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.”
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?