. “I don’t think it’s broken. It’s doing what it was designed to do. But it’s problematic.”
She said that during her early career in Nashville she was “probably way too vocal” about criminal justice issues and her ideas to fix problems, but it worked.
“I think it had a positive effect on the Nashville (public defender) office,” she said. “It probably evolved into one of the strongest offices in the country because of things we did like limiting workloads or turning away cases.”
“Turning away” cases might sound counter-productive, but her reasoning was that too heavy a caseload would ensure that attorneys were unable to provide every defendant with the level of defense they deserved.
“Stepping back and setting standards of what our clients deserved at minimum, it was hard to do in a public defender office because the system really isn’t set up for that,” she said. “But the system should change to meet the clients where they are and to meet their needs.”
So how will this transfer to her work in Tulsa?
“On a practical level, Still She Rises is a fascinating organization,” McWeay said. “They haven’t ever had an on-the-ground executive director full time, and for a new organization to sustain for two years without clear and direct leadership and vision and a strategic plan, but to still have the level of impact they’ve had without that, is mind-boggling to me.”
McWeay said she’s still in the “get-to-know” phase of her new job, but before long she will be working with Still She Rises staff to create a vision and strategic plan “for what reform looks like in Tulsa.”
“Still She Rises is a very unique project, and it should not only exist in Tulsa,” she said. “It should be in Oklahoma and also nationally. But in order for it to exist elsewhere, we really have to figure out and systemize what we’re doing and figure out what lessons we’re learning so it can be productive in other places.
“It’s not enough for it just to work in Tulsa. Oklahoma is No. 1 (in female incarceration) now, but once it’s not, there will be a new No. 1, and we need to work on No. 2 and No. 3 and No. 4 and so on.”
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