David Martinez III describes himself as a black sheep of his family, a middle child of 6 kids from rural southern Arizona. He was the first in his family to attend college and during college he served as a member of the Board of Regents. He describes the pressure of being a student representative on the Board, voting on tuition increases, increases he personally wouldn’t be able to afford. I hope my conversation with David will make you laugh, smile, and leave you inspired to find your small steps towards advocacy and community.
Mentioned in this episode:
- Vitalyst Health Foundation
- Vitalyst Spark Podcast
- Do Good, Be Good Facebook Page
- Fizzle – Coaching, Courses and Community for starting a podcast or online business
- Marana Arizona
- Ironwood National Forest
- University of Arizona
Full Transcript Below:
0:00:07.0: This is Do Good, Be Good, the show about helpful people and the challenges they face in trying to do good. Your host is Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom, a career do-gooder, who also loves craft beer and a good hard tackle in rugby. Sharon speaks to everyday people about why they do good and what it means to be good.
0:00:26.8 Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom: Hello, I’m your host, Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom. If you’re a new listener, welcome. I’m so glad to have you. I hope that if you are new, or even if you’ve been here for a little while and you haven’t had a chance yet, look back in our podcast feed. We have a large back catalog of episodes, and most of them are really not time-sensitive at all, and there’s some really great timeless conversations from the last few years. But today, I have a new guest on the show, David Martinez III. David and I met more than a year ago at the Rural Policy Forum, which was hosted by Local First Arizona. David now works for Vitalyst Health Foundation as the Director of Capacity Building and Community Engagement. One great thing about Vitalyst is that they take a very holistic approach to public health. They’re just a really cool organization, and they have a great podcast called the Vitalyst Spark, and I listen to that regularly to get the latest information about public health in Arizona. I can say it’s definitely been particularly crucial listening during the pandemic. But as I often do with a new guest, I don’t start at what kind of work he is doing now. I actually get us started all the way back at the beginning of his story. Let’s go now to my conversation with David.
0:01:50.9 ST: I know you now as someone who’s really involved, and who helps out a lot, and is always like in all of the community engagement stuff. And I’m curious if that was also you as a kid or not.
0:02:07.9 David Martinez III: Yeah, that definitely was me as a kid. I like to say I’m the black sheep of my family. I’m one of six kids that grew up in rural Southern Arizona, a town called Marana, where in the middle of the night you can see a million stars. In my backyard was the Ironwood National Monument, so we would get to play in the desert, and was really raised amongst modest means. My mom stayed home and took care of six kids, and she was the neighborhood babysitter. And my dad worked at the nearby air center. We were really just of modest means, as I said, but never went hungry. We always had clothes on our backs, shelter over our heads, just made do with what we had, which thinking back, just boggles my mind because I don’t know how my parents raised six kids with… I think we had three beds total, so just crazy to think about. But I was pretty active in school. I was in student council pretty much all the way through from grade school up to university. During high school, would drag my parents to all the school district board meetings, and sometimes even the town hall, pay attention to what was happening.
0:03:29.4 DI: I remember my first real election that I paid attention to was in 2002, and the results had not yet come in by the 10 o’clock news hour when my dad usually went to bed, so I wrote down a bunch of notes and put it next to the coffee machine, because I knew he woke up every day and turned on the coffee and would see the notes. I think that’s what really inspired me with getting more involved in my community, was by seeing my mom step up and meet the community need of child care, which in our neighborhood folks couldn’t afford full-time child care and still can’t because it’s so expensive, not really accessible in rural parts of Arizona. So, set up her own small business, essentially, to take care of the kids in the neighborhood. But she didn’t consider herself a small business owner, she just met a community need, which is really a key aspect for me of community.
0:04:24.1 DI: And then my dad is not a political person, per se, but he voted in every election, and every election would take me to the polling place, which was at my grade school. And while he voted in the adult election, I voted in the kids voting election. I think that really sparked my interest in politics and in government. When I graduated from high school, I became the first in my family to go to college. I went to the University of Arizona. Even deep in my engagement more in politics and began to organize in communities for issues that I cared about. And that was about the time I also came out as gay, so really began to work on equality issues and efforts that support the LGBTQ community. Just began to be an advocate for myself and my community that I care about, my home state that I care about, issues that I care about.
0:05:17.8 DI: And that has really translated to my professional career in the non-profit world, but now certainly with Vitalyst Health Foundation, where I get to work with incredible non-profit organizations across the state that are working to improve the health of people and communities, as well as strengthen what we call civic health, which seems like an academia term, but to me it is going back to my roots of just how people come together to solve problems that they see in their communities. And that could be by voting, or it could be, like my mom did, with just meeting a community need.
0:05:56.5 ST: You started off by saying that you are the black sheep of your family, and nothing that you explained after that necessarily made me think of yourself as a black sheep. Where did that characterization come from?
0:06:11.5 DI: I use the term “black sheep” and sometimes a “germ baby” because I think it stems from the way I was born, actually. First of all, I’m the fourth of six kids, so I’m a middle kid, which if you’re a middle child, you know exactly what I’m talking about. But I was born outside of the hospital on a hot summer day in Marana. My parents went to the doctor for a check-in for my pregnant mom, and the doc said, “You’re not ready yet, so go on home and then we’ll see you when you’re ready.” On the way home, my mom went into labor, so they have to turn it around. And in Marana, they pulled aside and I was born in the backseat of a car. An ambulance was called and they took me to the hospital in Tucson, and that’s back when there were actually nurseries, so the babies weren’t kept with the mom. But because I was born outside of the hospital, I was called a “germ baby.” And so I was able to stay in the room with my mom, which is probably why I’m such a mama’s boy.
0:07:21.4 DI: But that, I think, is how I kind of started mental picture of me being a germ baby or a black sheep, also because we have a pretty close family but we’re all so different. And I think I have followed my own path, so I am the first of the six kids to go to college. But that’s not to say my other siblings are on the wrong track, they all have really successful careers and jobs, they just all chose their own path. I just chose a little different one, and was the first in my family to leave my home town, go to college, and then move to the big city of Phoenix. My family is everything to me, we’re all super close. We’ve gotten only closer as we’ve grown older, and my siblings have had children, and our immediate family has grown to a small army. And it’s really challenging to not be able to see them in person during the pandemic or go to a mini-family reunion in Oregon to see my older brother and his family.
0:08:23.0 ST: Well, that’s one clarifying question I had was, you mentioned your mom was doing child care. So, you’ve got the six kids, but then how many kids might be at home, including all the kids that she was helping watch?
0:08:37.3 DI: I can’t remember the exact amount, but I tell you it was never a dull moment. And the age spanned from infants to high school level. So it was just a revolving door of kids and parents picking up their kids when they got off of work. It was fun and it just seemed normal.
0:09:00.3 ST: I see some of your skills as a convener of people and as a networker. Did you ever try to network or wrangle the kids that your mom was taking care of?
0:09:11.2 DI: Not so much, I’m pretty much a harmonizer. But one thing I do make a connection with was, as a middle kid, I always had to fight for what I wanted and let my voice be heard. I think that’s where my passion for advocacy comes in, not just politically but also to empower other non-profits to be their own advocates and advocate for their fair share of resources. Even if it’s just me advocating to get the cookie in the cookie jar above the fridge, that was me still advocating for something.
0:09:45.4 ST: I liked your story about leaving the notes for your dad, too, to see by the coffee pot. You were gonna make sure that you had input.
0:09:54.9 DI: Yeah. It’s moments that kind of come full circle because that year, 2002, was when Janet Napolitano became our governor and Raul Grijalva became our congressman. Later in college, I was appointed by Governor Napolitano to serve on the Arizona Board of Regents, and I was an intern in the office of Congressman Grijalva in Tucson.
0:10:19.6 ST: It seems like college was a really transformational time for you. Did that happen from the minute you step foot on campus?
0:10:28.5 DI: Yeah. And I would say it probably actually started a bit in senior year of high school. I was pretty involved in high school, shocking, I know. I was a student body president and also the editor-in-chief of our school paper, which thinking about it now, I really don’t think that was ethical, but it happened. I was really, really involved in my final semester of high school. Both of my grandfathers passed away. My Tata McCoy, as we call him, my maternal grandfather, never even made it past the third grade, but collected junk in his yard and made incredible things work with that junk, including tractors that he then used to garden fields and to plow weeds or the dirt roads that we grew up on. That kind of work ethic, I think, meant a lot to me and is instilled in me.
0:11:21.9 DI: And then my Tata Martinez, David Martinez Sr., passed away during that same time. He was a traveling evangelist, went all across Spanish-speaking countries and would set up a revivalist tent and preach the word. I say that, that I think is where my faith comes in and certainly my religion as a Roman Catholic. He was Christian, but my also just faith in good and the ability for people to do good. That was really hard for me because I was graduating high school, which was hard because I had invested a lot of time and commitment to my studies and all of the extracurricular activities and relationships. I’m still really close friends with a lot of the teachers that I had so it was really hard to leave. That was only catapulted… The emotions were only catapulted because of the passing of my grandfathers.
0:12:20.1 DI: And then taking the leap to college was really challenging because nobody in my family had done it before. I had never heard of FAFSA before. That was in 2003, when one year’s worth of college at the University of Arizona was $2500. I remember getting a letter from the U of A that provided me with a full four-year tuition waiver that was worth $10,000. I had never seen that many zeros written down on a paper before, and it was so emotional because my parents, of course, supported me going to the U of A and really never brought up, “How are we going to pay for this?” But I knew that I would have to figure out how to pay for it somehow. So, receiving that letter and a four-year tuition waiver really meant a lot and meant that I could go to the U of A. And had another great opportunity to actually start college that summer and move on campus through a program called New Start, which was for first generation college students, mostly students of color. I moved on campus and began to really entrench myself in college experience.
0:13:37.2 DI: My first class was a math class, and if you know me, I’m not a math person. We took class every day for three hours, and I would go to tutoring every day after class to finish my homework. And mostly because the tutoring’s hour had a tutor, and I needed the tutor, ’cause math was so hard, and it just was not making sense. And I ended up getting a C in the class, which devastated me, ’cause I was an A student in high school, and it was my first college class. But I did get Most Committed Student award or something like that, because I would go to tutoring every day after school, but it was because I needed to do it.
0:14:16.2 DI: And then that first semester of college was just really, really, really tough. I didn’t take on too many classes, it was an average class load, but it was just nothing that I had experienced before, and felt lost in a big sea of freshmen at the U of A. Marana High School is a pretty decently sized school, but I just felt like a small fish. And I remember ending that summer and talking to my mom, saying like, “Gosh, did I make the right decision? Should I maybe start at Pima Community College?” And she encouraged me to finish the year. And that spring semester, I stayed. And I’m so glad I did, because I ended up finding my community in that big pond. Used that experience to build personal relationships that I still have, friends that are life-long, and get involved in that campus community that became my home, so much so that I like to say that I took a victory lap to my victory lap of college. So, I actually finish in six years, much to the chagrin of some university administrators, but I don’t regret it at all, because I would have just turned 21 when I finish my senior year of… My fourth year of college.
0:15:27.6 DI: And then that year, I also had the opportunity to join the Arizona Board of Regents through the appointment by Governor Napolitano, which was a two-year term. And also at the end of my fourth year, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do yet. I had just taken classes that really interested me, which were mostly political science classes, journalism classes, and put a bow around that and finished my undergraduate time with a degree in teaching, to teach middle school civics and maybe be that cool journalism advisor, ’cause I had a really awesome journalism advisor as well. It seems like such a long time ago in a different world, but it still means a lot to me to be a wildcat, to just have that educational background, because as I say, they can never take away that.
0:16:15.8 ST: You mentioned that, at some point in your college life, you did come out. Was that at the beginning or the end of your time in your six-year journey in college?
0:16:29.6 DI: Coming out is a daily experience for LGBTQ people, but I first came out actually to my family my junior year of high school, and then came out to friends in college, second year, I believe it was. And in true gay fashion, I made a spectacle of it. The band, The Fray, was performing at the U of A, and I went with my friends, including my then housemates, and texted them a lyric from The Fray when it was playing. And the lyric was, “Sometimes the hardest thing and the right thing are the same.” And that’s how I came out, very dramatic, theatrical way, true gay fashion.
0:17:13.0 ST: And did that factor in at all in terms of… You said you got involved in some advocacy, was that one of the ways that you were involved in college?
0:17:24.8 DI: Yeah. I got really involved politically through the Young Democrats to begin to really advocate through politics, but then, of course, for issues that I cared about, like LGBTQ equality. I remember one year of undergrad, I received a scholarship from PFLAG, which is parents and friends and family of lesbians and gays, and there was a reception where they invited the parents of the scholarship recipients. I was nervous to invite my parents, because even though I had come out to them years before and they were really supportive, they really hadn’t interacted with very many out gay people. But they support me 100% and dressed up really nice, and went to this reception with me for the scholarship recipients. And I remember my dad asking like, “Is there anything I should or shouldn’t say?” ‘Cause he didn’t wanna offend anybody. Not that he would intentionally, it was just kind of a education aspect of it. But they had a really good time and did well, no offending anybody. Yeah, just continued to really get involved in those things. We had an incredible center for LGBTQ affairs, an incredible student center for Hispanic and Latino students, so continued to find my niche in communities, especially under-represented, that we ended up advocating for.
0:18:50.0 ST: Is there one experience in maybe your young adulthood that still influences you in your work right now in civic health and the work that you’re doing at Vitalyst?
0:19:02.0 DI: One happened during… That I can think that really was formative was during undergrad when I was a student regent. As a regent, you oversee… You’re the governing body of our state university system, so the U of A, Arizona State and Northern Arizona University. And it is a really unique honor to be a student and serve as a regent on the board. And in your second year of your two-year term, we have full voting rights. That vote includes on tuition and fees set for the universities which, of course, is a really big issue for me, because I came from very little, would not have been able to go to university without scholarship support, so wanted to really make sure that affordability was held as a central value.
0:19:51.3 DI: There was a vote happening for tuition setting. We knew that the university presidents were going to vote for it because this was during the Great Recession when the state legislature was cutting education by millions of dollars. There had to be some sort of offset for the universities, and that was through tuition increase. Unfortunately, we were seeing double-digit tuition increases and we knew another increase would come, but we didn’t know the amount. So, I was trying to figure out a way that students and families could plan out their total cost of tuition and set a four-year tuition plan because the increases were so dramatic. And if you started in one year at the university, you could see nearly an exponential rise in your tuition and not really know where you’re going to get the extra resources to cover the cost.
0:20:51.5 DI: So, we were trying to, what we called, freeze tuition and set predictable tuition models so that you can see the total sticker price essentially to your college education and be able to budget accordingly. That didn’t work initially, but I made the really controversial call to ask for a revote of the tuition setting, specifically for the University of Arizona. And that came to the chagrin of a lot of other regents who thought the item had been settled and we were moving on, it’s a really controversial time anyway because it’s fees and all of that.
0:21:33.1 DI: On the board was the very well-respected, former US Senator Dennis DeConcini, who completely objected to the actions that I had taken, and he had really taken me to task at the meeting. And I felt so bad because I looked up to this guy so much. I still do. He’s a US senator, Dennis DeConcini, very stalwart Democrat, calling me out and saying that there was a lot of shenanigans happening behind the scenes. And I also had some students who weren’t really happy with the turnout and whatnot, but ultimately forged a compromise that would increase tuition a little bit in one year but then set a predictable tuition model. And that is actually a model that’s still in place today. I’m not saying I’m the reason that that’s why it is ’cause there was a lot more to consider in that decision, but that whole process taught me a lot about people coming together to solve tough challenges, to seek compromise, to stand up for what you believe in, even if it’s against someone that is such a stature in the state and in the country, and ultimately, stay true to your values, and that’s what I hoped I accomplished in that process.
0:22:56.2 ST: I’ve been in similar in the sense that you have people who you feel like have more experience, more power than you do, who are all just wanting to move it along, or they all seem to be ready to go on and you’re like, “Wait a second, I have more questions about this,” or, “I think this needs more time,” or, “I have a proposal that I think we should consider.” And sometimes being the lone voice on that, and I know how uncomfortable that can be. Do you remember how it felt? Did you wanna throw up or what, when you were actually having to say, “I am calling for a revote.”
0:23:40.9 DI: I remember the vote was happening on the campus of ASU. And that morning, I woke up early to have a coffee meeting with the then president of the U of A, Robert Shelton, another person that I really respect. On the way driving from the hotel I was staying at to the campus of ASU in Tempe, I was listening to music trying to calm down because I knew what was about to happen, and the song “Under Pressure” came on. [chuckle] It could not have been more timely because I felt so much pressure, I was under so much pressure. I was hearing a lot of things from regents and administrators and students, and was about to walk into this one-on-one meeting with the university president. And as a student, to have that influence and that power, it’s crazy, and it was just very… I can literally still hear the song and just the tenseness I had grabbing the wheel of the car driving to the campus to meet with the university president, and then eventually go in to the board meeting to overturn the votes. All the emotions were in that moment.
0:24:57.3 ST: I also love that song, too.
0:24:58.9 DI: It is a good song. Every time I hear it, I think about that day.
0:25:03.2 ST: It makes me think of college as well but in a very different context. [chuckle] For me, it was like the best house party I ever attended my senior year and dancing on a table.
0:25:21.4 ST: Pausing our conversation for a moment to remind you that a transcript of today’s episode is available in the show notes at dogoodbegoodshow.com. If you’re interested in podcasting, blogging, or starting an online business, check out Fizzle. That’s where I learned all the technical skills necessary to bring you this story. You can find my referral link in the show notes as well. With that link, you’ll get a month of courses, coaching, and community for just $1. And using the link will also support this show. Now, back to my conversation with David, where we jump into talking about his work with Vitalyst.
0:26:00.3 ST: Do you think that collectively, since we’re all living through a global health crisis, that may be changing our awareness of how interconnected health is with other things?
0:26:15.8 DI: Yeah. This whole COVID-19 pandemic has showed exactly that health is more than just healthcare. And it really shows just how much work we have to do. The fact that our institutions of public health of science and data aren’t trusted is really scary, and that really has eroded what it means to live in a healthy democracy. Again, it’s connected to people having access to health and healthcare, which is so important during a time of global pandemic, but it’s so much more than that. For instance, I think it really has shown that a basic concept of wearing a mask not only protects you, but it’s a symbol to protect your neighbors, your community. That is a key component of health.
0:27:12.4 DI: Another aspect that I know a lot of folks are dealing with is social isolation, and us having more so to work from home and be physically distant from our friends and families often have a more rose-tinted glasses. Say, if we want to make our communities healthier, the simple task of just getting to know your neighbor is a good first step, do so safely now and physically distance. All those components improve the health of communities. The simple fact of just like when you go and volunteer at your local food bank, it makes you feel good, and there is science and data behind that. Or the simple act of, again, just getting to know your neighbor so that when they are in need, you can go and help them out, that is a really strong component of a healthy community. So, we really have to take care of each other and see that we’re all in this together.
0:28:10.7 ST: The podcast is called Do Good, Be Good. What does it mean to you to be good?
0:28:18.2 DI: I think, especially here in Arizona, we have a more independent or libertarian mentality, which is good, but we also have to remember that we are part of a larger family, a larger community, a larger country. If you aren’t aware of that, just watch the musical Hamilton and you’ll learn about it. And I think it is all fine and dandy to do what you need to do to take care of yourself and your family, but recognize that we are all interwoven in this larger fabric of our nation. But again, it all comes down to simple tasks of things like wearing a mask and washing your hands and staying physically distant, while we navigate these challenging times. We can be good by continuing to be independent, but we can be good by also getting to know our neighbors and taking care of one another.
0:29:20.3 ST: Thank you for listening to Do Good, Be Good. For show notes on all of our episodes, visit dogoodbegoodshow.com. If you want more behind the scenes stories and insights, check out the show page on Facebook at facebook.com/dogoodbegoodshow. Thank you, David Martinez, for sharing your story. To subscribe to this podcast for free so that you get each episode as soon as it is released, just search for Do Good, Be Good in your podcast purveyor of choice, whether that be Spotify, Stitcher, Google Music, or any other ones that you might find. This podcast was produced, recorded and edited by me, Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom. Music in this episode is Bathed in Fine Dust by Andy G. Cohen, released under Creative Commons Attribution International License, and discovered in the Free Music Archive. Until next week, this is Sharon Tewksbury-Bloom signing off.