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

April 02, 2019

Lisa Martinez, photo by Sarah Caldwell


This is the fourth installment of Beyond the Forest: David Gleason's Humanities Alumni Profiles.


She gave up a career in banking to return to college, become a philosopher and teach in a local women’s jail. The story of Lisa Martinez, and her transition from business to philosophy, highlights the role that the Humanities can play in bringing meaning to our lives and helping us find our place in the world.

It was the financial crash of 2008 that caused Martinez to rethink her career and go back to school, where she quickly discovered philosophy as her new path.

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

Recently I sat down with Lisa in the Humanities Division offices to ask what prompted her to make such a commitment, and how it relates to philosophy.

Leaving Banking for Philosophy

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.’

“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.”

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.” During her senior year Lisa enrolled in the Four Plus One Program and began taking graduate courses; she completed her master’s degree this Spring.

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

The extra academic year also gave her time and opportunity to get involved in some outside projects. She got involved in Giving Day, 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. 

Lisa also wanted to teach in local schools; she says her plan was, “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 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.”

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 in prison cells. The County provides 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.

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: 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.”

Martinez clearly enjoys working with the inmates at the local jail and sharing her love of philosophy with them. She explains, “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.”

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. in law 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.”

Public Philosophy Is Exercising Your Thinking “Muscle”

When I ask what public philosophy means to her, Martinez replies, “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. 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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