Lisa Martinez: Bringing the Power of Philosophy and Ethics to the Women’s County Jail

At age 15, Lisa Martinez began a promising business career that brought her into the ranks of senior management in mortgage banking. But with the financial crash of 2008, she left the industry, went back to school and discovered philosophy.

A recent graduate of the University of California, Santa Cruz, Martinez now serves as a teaching assistant in Philosophy and Art. She also teaches at the local women’s jail, helping inmates explore the rich and relevant worlds of philosophy and ethics.

Recently I sat down with Lisa in the Humanities Division office at UC Santa Cruz to ask what prompted her to make such a commitment, and how it relates to the practice of philosophy. Teaching at the local jail may be a career path for Martinez as much as a way of life; though her plans are to pursue her Ph.D. in the coming year, she has every intention of continuing to teach those for whom learning philosophy and ethics is out of reach.

This profile, the fourth in our series Beyond the Forest, approaches the Humanities from a different angle: instead of discussing ways to find meaningful careers with a humanities education, my talk with Lisa focused more on finding ways to influence society, become a change maker, and help lift others out of difficult situations.

A Personal Journey from Banking to Philosophy

Raised in the San Fernando Valley near Los Angeles, Lisa started working early, and her talent and hard work paid off, until the financial crisis. Disillusioned, she left banking, attended community college and changed careers with the intention of becoming a teacher.

Lisa Martinez in the UC Santa Cruz Humanities Division, January, 2019.

Lisa explains, “I started working in business when I was 15 and I was a bank executive when I was 24. I was working in the mortgage industry when everything happened (the housing crisis, financial crisis and subsequent recession). I was realizing I just didn’t agree with the business side of it. I left my job one day and for a few months I was like, ‘What do I do now? All I know is business.’

CBS News: What Really Caused the Housing Crisis?

“So I went back to school and took my first philosophy class, and my life changed. And the reason my life changed is that I started thinking for myself. I started off as an Economics major, then I switched to Philosophy after that first class. Then I transferred here to UC Santa Cruz.”

“So I went back to school and took my first philosophy class, and my life changed. And the reason my life changed is that I started thinking for myself.”

Referring to high school, she says, “My education in Los Angeles was a lot of memorization — not a lot of room for self-expression and thought.” Her intention to teach others how to think for themselves was an outgrowth of that personal experience.

With her transfer to UC Santa Cruz, Lisa’s new career direction soon came into focus. She says, “I did Legal Studies and Philosophy as a double major, because I am very interested in the legal aspects of the dynamic in society and how much it’s dependent on the law. I think philosophy is a good way to think critically and openly about the laws that are in place.”

Ambitious and with a passion for teaching and contributing, Lisa soon found new doors opened for her. She learned about the Four Plus One program, which allows undergraduates in their senior year to start taking graduate classes. After graduation, a student continues for an additional year, and receive a Master’s degree.

The Four Plus One Program, also known as the Fifth Year M.A. Pathway

Enrolling in the Four Plus One Program put Lisa on the fast track to her Master’s degree, which in turn prepared her to pursue her Ph.D. The extra academic year also gave her time and opportunity to get involved in some unusual outside projects.

She learned about Giving Day, and offered to help out. It’s one day a year when UC Santa Cruz students, alumni and faculty compete to raise money in a 24-hour period for a variety of on-campus programs, activities and causes.

UC Santa Cruz Giving Day

In Giving Day, Martinez saw more opportunities to contribute, this time using the expertise she had acquired working in the banking industry. “Giving Day was approaching, and I was brought in to help them strategize,” she says; “and since I had worked in business, I was hired as a programs manager.”

Lisa had more ideas she wanted to try out: on her application to UC Santa Cruz, she says, “I had this big idea to get all my friends in different majors — Feminist Studies, Critical Race and Ethnic Studies, and Philosophy — and go out into the elementary schools and introduce these ideas really early.”

Those interests caught the attention of Jonathan E. Ellis, Associate Professor of Philosophy and the Director of the Center for Public Philosophy, who invited Lisa to join the Center (based in The Humanities Institute at UC Santa Cruz). The Center has a variety of programs that they were hoping to expand, including working in elementary schools. Lisa seemed a good candidate and she gladly joined.

It was through the Center that she learned of an opportunity to teach at the newly opened women’s jail in Santa Cruz. Martinez wanted to use her education, experience and skills to engage with the local community, and especially with young people, and those who had run afoul of the legal system.

Teaching in the Blaine Street Women’s Jail

Lisa explains, “The county had been housing the women in the men’s jail, so they wanted to open the women’s jail, it’s called Blaine Street. It was about to be opened, and I said I would love to teach there. I proposed the class; I wanted to do something different.”

“I proposed the class; I wanted to do something different.”

The Blaine Street Women’s Facility in Santa Cruz is part of a state-wide initiative to improve jail conditions, and is set up dormitory-style rather than with prison cells. The inmates are women who have committed no violent crime; most are incarcerated for theft, drug or alcohol-related offenses, and are generally serving short sentences. There is a focus on helping them improve their education so they can find work after release.

Santa Cruz Sentinel: Upgraded Blaine Street Women’s Facility to Address Needs of Female Inmates

When I ask Lisa to describe these women, she hesitates, then says. “I don’t really know who they are.” She then reflects, “They have to be in for minor offenses since they are in a jail. I’m not sure, and I don’t ask. And because it’s a jail, there’s a high turnover rate.”

According to press quotes from the Santa Cruz county sheriff, the inmates are, for the most part, local residents. And many are mothers, as Lisa learned through casual comments: “They’ll say something like, ‘Well, my daughter thinks…’”

The women vary widely by age, from late teens through their seventies, and likewise seem to have a wide range of educational experiences. She says, “I think half of them graduated from high school and half didn’t. Some will say that they went to community college and maybe didn’t finish. Or they are interested now in completing an education, so that’s why they are taking the class.”

Fortunately for these women, the County welcomes educational opportunities for them to learn something that would benefit them when they are back “outside.” A range of classes is offered, and many qualify for high school or community college credit.

Santa Cruz County Inmates Programs and Resources: Blaine Street Programs

Creating a Philosophy and Aesthetics Curriculum for Inmates

Regardless of the levels of education the women have, the beauty of this program is that there are no “requirements,” other than curiosity and a willingness to learn. At first, Lisa wanted to focus on ethics, but she explains, “I felt it was strange to just go in there and teach ethics; I wanted to find different ways to get them interested. I realized that philosophy or ethics can be boring if you are not interested in it in general, or if it’s your first interaction with it.”

Since Lisa is also a photographer (she did her Master’s thesis on the philosophy of photography), she is also interested in aesthetics — she even serves as a teaching assistant for the UC Santa Cruz Arts Division. She explains, “I put together a curriculum where it’s ethics and aesthetics. I’ll introduce an ethical principle and then bring in ‘banned’ art — maybe literature that is still not allowed in certain school districts around the country — and we’ll talk about how they relate.

“The idea,” she says, “is to discuss censorship: so we’ll talk about the First Amendment, and then we’ll also talk about an ethical principle. I’ll usually ask them what kind of art they are interested in, and depending on what they say, I try to tailor it to their interests.”

“The idea is to discuss censorship: so we’ll talk about the First Amendment, and then we’ll also talk about an ethical principle.”

Discussing Hobbes and Picasso’s Guernica with Incarcerated Women

Asked whether she lectures in class, Lisa replies, “No, it’s discussion based, I like to keep it like that. I meet with them on Wednesdays. The first class I usually gauge what they are interested in. It’s a 12-week class.”

She says, “I usually have a general idea of what the week will look like, based on what I keep hearing from them. For instance, last week, they kept talking about how humans can’t really be trusted. And if there were no government, everyone would be running around kind of crazy.

“I thought that was a perfect opportunity to introduce Hobbes and his idea that society needs government because life is ‘short and brutish;’ so I took out a snippet from Leviathan,” Hobbes’ 17th-century study of politics and society.

It’s a process of listening to the inmates and picking up on what they find engaging. Martinez explains, “When they discuss things like the need for government, I try to connect it to a philosopher: I’ll say, for example, ‘There’s this philosopher named Thomas Hobbes and that is his whole argument.’ And they’ll go, ‘Whoa, really?’ Then I’ll say, ‘Do you want to read him next?’ And they will usually say yes.”

Lisa laughs, and offers, “They get really excited, because it’s their idea. Then someone will say, ‘I agree with that, let’s read it,’ and others will say, ‘I hate that idea, let’s read it.’” It’s an open-mindedness than you might not expect in a jail setting; in fact, Lisa says, “I’ve never had an instance where they are just opposed to it — to reading something they’ve never read before.”

It’s a process of listening to the inmates and picking up on what they find engaging: “They get really excited, because it’s their idea.”

Reading a section by a philosopher can be enlightening, but adding a work by a visual artist provides an additional dimension, and allows them a chance to see things from two different aesthetic perspectives. “Maybe I’ll print out a painting. Like this week, I want to give them a print of Picasso’s famous war painting, Guernica” — the artist’s vision of the bombing of a Basque town during the Spanish Civil War.

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Guernica, 1937 by Pablo Picasso: the bombing of the Basque village during the Spanish Civil War.

Pablo Picasso: Guernica

“Then in class, I’ll ask them what they thought about the reading and what questions they have. And then I’ll do a really brief explanation of things, explain some terms, and write some stuff on the board, then we’ll look at the Picasso together and talk about how the reading and the painting relate. Since Guernica is a war piece there is violence in the painting, so I ask them what they think and ask them to talk about how they feel. Then I kind of build off of that in the discussion.”

Issues of Expression and Respect

These are weighty, and often deeply emotional topics to discuss in a classroom, much less a jail setting; I ask Lisa how these discussions are received by the inmates.

She thinks for a moment, then explains, “For the most part, they respect me. And they’re happy to have this time out of their general area, to be talking about something else. Sometimes I’ll show movies, too — anything to be doing something different.”

But clearly, there is much more value in these classes for the inmates than passing the time. “Every reading that I’ve given them, they have never given up or said, ‘I don’t understand it.’ They really try to engage with it. They’ll say certain things, and I’ll think, ‘that is so profound, it needs to be posted in public somewhere.’ They are really engaged, and they really think about what they are going to say before they say it. And they are really smart — they seem to really get this stuff, and they are really into it.”

But, I interject, this is a jail, and these women are incarcerated: are they open to hearing other points of view? Or does the conversation sometimes, as elsewhere in society, turn nasty?

Ironically, Lisa says that’s not the case in the women’s jail. She says, “When we are ‘inside’ someone will be like, ‘You know what, I really don’t agree with you, but I don’t know why I don’t agree with you.’ And then they will talk it out, which is super interesting; I don’t really hear that happen much ‘outside.’”

Rather than focus on trying to win an argument, the women in jail seem open to hearing another side, even if they have preconceived notions. I ask: Why is this the case?

Lisa explains, “The way I start off — even when I’m TA’ing on campus — I write ‘Compassion’ on the board. So when we are talking with each other, about issues that are going to be sensitive to some folks, I always repeat that we have to speak compassionately with one another.

“The way I start off — I write ‘Compassion’ on the board.”

“Because we will disagree with one another; that’s something that definitely will happen. But let’s just be open to hear the other side and other ideas. You still don’t have to agree with it, but if you have compassion, it will be fine. That’s how I like to set the tone.”

This brings up a critical point about the self-governance these inmates practice in the facility. Lisa says, “It can be emotional talking about ethics; but it seems the women here respect each other enough, and they respect me, so whenever someone might say something out of line, someone will ask them to stop. And they will. It’s usually a really good interaction that we have, because there’s a lot of respect.”

It’s not always that way in society: in politics, in the classroom or at work, people sometimes try to win arguments just for the sake of winning, or showing their expertise in a certain topic. By contrast: “In the jail, they aren’t thinking about what they are experts in. They are just having these open dialogs and conversations.”

It’s an important point for Lisa, who despite being in the position of authority and holding the title of the educator, does not believe that the teacher is keeper of the “Truth.” In fact, Martinez is clear that she does not see her role as the “arbiter” of truth or fairness, but rather as an instructor and guide, sharing information and ideas that the inmates examine and explore with others in the room.

She says, “I’ve not really had to direct that at all, and sometimes they just kind of direct that on their own. And if there ever is a time when I can sense that there’s a miscommunication about that, then I’ll just raise a question, like, ‘Could it be that we’re just coming from different walks of life?’ And that will usually defuse things. I never really give them my opinion or my view, or tell them what to do. I don’t think it’s my place at all.”

While it’s impossible to know for sure why these interpersonal dynamics are the way they are, Lisa offers some insights: “For the most part, I think it has to do with maturity. I don’t think in the jail they think about attacking each other’s ideas; they’re there to listen and have a discussion. But I think one of the biggest things is the maturity and they really seem to respect people.”

“I don’t think in the jail they think about attacking each other’s ideas; they’re there to listen and have a discussion.”

And this respect is reflected in how the women appreciate the classes that Lisa teaches. She recalls, “When the last class was held, over the summer, what they said was, ‘I’ve learned so much about our society that I didn’t think about.’ And that they are more motivated to engage in current issues. Or just read more. And sometimes after class, when they are packing up, I’ve heard them say things like, ‘This is my favorite class.’ And I’ll ask them: ‘Why? What can I keep doing?’ And they’re just like, ‘It’s so different, we talk about really heavy issues, but through art.’ And I think the art is one thing that they really like.”

The Value of Public Philosophy

Martinez clearly finds the positive feedback rewarding, as would any teacher. Still, teaching in such a difficult and constrained environment has to be a labor of love — so what does Lisa get out of it? She replies, “I really like teaching. When I was working in business, I started off training folks. So it’s always been something that I kind of knew that I liked to do, just helping people understand things. I want to be a professor, which is why I’m going for my Ph.D. So anytime I can teach something that I’m passionate about — if I could teach this class anywhere else, I would.”

She elaborates, “The jail is very special to me, because there is this idea about philosophy that we were talking about — that it’s inaccessible, a bunch of ‘dead old people,’ or a bunch of men — but I’m not any of those things. So I want to show that a lot of people can be a part of it, and it’s fun to think for yourself, and think about a lot of these questions.”

Don’t most of us do that, anyway? Lisa, replies, “I think in passing, we do think about big questions a lot; but we don’t really talk about them, they just stay up here (points to her head). So I really want to have a conversation going, no matter with whom. And here they have these incredible life experiences, so having these conversations with them, I learn a lot about myself. I love teaching and it’s fun talking with them about these things.”

“ So I really want to have a conversation going, no matter with whom. And here they have these incredible life experiences.”

There’s an aspect to philosophy, and aesthetics, and learning in general that involves not only insight and understanding, but the simple joy of expressing yourself through ideas. Lisa says, “At the local Humble Sea Brewery, we held a public event for World Philosophy Day in November. We had an “Ask a Philosopher” booth; it was funny — you could draw a question out of a bowl or ask your own question of some of our US Santa Cruz philosophy grad students and faculty. Students from the nearby Cypress Charter High School were just hounding them with great questions, and it was so much fun to watch them — they were fifteen, sixteen years old. I was just watching it happen, and it was such fun.”

Lisa’s Plans for the Future

Lisa has applied around the country to Ph.D. programs in Philosophy as well as law schools — she wants to complete both degrees — and is currently waiting to hear back on her applications. She says, “I will go for my Ph.D. and a law degree, and I want to be a professor, and use my law degree primarily for research — that’s the reason I want the law degree — but also do pro bono things in whatever community I end up in.”

Not surprisingly, she adds, “I want to teach, but it’s important that I continue to do the work that I’m doing here. Depending on where I go, I want to start something very similar. Once I have something established there, one of the first things I’ll do is find out what the local jail is like and if I can teach there as well, because that’s something I want to continue doing.”

Recalling her interest in teaching at elementary schools, she says “I’m also interested in children — that was my first idea, to get a bunch of people in different majors like Feminist Studies and stuff like that, and introduce these ideas early on. I think it’s important to start early and having these kinds of conversations with kids so they can start thinking for themselves.

“But back to the jail, I think it’s super important. I know people are in there for a lot of reasons. I think they deserve another chance and they deserve to get an education. That’s one of the main reasons why I do it.”

“I know people are in there for a lot of reasons. I think they deserve another chance and they deserve to get an education.”

Lisa is also interested in teaching in prison, where the inmates are in for longer sentences. “I’d like to work in a prison where I can build relationships and work with them, whereas here, I work with them once, then never see them again. I think it would be interesting, because I think the discussions would be more fruitful if we get to see each other weekly. Because then we get to know each other, and I get to know them, and I’ll be able to build the classes more for them specifically, whereas now I have to sometimes guess.”

Doing Public Philosophy Is Making Yourself Aware

Finally, I ask: “What does public philosophy mean to you?”

Martinez explains, “For me it means doing philosophy outside of academia. Which I think everyone does; people have conversations and ask each other questions. It’s more I think making yourself aware, that it’s something you are doing, and continuing to do it. Whether it is at the Ask a Philosopher booth at a local high school, or a nearby brewery, or you know, when you hang out with your friends and you are talking about big questions, or at elementary schools. And all the areas that we are touching on, it’s really just about being aware when engaging in these big conversations and getting input from one another — instead of just telling someone what an answer is.”

“ It’s really just about being aware when engaging in these big conversations and getting input from one another — instead of just telling someone what an answer is.”

It comes back to the basic skills learned in a humanities program: empathy, curiosity, and most of all, critical thinking — learning to think for yourself.

Lisa sums it up perfectly: “When you are aware of what you are doing, you are exercising that critical thinking ‘muscle.’”

The exercise of philosophy and ethics are the mental and moral equivalents of exercise for the body. Using those intellectual “muscles” is the best way to find your path in life and in society, and help keep yourself and the world around you healthy and sane. And that, as much as anything, is one of the best reasons for using the humanities for your personal foundation.

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