Seven years ago when Martin Leyva walked out of Chino State Prison, a guard told him: “We’ll leave the lights on for you…” insinuating that Leyva would be back. Instead, seven years later, Leyva walked across the stage to accept his bachelor’s degree in liberal arts/psychology from Antioch University in Santa Barbara.
Leyva grew up on the Westside of Santa Barbara, a genteel enough place compared to Compton or East Los Angeles, but potentially lethal to low-income Latinos all the same. Both Westside and Eastside Latinos make up the underclass in this wealthy, beachside city that—along with the rest of California—once belonged to Mexico and, before that, to the indigenous people, the Chumash. Now, as minority members of the Santa Barbara community, Westside and Eastside gang members fight each other rather than the issues they have in common.
Leyva’s youth and early adulthood reflected the toughness and bravado he believed were required for survival. Dropping out of school in ninth grade, Leyva was in and out of trouble with the law and sent to jail and prison multiple times.
But those days are behind him now. A certified drug and alcohol treatment counselor and a skilled gang intervention and prevention facilitator, he is also a core facilitator at AHA!, a social and emotional learning program for teens in Santa Barbara. In 2008, he founded the Santa Barbara City College/ Extended Opportunity Programs and Services’ Transitions Program, helping those released from the criminal justice system re-integrate back to society and succeed at furthering their education. The Transitions program won The John G. Rice Award for Diversity and Equity in 2012.
Leyva is the author of “From Corrections to College: The Value of a Convict’s Voice.” He has spoken at universities and criminal justice conferences throughout California. I met Leyva at a fundraiser for AHA! and was struck by how much he loved his work. I asked him if he would talk to The MOON about “The Best Job in the World.”
— Leslee Goodman
The MOON: How do you describe yourself and your work? What do you do?
Leyva: I work with high school students for a program called AHA!—Attitude, Harmony, Achievement—teaching social and emotional learning skills through in-school and after-school programs. It’s the best job I’ve ever had in my life. It’s one of those jobs where you get up in the morning and you can’t wait to go to work. There’s so much meaning there.
I’m a licensed drug and alcohol treatment counselor and before coming to AHA! I did a lot of that work with teenagers for various agencies around town. There’s a lot of beautiful work in that field, but it’s an uphill battle to get young people to see drug and alcohol use as a problem. The agencies want you to focus narrowly on the drug and alcohol abuse—which of course is only a symptom of deeper issues. With AHA! I don’t do drug and alcohol treatment; but I do do drug and alcohol treatment. We work on the emotional issues—the feelings—that cause a person to drink or use drugs—either as a reward, or as a punishment. We also address systemic issues within the Latino community, the Anglo community, the privileged community, the impoverished community, the LGBTQ community—all these communities. We come together and talk about how issues like poverty or privilege, or bullying or discrimination, affect us, and we talk about who we are, where we come from, how we feel. The youth respond beautifully. They get it. You see their light bulbs go off all the time, and it’s amazing to be part of such a beautiful process. I often say I’m overpaid for what I do because I get fed emotionally by it, too. These youth teach me something every day. Whether they’re struggling, or they’re happy about getting a better grade, or having a better conversation with their mom or dad, or finally meeting their mom or dad—I mean these kids have so many issues—it’s just great to see the light bulbs go off and to feel like you’ve been there to support them.
This job really requires you to be who you say you are because we lead by example. We don’t tell youth what to do. We honor what’s going on with them and model the fact that there are always options. It’s the most amazing experience to get up in the morning and go to work feeling as if the youth need me, but also that I need them. We’re all part of this community that we’ve created. So we’re all getting paid, one way or another. [Laughs]
The MOON: How do you need these youth? How are they feeding you? Why do you get so excited about going to work?
Leyva: There are still a lot of areas in my life that never got dealt with; a lot of stuff from my childhood. So when I work with these youth, it’s as if I’m seeing a mirror image of myself as a kid. As I support them in healing their own issues, I better understand some of my own issues, like meeting my biological dad; or my stepfather leaving me; or getting incarcerated away from my community and family. The youths give me their stories, their truths, and that helps to shed light on who I was when I was little Martin. When a youth tells me his story and I can say, “Yeah, I totally understand because I’ve been there,” it’s empowering for both of us.
The whole process feeds my fire for social justice because these youth are so important to our future—to everyone’s future. And youth are vulnerable. We adults have so much power over them—to make them or break them—and because so many people and institutions are threatened by them they use their power to break them. So when the youth get to a program like AHA! where they feel safe, where the adults are really committed to supporting and uplifting and empowering them, it changes the game. It changes how the youth see themselves—as inherently worthwhile people. Seeing them recognize their potential—even just getting a glimpse of it—feeds me.
The MOON: How did you happen upon this as a career? What was, or is your motivation? What path did you take to get here? Was it a fluke? Were you responding to a need? Were you just doing what you loved and the work followed?
Leyva: Yeah, we talk about job interviews in Ally group, and we’ll role play. Let’s say I’m the employer and you’re the job applicant. So walk up to me and shake my hand. Then I might say, “Hmmm. That was kind of a weak handshake.” So we talk about what is a good handshake: what is too weak, what is too strong, what is overbearing. How do you give a solid handshake that leaves a little bit of positive impression just with touch?
And we also talk about cultural norms because, for example, eye contact is not always good in some cultures. Gripping someone kind of tight is not okay in some cultures. If you’re a Latino man facing a Latino man, you don’t want to show too much power. If you’re a Latina woman facing another Latina, you might want to give a soft handshake. If you’re facing a white boss, what kind of handshake should you give? We talk about all these possible variations.
Eye contact is good, but only if you’re smiling. [Laughs] So we talk about all this, and we have fun with it too. We have a good time while we’re learning.
The MOON: How does this work make use of your specific talents and gifts?
Leyva: I’m a very patient, open-minded person, very accepting. Although I’m an introvert, I’m also a strong leader. I come from a background that enables me to connect with youth, and I’m motivated to connect with them. I love and respect them. So if that’s a talent, or a gift, it helps me in this work. I know how to be honest—and I swear, thatis a talent because a lot of people are afraid to be honest. I’m real and honest with my co-workers, as well as the teens.
This group of people who works together at AHA! is really important. Our diversity is important. We have white privileged folks who know exactly what that privilege means, and then we have people with backgrounds like mine. It’s a whole gamut of people who work really, really well together, and modeling that behavior to the community shows that it can be done, and how. We have a really clear and strong understanding of who we are and what our mission is. My bosses—the co-directors of AHA!—have done an amazing job of putting it all together and saying “Nobody is better than another person here.” I love that because I come from a world where somebody always has to be bigger; somebody always has to be “tougher.” There’s always a hierarchy of power. At AHA!, I have talents that everybody loves and appreciates. So they say, “Martin, we have a struggling student over here. Will you work with him?” Or, “We’ve got a student with a different issue over here. Who feels like they have an insight to work with her?” We all work together to get the youth whatever it is they need.
It’s easy for me to speak up for an oppressed group, even though I don’t necessarily look like the person who would speak up for them. For example, when men are talking bad about women, they don’t expect me to be the one who challenges them—even about language. If someone uses the “B” word, I’ll be the one who says something like, “Hey, that’s a little dismissive, don’t you think? I mean we were born from women. At least have a little respect.” And the guys will look at me, like, “What?! What did you just say?” They thought, because of the way I look, that I’d be some macho womanizer or something. So the dichotomy between the way I look and who I am can be used in a lot of ways. When the young men who are growing up the way I grew up, where certain people aren’t respected for whatever reason, learn that I actually give ten times more respect than I get, it makes an impression. But I’ve learned that I love to get respect, and to get it I have to give it—ten times more, if necessary.
The way I look and who I am is also a gift for changing stereotypes about people who look like me. You will never see Martin doing bad behaviors. You will never hear me say, “Hey, you shouldn’t do that,” and then see me doing it. You also will never hear me tell a youth, “You shouldn’t drink,” or “You shouldn’t do drugs,” or “You shouldn’t join a gang,” because I know that they wouldn’t consider doing these things without reasons. If we can figure out what those reasons are and work on them, then the youth can make their own decisions—and most likely, they’ll choose positively. Being someone youth will trust and talk to about their reasons is a talent and my work makes use of it every single day.
Right now our phone call just got interrupted by a text message from a young man who’s really struggling with drugs and we’re talking about why he wants to use. He says he doesn’t know why, but he doesn’t have a job and that becomes a reason why he should use. He tells himself that when he gets a job he’ll stop using. Until then, he doesn’t have a reason not to use. So when we understand this, we can switch the focus of our conversation away from drugs to the topic of feeling bad about himself. We can concentrate more on ways a job, or school, or other proactive activities will help him to achieve the goal of earning money. I will not shame him for using drugs, what I will do is share with him other coping strategies to ease his pain. Emotional pain is a self-oppressor, and it’s a killer of spirits, and being spiritless can deprive us of our growth. This young man is important, loved and valuable, and he needs to see it, and I will do everything in my power to allow him to see it.
The MOON: I used to do development work for AHA! and I know the facilitators are hired for who they are, not just for their education or experience. You have to bring your whole self to work there. Even if you don’t think you’re bringing it, the nature of the work means that people are going to see who you are; you’re not going to be able to hide. So I’m confident you were hired for who you are—so-called negative history and all—not “just” what you do. It’s a pretty rare and wonderful place where you get to bring your whole self to work.
Leyva: Yeah. Jennifer and Rendy, AHA!’s co-directors, really do mirror what love is, and it’s contagious. When I worked at the Council on Alcohol and Drug Addiction, it wasn’t the same feeling at all. They were much more hesitant to put me in a leadership position. When I came to AHA! they really did embrace me, for both my past and for who I am today. When they mirror such love, it’s easy to radiate it outward. I feel love at work, so why shouldn’t I love my work? They give you constructive feedback and they push talent forward.
The MOON: Where do you see this work taking you? Will you be doing the same work in five or 10 years? What else would you like to be doing?
Leyva: I just graduated with my bachelor’s degree in liberal arts and psychology, which was a huge accomplishment for me. I was always a horrible student; I have a ninth-grade education. I’m not sure what direction my future path will take. I’m really big on social justice and addressing systems of oppression, the criminal justice system, the prison-industrial complex, particularly the youth prison-industrial complex, and many other issues. I am applying to Ph.D. programs at several universities, so my future will depend to some extent on where I get accepted. I’m applying to UC Santa Cruz to study the history of consciousness or feminist studies; at UC Berkeley, I would be studying sociology, ethnic studies, and/or criminology; and at Stanford, sociology or social psychology.
I really see myself teaching at the community college level. I know from my own experience that there are a lot of people struggling at that level. It’s not just 18-year-olds; it’s 50-year-olds going back to school; it’s people like me coming out of prison and trying to create a better life for themselves. I see myself teaching there. I had a couple of really, really good teachers at City College. Dr. Helen Meloy taught this one class on social deviance, and the way she taught and the things she believed in made me want to work in that field. She really had a huge impact on me.
I know a lot of seniors who just graduated from high school who tell me, “I don’t know if I want to go to school,” because they barely survived high school and they don’t see how they will make it through college. I tell them, “No, you can do it,” and I want to be one of the people there to support them so that they do.
I don’t know if I’ll stay doing the work I’m doing now, but I do see myself staying really active in the lives of people who struggle.
The MOON: What would you advise someone who was inspired to follow in your footsteps?
Leyva: If they were someone like me who falls victim to their own inner critic, I’d say, “Don’t ever give up.” You read all the time people say that they were their own biggest obstacle to overcome. I’d also say, “Don’t take no for an answer,” and also, “Find lots of avenues to get where you want to go.” That way, if one avenue is blocked, you can take an alternate route. Another thing I’ve only recently learned how to do—and I’d tell other people to learn this sooner than I did—is to ask for help. Sometimes I can get into this little pity party where I think I have to do everything myself because no one else is going to understand it, or care about it, and it’s not true. There’s nothing that has ever happened to me, or that I have ever done in life, that hasn’t happened to or been done by others. We’re not alone.
The MOON: I think a lot of people have trouble asking for help. Can you give an example of a time when you asked for help, and how you did it?
Leyva: Here’s the example that I think meant the most to me. Six years ago when we started Transitions at City College, I was really struggling. I’d sit in the classroom and listen to the teachers and look at their Power Point presentations, and read the assignments, and I felt as if I had answers to the questions they were asking, but I was afraid to speak out. I felt that I could be a very strong voice regarding whatever it was that we were discussing, but the fear of sounding stupid, or not making sense, or even of being looked at—which of course would happen as soon as I raised my hand—was scary for me because I felt like I didn’t belong. If I couldn’t make myself understood, that would just confirm everyone’s suspicion.
When I started Transitions, it was with people who would have been my enemies in prison because they were of a different race. But one day I walked up to this group of guys and said, “I see you guys at City College and I’m going there too.” So we all shook hands. Then I said, “Do you ever feel like you don’t belong there, like you’re even afraid to raise your hand because then people will realize that you don’t belong?” And every single one of them said, “Yeah.” They suffered from the same thing I did. So I said, “Maybe we can hang out and talk about these things and support each other.” And they said yeah.
That was me asking for help at a time when, if I’d continued feeling like that at City College, I probably would’ve dropped out. And if they hadn’t said “Yes, let’s hang out; let’s talk; let’s support each other,” Transitions wouldn’t have started. Unfortunately, two of the guys who started Transitions with me are back in prison, but I still keep in touch with one of them. And I continue to say from time to time, “Hey, I need a little bit of help here. Can you help me out?” If I hadn’t learned how to ask for help, I probably wouldn’t have graduated with my B.A. either.
I started out asking for help from people I thought would be like-minded. But now I’ve gone on to ask for help from people who have what I need—a house to live in, or a letter of reference maybe—and the irony is, I’ve rarely heard no when I’ve asked for help. We’re so afraid to ask, and yet most of the time, people are happy to help. It took that first request, though, to give me courage. I was scared to ask those guys, but I still did it.
So, that’s definitely something I’d say to anyone who wanted to follow in my footsteps. And probably the number-one thing I’m always telling people is “Show up. Just show up.” Do that and everything else will be taken care of.
We’re only as strong as our struggles. Life isn’t easy, and we’re usually the ones who make it more difficult. But I’ve made my life difficult for so long, I’m not going to do that anymore. So show up and don’t give up. That’s it.