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Fighting for the future: ASU alum Jake Martinez empowers New York youth to get involved

He says ASU sociology professor showed him importance of understanding people


ASU alum Jake Martinez holding a packet of papers and talking to someone.

ASU alum Jake Martinez (left), deputy director of campaigns and strategy for the New York Civil Liberties Union, speaks with volunteers during NYCLU Youth Lobby Day. Martinez organized the event, in which students from around the state of New York meet with state legislators. Photo by Konrad Odhiambo

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February 15, 2024

Editor's note: Arizona State University alumni are making a difference in every corner and community of the world, positively changing the lives of those they encounter. ASU News traveled around the U.S. in 2023 to profile five of those alums.

ALBANY, N.Y. — It’s just before 6:30 a.m. on a cold April morning. More than 30 high school students from all five NYC boroughs huddle together, chowing down on doughnuts as they wait for their charter bus to pull into lower Manhattan, New York City.

They have a three-hour drive ahead of them, out of noisy, gray Manhattan and into the quiet green of upstate New York.

Jake Martinez sits on the right side of the bus, fourth row. He’s wearing black jeans and a purple T-shirt that reads, “Fighting For Our Futures.”

Martinez is the deputy director of campaigns and strategy for the New York Civil Liberties Union, and an Arizona State University alum, Class of 2010.

In 2019, he came up with the idea for this event, the NYCLU Youth Lobby Day. Martinez is hopeful the day ahead — when students will hold a rally at the capitol in Albany and meet with state legislators to express their support of four bills — will make a profound difference in the state he has called home since 2014.

“I have been working in youth organizing and youth development since I was 19 or 20,” said Martinez, 34. “I think part of the thing that drives me is the passion that young people have about the issues that they care about. Also, just seeing things in the world and being like, ‘I don’t want it to be like that.’ It’s all connected in that way.”

Inspiration to help others

After picking up more than a dozen students in Spring Valley, a village 22 miles north of Manhattan, the bus rambles through a steady rain all the way to Albany.

The students all wear the same purple T-shirt as Martinez. They carry tote bags that are inscribed with the words “Vote Smart Justice.”

Martinez, who was born and raised in Glendale, Arizona, understood early on in his life the importance of helping others. His great-grandfather, Joe Torres, helped build Sacred Heart Church near 16th Street and Buckeye Road.

Torres could often be found at the church, feeding the homeless, working in the kitchen, doing whatever was needed to serve the community.

“We would go to his church and volunteer with him,” Martinez said.

Martinez also was encouraged by his mother, Mary, who would repeatedly tell him, “Be good to people.”

It was in middle school, however, that Martinez made the first steps into his life work, even if he didn’t know it at the time. He often was bullied for being gay. Other students would tease him about the way he walked or the way he talked.

“It was really hurtful,” Martinez said. “I would come home, and I’d be upset about being bullied and my mom always stood up for me.”

So did his older sister, Andrea, who, when she heard the taunting, told the bullies to shut up.

“When you’re a kid and you’re scared, you don’t feel like you have the means to defend yourself,” Martinez said. “My family is what really kept me going.”

Hurt and at times angry, Martinez decided he didn’t want other kids suffering the way he did. He was too young to understand how he would go about that. But seeds were planted.

“It’s personal for me,” he said. “Just seeing things in the world and being like, ‘I don’t want it to be like that.’ I wanted to create spaces where students felt safe, and where they felt they have teachers that support them.”

After passing through security, the students gather in a wide hallway outside the legislative offices for their rally. As legislators walk past, the students are given four signs that visually support the issues they’ll discuss privately with legislators after the rally.

“I think it’s really powerful that we’re here,” said Amani Rivera, a senior at Amsterdam High School in Amsterdam, New York. “Because we are the future, and the earlier we get involved with things like this and push legislators and people who are empowered to do certain things, I feel like it’s going to change the world. And then once we get up to those positions, we will have a baseline to start at.”

The bills the New York students were rallying for

Solutions, Not Suspensions

Refers to a bill that would require schools to limit the use of suspensions for students in kindergarten through third grade to only the most serious behaviors, and limit suspensions to 20 days.

Clean Air Can’t Wait

Supports a bill that would prevent new schools from being constructed within 500 feet of major roadways. The state of New York operates more than 250 schools within 500 feet of a highway.

Teach Inclusive History

The bill would require New York schools to provide instruction in the history and civic impact of Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander people.

We The Future

The Youth Justice and Opportunities Act would extend Youthful Offender status to people between the ages of 19 to 25. YO status, which protects young people from being charged as adults, would be given for most low-level offenses like shoplifting and turnstile jumping.

After graduating from Ironwood High School, Martinez enrolled at ASU as a sociology major. He still wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. Andrea had become a social worker, and that intrigued him.

“I modeled a lot of my life after her,” Martinez said.

Martinez said that his now-retired sociology professor, Lisa Whitaker, opened his eyes as to why it was important to “understand people.”

“She was just really relatable, too,” Martinez said. “I remember the first day of class she did the splits, and everyone was really confused, and they were like, ‘Why is this professor doing the splits?’ She just had so much energy and she was engaging and, I don’t know, she was just really cool. She was the one who kind of got me into sociology.

“But all of the professors were really supportive,” Martinez added. “They were always there if you had any questions or if you weren’t sure what you wanted to do. They would provide you with career counseling, which is really needed. Because I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and they were always there to answer questions.”

Martinez got his bachelor’s degree in sociology and his master’s degree in family and human development at the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics.

“I got to focus on adolescent issues, like child development and understanding youth and families,” Martinez said. “That’s when I realized that was what I care about the most.

“Just because you’re a young person doesn’t mean you can’t have a say in how you want the world to be. Just because you’re under the age of 18 and can’t vote doesn’t mean that you can’t make a change in another way. Inspire other people to vote or take action by talking to your elected officials or people in your community about an issue that you care about.”

Devils Making a Difference

Read more in our series about ASU alumni helping others in their communities.

Let us know about other alumni doing great work at asunewspitches@asu.edu.

The rally lasts for an hour. Several of the students make short speeches, as do a few legislators. Occasionally, the students break into chants that amplify their causes.

“Show me what youth justice looks like. This is what youth justice looks like.”

“Ain’t no power like the power of the youth because the youth don’t stop.”

“Hey, hey, ho, ho, school suspension got to go.”

Monique Chandler-Waterman, a New York State Assembly member from District 58, sounds like a preacher as she extols the students.

“You need to be at the table,” she says.

John Liu, a state senator, tells them, “All of you are doing the work we absolutely need in this state.”

As he stands to the side and watches, a small smile spreads across Martinez’s face. This is his work and his life. Service, you might say, is in his DNA.

Kenny Nguyen, the director of youth programs for the NYCLU, has worked with Martinez for four years. The purpose Martinez found at ASU, Nguyen said, shows up every day in his New York office, which includes mementos from his time in Tempe, including a keychain and a Sun Devil plush toy.

“From what I’ve seen in his work and in our meetings, he just has a passion for making things better for students,” Nguyen said. “A lot of us who work in education may have had experiences where we were like, ‘We wish things were different when we were kids.’

“I think that’s what drives me, and I think that’s what drives Jake and why, through him, we put so much into all of these initiatives to make sure that students’ voices are heard, and that things can change for the better.”

It’s late in the afternoon when Jonathan Rampagoa, a senior at Bard Early College in New York, is asked about Martinez. He doesn’t profess to know Martinez that well. But the day has left an impression on him.

“They don’t treat us like we’re tokens to the activism scene,” Rampagoa says. “They give us the agency, the mobility, the transportation services to come here. They brief us on the bills and even let us talk to our own Assembly members or Senate members. It’s activism that is solidified.”

Simply put, Martinez is passing on the inspiration he received from his family and at ASU.

“He definitely inspires me to be in his position one day and be able to make changes at a higher level,” Rivera says.

'The most important thing I can do'

The charter bus arrives back in downtown Manhattan around 7 p.m. Martinez is tired but happy. He doesn’t know if any of the bills the students supported will turn into law.

He does know that about 50 students from across the state had their voices heard, both at the rally and in the meetings with legislators. Hopefully, Martinez says, the experience will compel them to stay involved, to see if they can make a difference in their life and in others’ lives.

That’s Martinez’s mission. Today, tomorrow and wherever his journey takes him.

“Right now, I’m sort of content where I’m at,” he says. But I do see myself 20 years from now running an organization that has a similar mission. If I can have even a broader impact, that would be great.

“I want to inspire people to vote or take action, to show people that there are so many different ways they can make a difference. To me, that feels like the most important thing I can do.”

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