Raysa Castillo was brought to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, at the age of 13, where her mother enrolled her in a bilingual program in public school.It was her first time in public school, as she had attended private catholic schools in Santo Domingo; she remembers that this was just one of many sudden adjustments she had to make. Ms. Castillo was raised by the women in her family, and grew up with a keen interest in politics.
Ms. Castillo received a Bachelor's Degree in Political Science and Spanish from The College of Staten Island, with a concentration in Public Administration. While in college, she founded the first Latin American Club and was active in Student Government. Ms. Castillo was also an active participant in the movement to bring childcare to CUNY schools.After graduating with a 3.79 grade point average, and a 4.0 in her major, Ms. Castillo went on to study Law.
In 1992, Ms. Castillo fulfilled her lifelong dream of becoming a lawyer and began representing poor and low-income families in the Courts as a Housing and Public Benefits Attorney in the Bronx. She now has her own law firm, Castillo and Associates, where she is chief attorney.
Ms. Castillo also served as Board member and President of District Six Community School Board, working closely with the parents in the over-crowded, underserved district.
Ms. Castillo is particularly proud that during her tenure, the district's math and reading scores increased significantly. She has a record of pro-bono legal work in the community and is currently President of the Dominican Women's Caucus and Vice Chair of the Audubon Partnership for Economic Development.
Ms. Castillo has also served as Counsel to the Women's Issues Committee of the New York City Council. After less than a year at City Council, Ms. Castillo was recruited to join the office of New York State Assemblyman Ramirez in the Bronx. Ms. Castillo was then promoted to Executive Director of the Bronx Democratic County Committee. In the year 2000, Ms. Castillo joined the New York State Democratic Committee's Victory 2000 as its Deputy Political Director, assisting the Political Director with Hillary Rodham Clinton's and Al Gore's campaigns. She has remained involved in community service and political activism.
When asked how the Dominican experience informs her work, Castillo replies, "I maintain my culture. Most of my clients are Latinos and among those Latinos, most are Dominican. There are cultural aspects—these are people whom I understand. I know their shortcomings, their hesitations, their biases, the way they do business. How they are often driven by emotional and familial considerations more than pragmatic ones. I handle a lot of business transactions, and a lot of my clients do not fully understand how to do business. They conduct business on a personal level, based on personal ties. I use my knowledge of the community. So a lot of that is cultural knowledge."
Already in childhood, Ms. Castillo knew she wanted to become a lawyer. "The only professionals I had contact with, except for some teachers, were two lawyers. I knew they had the respect of the community back home, doctors and lawyers; and I knew I was not interested in being a doctor. My grandmother influenced me—she was not formally educated at a high level but she had a lot of respect for education. She wanted all of her friends to know when I learned to read."
I asked Ms. Castillo to tell me about some important lessons she had learned in her years of practicing law. "The first and most important lesson I learned was that my gender, my race, and my ethnicity do matter. Secondly, I learned that skills learned outside of law school are just as important as knowledge of the law— for example, using my ability to empathize with someone even if I disagree with what they are doing or saying. Thirdly, I have to exercise patience, and it doesn't come naturally to me. Many of my clients lack formal education. When they start telling you a story, you expect them to get to the main point, but you have to let them tell the story their own way to get all the details."
When it comes to what motivates and drives Castillo, there is an emotional side to her investment in her work. "The most rewarding part is finding a solution to a person's problem—that goes beyond legal issues. If somebody has rent problems, when you solve the legal issue, that means she can keep her hair salon, she can pay the rent, she can feed her family and send money to relatives back home. It's challenging representing my community, but it's more rewarding than working for a corporate law firm."
Effective communication is one of the skills most crucial to the success of Ms. Castillo's demanding work. "One challenge," she tells me, "is getting people to actually understand how to reach the best solution to a problem, convincing them. Sometimes people are not in sync and you have to deal with the complexity of the situation. Another challenge is getting a person to open up in a way that makes it possible for you to help them. When immigration issues are involved, people have a reluctance to be open. That's where patience comes in. As a member of the community, I am often able to know when the client is hiding something, and I can persuade them that their fears are unfounded."
What are her proudest accomplishments so far?
"I was part of the team that elected Hillary Clinton to the senate and propelled her into national politics. Working with Guillermo Linares, the first Dominican elected to city council in New York City, and Adriano Espaillat, the first Dominican assemblyman, were important milestones.
"I've been successful in working in coalitions with women and others in our community to elect qualified candidates to the bench. I've raised awareness of how judges can affect people's lives. I'm also very proud of the work I did as a board member and president of what was then the board of district 6, creating the first special ed program. I was the first and only Dominican to occupy that position in what is borough with the largest Dominican population."
What are some of her goals for the future? "To get more women involved in having their own practice. A few are solo practitioners and even fewer have firms where they hire other attorneys, a very small group. I am working on getting more women to open and maintain law firms. In politics, I hope to get more women elected. I'm very proud of Julissa Ferreras getting elected to New York City Council to represent the 21st district in Queens. But on the other hand, we just lost the only Dominican assemblywoman ever elected. I'm committed to training and supporting women in efforts to get into all levels of government.
"I also think it's important to support artists, and to encourage children to draw, write, paint, and so on. Our tradition encourages people to go into the professions, but I think the arts have sometimes been undervalued as a path to follow. I attend exhibits and I donate and belong to numerous museums. I also organize tours for women and children. I always say women are catalysts for change, and art is a catalyst for change as well. Artists are the movers of a society, who push things forward. Lawyers do it in the courtroom in a very controlled way. Artists do it in a revolutionary way."
Finally, the advice Ms. Castillo offers young people who aspire to follow in her footsteps may surprise some or seem counter-intuitive, but it also sounds profoundly sensible. "Read and write a lot, particularly about things you don't have a particular liking for. Don't necessarily take pre-law classes—law schools often prefer people who have a blank slate, but who know how to read and interpret different things. If you major in history, languages, or philosophy, they prefer that to people from pre-law.If you happen to be what I consider a lucky person and live in New York City, all of the law schools in the city are good, so it's not worth setting all your hopes on one particular school.
"When you graduate, try not to have a lot of loans. That way you can think about dedicating a few years to public service. Most of the people who do so are white and from well-to-do families. Minorities usually can't afford to. I would encourage future attorneys to do so, which can be done by avoiding taking out too many loans.
"People want to become trial lawyers because they see those dramatic courtroom moments on television, but in reality those rarely happen. It's important to do something that you like doing, like defending and protecting your own people. You can protect your community in a lot of different ways."