Meet HCBA Member Ayah Helmy

by Bethany Lenderink | Mar 01, 2021
Ayah HelmyFrom a young age, HCBA member Ayah Helmy has believed in searching for justice and being a force of positive change. When she was a child, Helmy knew that she wanted to be someone who stood up for others. “That’s always been my personality,” she said. “I’ve always been someone who sought to find justice in any situation, whether that’s in my personal life or in society.” While she did not always want to be a lawyer, she always knew she wanted to help people; as Helmy grew up, she recognized that standing up for other people is what lawyers do, and she was drawn to the profession from a young age.

Helmy grew up living between two worlds, spending the summers in Minneapolis and the school year in Cairo, Egypt. She described it as being an outsider in both places. “When I was in Egypt, I was the American kid. And when I was here, I was the Egyptian kid. I got to see both societies from an outside perspective.” She said that this created a sense of understanding and studying discrepancies from a very young age.
Eventually, Helmy and her family returned to the United States full time. Her 6th day at her new high school was September 11, 2001. As one of the few Muslim students in her new school, Helmy found herself navigating how to approach her Muslim identity. “You have to decide for yourself in the wake of that situation, are you going to shrink away from your Muslim identity or are you going to become your Muslim identity? Is it going to become part of you or not?” Helmy began to ask herself how she could “push justice forward” for everyone, including the disenfranchised group she identified with. The wake of 9/11 further solidified her commitment to becoming a lawyer and to be an advocate for justice.

With plans of becoming a civil rights or human rights lawyer, Helmy began her undergraduate at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities, studying political science and balancing schoolwork with being an activist on campus. It was when she began law school at William Mitchell College of Law that she began to feel disillusioned. “I think I got a reality check when I went to law school of what civil rights and human rights law is like,” Helmy said. “Civil rights law is like if there’s a brick wall and human rights law is if the wall hits back. I said, ‘Well, now what? I don’t think I can professionally do something where every day is such an existential struggle, so I can’t do that. What can I do that I believe in still, but isn’t that every single day?’”

Helmy found a middle ground as an attorney for the start-up company Bright Health and as an adjunct professor teaching feminist jurisprudence at Mitchell Hamline School of Law and a social justice seminar at the University of Minnesota. Her goal is to be “a lawyer who makes positive change in her little corner of the world,” every day, in every way that she possibly can. “You’re probably not going to make the broad, sweeping contributions you dreamt of when you were a naïve kid, but you can make positive change with the things you do touch. That’s what I try to do now as a lawyer.”

For Helmy, a lot of this positive change comes through the importance she puts on uplifting lawyers and students of color within the profession. Helmy strives to create pipelines within the profession for students of color and to address the disparities she has witnessed and experienced. A big part of this is through education, which she demonstrates in her teaching. “We talk about feminism, but we see feminism from a perspective that it’s not just anti-misogyny. It’s anti-racism, it’s anti-classism, it’s anti-ableism. […] It’s huge for me to not only have representation within our ranks as lawyers, but also to really develop understandings of the concept of equity within the legal community. It’s not just about having more diverse faces in the crowd; it’s having diverse ideas and understanding what equity actually means.”

Helmy said that her involvement with the HCBA has helped her enact those beliefs, especially her time on the committee for the Hennepin Lawyer magazine. She was introduced to the HCBA publications committee by Sandra Feist, who asked her to write a piece for the “Profiles in Practice” issue. After writing the profile, Helmy was encouraged to continue coming to committee meetings, and later went on to serve as chair for two years. She said she found it was a way to meet people and to have a voice within the community. “I think, as young lawyers and especially as young lawyers of color, we tend to feel like we don’t have a voice in the legal community. I feel like I was really embraced by this publications committee and that my voice was bolstered and embraced in an amazing way. It just kept me coming back.” 

Though Helmy does not have much room for free time, the time she does have is spent drawing, painting, and adding to her ever-expanding collection of books.