We had the good fortune of connecting with Yahairah Aristy and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Yahairah, what are you inspired by?
I am inspired by humanity. Witnessing the best of people, bringing out the best of people, empowering people, helping people thrive – inspires me to devote my time to the service for others. There is nothing more fulfilling than when I know my actions and that of other well-meaning leaders help another human experience the best life has to offer, or when our actions made it possible for people to live a better life, pursue their dreams, and believe in themselves. The betterment of humanity is the greatest gift because as Muhammad Ali said, “service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
I have been a criminal defense lawyer since 2005 at the San Diego County Public Defender’s Office. I chose to become a deputy public defender because the mission of the work–“To protect the rights, liberties, and dignity of all persons in San Diego County and maintain the integrity and fairness of the American Justice System by providing the finest legal representation in the cases entrusted to us” parallels my commitment to be of service to others in a way that ensures their humanity is considered in the checks and balances of the criminal justice system. I went to law school after working as a clinical social worker for children who experienced severe abuse, and I saw that the clinical human experience was not always considered by the lawyers. While I enjoyed all aspects of my job, my favorite duties involve client interviews, writing and orally arguing legal arguments and all aspects of jury trials. I handle all types of felony cases ranging from murder to burglary. I am truly honored and privileged to serve as a deputy public defender. Becoming a lawyer was not easy because I had to work while attending law school to have a roof over my head. I worked for the County’s Child Welfare Services agency. My career in social services began in 1995 and it’s the career that was the catalyst to my decision to attend law school in 2000. Looking back, however, my social service experience has equipped me very well to handle my job as a deputy public defender because the basic premise is the same – help people during their most frail and worst human experiences. The biggest lesson I learned on my journey to becoming a lawyer was to know who you are, know your strengths, know your weaknesses, be willing to grow as a human, expect adversity, and don’t ever, ever give up. This lesson was solidified when it was time for me to take my licensing exam (bar exam). My job only gave me two weeks off though they initially were going to give me six weeks. While initially stressed, I made a schedule that will ensure my best preparation under the circumstances that began at 5:00 a.m. and went through 2:00 a.m. and included going to church daily. When I was finally off, I got bronchitis. My doctor said I will not be taking the bar exam unless I slept 8-10 hours a day in addition to the regular sleep hours. I was shocked because I could not be sleeping that much two weeks before the bar exam. The doctor would not bulge and though not happy with his recommendation, I followed it. Then, I recovered and was so excited, when my father in New York had a heart attack. I could not believe it. Undeterred, I studied and talked to the doctors while my family in New York handled the rest. The three days of exams arrived. I showed up with fiery determination to pass despite only being able to complete one practice essay for each subject, one round of multiple-choice questions, one-page outline for each subject and a six-week bar preparation that I attended during the evenings. Three months later, result day arrived. I looked up my name and I PASSED. I fell to my knees with tears and gratitude. I know I passed because of God’s grace which was available to me because I accepted the adversity, I prepared in my own skin and circumstance, and most importantly, I persevered. For anyone working towards a goal, I want them to know that it is not always easy, but if you give it your best, and it is meant to be part of your journey, it will be–just be the best version of you on your way to your goal destination. While I come from very humble beginnings, I have transcended barriers for my family as a first-generation college, graduate school, and law school graduate. Therefore, besides being a deputy public defender, it was important for me to volunteer in my community, so I didn’t become one-dimensional in my efforts to help people. Since 2006, I have been volunteering in various community organizations and bar associations that aim to improve the lives of children, law students, and advance women and people of color in society. I truly believe that “to whom much is given, much is required”. I’ve had the honor and privilege to serve in various leadership roles and it truly has been magical because I am able to give back to the communities in a way that is tangible and truly changes lives. One day when I am winding down, I hope to be sitting at the beach, watching the sunset, smiling knowing “I’ve done good”.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
A week long visit from my sisterhood tribe would include: Beach, Beach, Beach (La Jolla Shores, Del Mar, Coronado); Hiking & Walking at Cowles Mountain, Lake Poway (Potato Chip), Lake Murray, and Cabrillo Monument. Eating at some of my favorites: Trattoria Tiramisu in La Mesa, Extraordinary Desserts on Fifth Avenue San Diego, Seasons 52 in La Jolla, Extraordinary Banana Pudding in La Mesa, Breakfast Republic (any location in San Diego County) and we will be hunting for some good French and sushi places. A visit to the San Diego Symphony, shopping at Fashion District – Los Angeles, and a spa day at Glen Ivy Hot Springs in Corona.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
I would like to dedicate this shoutout to my grandmother, Luz Libonatti and Lawyers Club of San Diego. My grandmother immigrated from Dominican Republic, and with barely an elementary education, she became a business owner and upon retiring from that became a home health aid worker. She was my guardian angel/mother/confidant and my number one inspiration for hard work, strength, discipline and rising above all things. I would not be the woman I am today without her. When my grandmother joined heaven, I increased my community service including at Lawyers Club of San Diego. Lawyers Club of San Diego welcomed and embraced me in my own skin and personality and provided a medium for me to heal from the loss of my grandmother. I have found lifelong friends in Lawyers Club and have become the leader I am because of Lawyers Club. I am so very blessed that was I was elected president of this exceptional feminist bar association. I want to thank my twin sister and sisterhood tribe–they know who they are–they inspire me daily and their support provides the best cocoon of love and safety any woman can have.
Photo with flag taken by Ken Stone for Times of San Diego