On Episode 32, Maritza talks about her journey to college, UC Berkeley law, and eventually Capitol Hill to work to end the drug war!
If it hadn’t been for her high school secretary’s encouragement, Maritza might have never applied to a 4-year university or college. Growing up as the eldest sibling of a Mexican-American family in Nevada, Maritza didn’t always think college was in the cards for her – fast forward years later, Maritza is now a UC Berkeley law grad and fierce political advocate in Washington, D.C.
If it hadn’t been for her high school secretary’s encouragement, Maritza might have never applied to a 4-year university or college. Growing up as the eldest sibling of a Mexican-American family in Nevada, Maritza didn’t always think college was in the cards for her – fast forward years later, Maritza is now a UC Berkeley law grad and fierce political advocate in Washington, D.C. – advocating for marginalized communities and fighting to end the war on drugs. Talk about #goals!
What you’ll learn from this episode:
How Maritza overcame an environment of “low expectations” in her racist Nevada home-town, and went to University of Nevada
Maritza’s choice to teach in New Orleans, and how the experience motivated her to change the system from a law perspective
Maritza’s journey to law school and how she overcame imposter syndrome at UC Berkeley
The incredible policy advocacy work that Maritza has done in D.C. in regards to drug legalization
Why Maritza chose policy advocacy work over litigation or running for office (for now!)
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Full Episode Transcript:
And I think the great thing about all of this is that my mom, once I got into university and saw that it was paid for, she felt more comfortable with me leaving and I set a new expectation for my family. The expectation was that my siblings would go to college. We would find a way to make sure that they went to college. So, it also worked to change my family’s point of view on higher education.
Welcome to the Early Career Moves Podcast, the show that highlights remarkable BIPOC young professionals killing it on their career journeys. I am your host, Priscilla Esquivel Bulcha – Latinx career coach, corporate consultant, daughter of immigrants, and lover of breakfast tacos. Meet me for a coffee chat every Friday, as we either dive into a special guest story or I share my own career gems. If you’re a BIPOC professional feeling lost in your career, or just need a dose of inspiration, you’re in the right place. Let’s get started.
Hey everyone. Welcome to this week’s episode. I can’t wait to have you listen to Maritza Perez’s journey and story. Maritza and I met lots of years ago back when we were both in college and we were interning on Capitol Hill in DC and she was interning at Senator Harry Reid’s office. And I remember thinking just how exciting and cool it was…We met so many other amazing people who were also really excited about public policy and social justice issues. And, you know, Maritza has really, truly embraced that. She ended up going to UC Berkeley to get her JD. And she’s been in DC ever since she graduated and has been in the policy space, advocating for, you know, criminal justice issues, marginalized folks, people of color, and working to end the war on drugs. I really respect her. I really admire her. And so, if you’re someone who is interested in politics and policy, becoming a lawyer, JD to pursue this path, this is a great episode for you. Okay. Enjoy.
Hey, before we head into today’s episode, I want to encourage you to follow us on Instagram @ECMpodcast. Also head over to ECMpodcast.com where you can get freebies, read the latest ECM blog post and sign up for our monthly newsletter. And if you or someone you know is looking for a one-on-one career coaching, you can sign up to work with me on my website. Lastly, if you’re a big fan and supporter of the show, please make sure to leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. It’s how we can reach other people. OK, let’s head into the show.
Priscilla Bulcha: OK, everyone. I’m so excited to welcome Maritza to the show. Welcome.
Maritza Perez: Thank you, so happy to be here.
Priscilla Bulcha: Yeah. So I want to go into your career path. I want to learn about what you’re doing today, but before we get into that, I want to hear a little bit about just like your personal background, your upbringing…What should the audience know about you before we hear your story?
Maritza Perez: Yeah. So I was born in Mexico, but I was raised in the United States. My parents were already living in the United States, decided to go back and back to Mexico. And I happened to be born there. I’m really thankful for that experience because it meant that I was a citizen while everybody else in my family had some sort of status, including my siblings who were all citizens, they were all born in the U S so I actually do appreciate that experience because I saw like firsthand what it took to gain citizens. And I feel like that within itself could be like its own podcast. My family, I first moved to Utah where my dad worked on a farm, but later on, my mom wanted to be closer to family. So we moved to a really small rural town in Northeastern Nevada. And I was raised with immigrant parents who were low-income growing up. My dad was a janitor. My mom was a housekeeper. From a very early age. I knew that I was really passionate about education, and I also knew that I wanted to see more of the world. I just remember always being like, very frustrated with like small town mentality. Even as a kid, I was very like conscious of injustice of how Mexican immigrants in my community were treated as second class citizens. And I remember just feeling enraged about. From a very early age and knowing that there had to be more than this. And then I was going to get out and represent my community. I didn’t know how, but I knew I was going to do it. So I think like many first-generation professionals, I share the experience of having immigrant parents coming from a low income background and having to make a way for myself.
Priscilla Bulcha: Yeah. And so when you were growing up, did you have an idea of what you wanted to be when you grew up? What did you say when people asked you that?
Maritza Perez: I did, beginning in high school. And I think that started for me in high school, because it was the first time I took a government class and I had a really great government teacher who made sure that my voice always felt important. And I say that because I grew up in a very conservative place and he would encourage us to debate all the time about. Political issues. And it was always like me against the world. It felt, but he was always standing up for me on my side, encouraged me, encouraging me to speak up and speak my point of view, even though he didn’t agree with it. When I also remember that he organized a trip to DC, this was like my sophomore or junior year of high school. And I really wanted to go, but I remember I couldn’t afford to go. And I told him, I was like, I really want to go. But my mom says we can’t afford. And he went out of his way to find me a scholarship, to make sure that I could go on the trip.
And that really meant a lot to me. And it really changed the trajectory of my life because it was for the first time I was able to visit DC and see lawyers working in government lawyers that were setting up for marginalized communities, people working on civil rights issues. And that really. Made me think I want to be a civil rights lawyer in DC and do this work. And I just had that idea in my head from an early age, since that trip from my teenage years and just stuck to it.
Priscilla Bulcha: Wow. I had no idea that this was like a vision that you had pretty clearly in high school.
Maritza Perez: Yeah. I know. I think it’s something that’s pretty unique. I realized because I do mentor a lot of kids who are thinking about what career path they want to take and I’ve realized. Just knowing and sticking to it is really rare that said people shouldn’t feel like they should know. I think the point about life is just like, explore your. Take different opportunities. And I think eventually you’ll find something that makes you happy, but I did have sort of a different path in the sense that I always knew what I wanted to do and I just did it.
Priscilla Bulcha: Yeah. Yeah. So what was your path to college? Like, was that a clear path for you or did you have to figure out a lot of things on the way there?
Maritza Perez: I definitely had to figure out a lot of things on the way. I remember knowing that I’d wanted to go to college because I knew that was just like the logical next step.And I knew that just from conversations, I would hear it at my high school. I was also the oldest. Girl and my family and I come from a very large family, four brothers, four sisters. I was like the babysitter. I was the one who is making sure that my siblings were taken care of while my parents were working. They worked full time. And I remember having a conversation with my mom and telling her that I wanted to go to college. And she was like, How are you going to do that? If you go, who’s going to help me take care of your siblings. She had a very like negative reaction to it. So that made me think, well, I guess I can go to community college because my small town did have a community college.So I began to apply for scholarships to pay for that. I applied for every scholarship that came my way in high school. And I remember a secretary at my high school noticed that she was the person who. Was taking care of the applications and we would turn them into her. And she said, you’ve applied to more scholarships than anybody else in this high school. Where are you going to go to college? And then I explained to her, well, I’m going to go to the community college here in town because my mom really needs my help at home. Plus we can’t really afford to send me any. And then she was like, well, that’s ridiculous. Like you should at least apply for a university.
And she was the first person to explain to me what a university was. Like. I literally had no idea. And she was like, you should at least apply to the University of Nevada in Reno. She’s you are a resident of the state. You’ll get really low tuition. It’s an affordable school. I think you’ll get a lot of scholarships. Yeah. So because she encouraged me to do that. That was the only university I applied to. And obviously I got in, I got a full ride. I ended up getting more scholarships in my high school than anyone else, and it’s not surprising. I was a very active student. I was a straight a student. I was at the top of my class. But when I think back about that experience, I actually get really angry and I get angry at the fact that. No teacher or other adult talk to me about the university path. And it actually really pisses me off when I think about it, because I think it was due to racism. I come from a really racist town where native American and Mexican American kids were treated as less than the expectations were really low. And I think had I been, so my girl with the same grades, like I would have had different choices. Whatever worked for me. Like I kicked ass at university and I’ve been kicking ass in life. No thanks to them. A lot of things set secretary that saw that in me and talked to me, but it wasn’t any teacher or anything like that. And I think the great thing about all of this is that my mom, once I got into university and saw that it was paid for, she felt more comfortable with me leaving. And I set a new expectation for my family. The expectation was that my siblings would go to college. We would find a way to make sure that they went to college. So it was also. It was also, it also worked to change my family’s point of view on higher education.
Priscilla Bulcha: God, that story alone is just, there’s so much to unpack there. And I feel like you’re a hundred percent, right? Like racism played a role in the opportunities that people shared with you. Right. You just can’t believe that one conversation with the secretary changed the trajectory of your life.
Maritza Perez: I know, I think about that all the time and I’ve shared it with her. Leaving high school about how important that was for me. But yeah, it’s, it also speaks to like why I wanted to do teach for America, which is a program that I was a part of after college. It’s a program that sends teachers of color or teachers generally to low-income schools across the county. In order to close the achievement gap. I was really adamant about wanting to do that program because I just remember how I felt looked over because I never had teachers of color. Like I grew up in predominantly white spaces. And I just think what would have changed had I had a teacher that shared my background, what would they have seen in me? So I really wanted to make sure that I was in a classroom able to. Lift kids up and see their potential. Whereas somebody from that doesn’t share their background might not.
Priscilla Bulcha: So after college you decided to join, Teach for America and you moved to New Orleans, Louisiana. How was that experience? I also did TFA. I did it after you, and it was really hard, but I want to hear, how was your experience?
Maritza Perez: It was a very difficult experience other than wanting to be a positive role model. For students of color. Another reason I wanted to do it was because to be honest, I just needed an academic break. At that time I didn’t feel like I could go directly to law school and I felt, well, this will be like a good break. Like it’ll allow me to get my foot in the classroom. Learn about what educators need, because at the time I also thought that maybe I would be some sort of education attorney. I wasn’t really sure what type of civil rights work I would get into. But little did I know that, oh no, it was not going to be any type of break. Yes. Maybe it was an academic break, but it was very exhausting. It was mentally exhausting, emotionally exhausting. It was a lot of hard work. It was no joke. But I really did appreciate my two years in the classroom. I made really great friends down in New Orleans. I love the city itself. The city is just very unique. There’s no city like it in the country. It will always hold a special place in my heart. My kids were amazing. Yes. They drove me up the wall pretty much every day, but they were lovely. And I really loved them and enjoyed my time in the classroom with them. And it was an informative experience, a very challenging experience. I also started to study for the LSAT and apply for law schools while teaching full time. It was extremely difficult. Nothing that I would change. I really do appreciate that experience.
Priscilla Bulcha: Yeah. I remember so many years ago, seeing your announcement on Facebook, like I’m going to Berkeley Law and just being like, oh my God, that’s so amazing. What was that moment like for you when you got into law school and you knew like I will become a lawyer one day?
Maritza Perez: It was an awesome feeling. I remember when I heard the news, too. I was checking my email. It was at the end of the day, my classroom was empty. I had just turned the lights off. I was about ready to leave. And then I opened that email and I saw it. I just remember like crumbling to the floor and like crying by my desk. I couldn’t believe it. I really couldn’t believe that I was so happy. Like, I literally had visions of me, like getting accepted to Berkeley and my little Berkeley sweater and then like it happened and yeah, it was just like a dream come true. I remember I just ran like across the hall to like my co-teacher who had a classroom, like across the hall from me. And I was like, I just got the news. I got into Berkeley and I was so excited, so happy. It felt really unreal. And it felt like that for a long time, even when I arrived to California, it still felt like unreal.
Priscilla Bulcha: Yeah. Okay. So, what was your first job as a newly minted lawyer?
Maritza Perez: My first job was at MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. I started as a Soros justice fellow, which is a fellowship that supports people who want to end mass incarceration. And most people who start in public interests after law school have to do it through a fellowship. That’s just how it works. You apply for a fellowship, the fellowship is like a tryout at the nonprofit, and it also helps supplement what you get paid. So, like the fellowship will contribute a certain amount to your salary. So will the nonprofit, and then some people leave after the fellowship. Some people stay, I decided to stay. So I did the Soros justice fellowship for a year and a half with MALDEF working on federal policies to end mass incarceration. It was a lot of fun. I feel like I learned a lot. I decided to stay on after my fellowship ended, I stayed on for about another year and my portfolio then extended, expanded to include other civil rights issues. So I started to work on immigration policy, access to education, employment rights, and judicial nominations.
Priscilla Bulcha: And at what point did you decide to shift over to doing drug policy?
Maritza Perez: So I think from the very beginning, I was always doing drug policy work just because it’s such a huge part of our criminal justice system. So I felt like if you’re doing criminal justice, there’s no way that you cannot also do drug policy. They’re just so intersected, unfortunately. But I knew that I just wanted to work on criminal justice issues generally. And while I enjoyed my work at MALDEF and the broader civil rights portfolio I had, I wanted to go, I wanted to go back to my roots and. Really take on criminal justice issues. So I applied for a position at a think tank called the center for American progress cap. It’s a progressive thing. Take based in Washington, DC, think tanks really just put together policies and advise lawmakers from around the country on their specific issues. And it was at cap where I really started to more hone in on drug policy. I developed a marijuana portfolio while I was there. In addition to that, I also worked on issues of policing and prison and sentencing reform, but it was really the marijuana work that has started to develop while at cap. And that led me to work a lot with the Drug Policy Alliance where I work now.
Priscilla Bulcha: Got it. Yeah. So, being a policy analyst at a think tank…Are most of the policy analysts [also] JD’s, or is it a mix of like policy degrees and JD’s?
Maritza Perez: It’s a mix of policy degrees and JD’s, but I will say at least in DC, my experience has been that the JD will get you really far. There are a lot of jobs, for example, that you can only get, if you have a JD, even though you might be doing the same thing as somebody with a policy degree is doing, so yeah. Sometimes it doesn’t even make sense, but it just seems to be like, standard in DC. So I definitely think that my law degree has helped me. It’s helped me be more competitive when I’m applying for things, but it actually has also helped in the sense that it’s given me real tools that I use in my job. For example, as much as I hated law school, it did help me become a better critical thinker. It really did make me a more clear, accurate improved writer. Like all of those things have been really helpful in my career.
Priscilla Bulcha: And so a lot of your work at CAP (Center for American Progress), or like at MALDEF, were you doing research? Were you writing briefs? Were you going to actually advocate? What does that day-to-day look like?
Maritza Perez: Good question. It was a mix of all of those things. The interesting part is every job I’ve had in DC has been somewhat similar. So from MALDEF to the Center for American Progress to now at the Drug Policy Alliance, my job has always entailed research and writing. So definitely looking into different issues and giving my opinion on them. I will say at MALDEF it was more like also being a watchdog, like making sure that the federal government was following the rule of law. And we were especially looking at that through the lens of Latino civil rights, but through each role, I also have advised Congress on different pieces of legislation. I’ve worked to draft legislation, I’ve built advocacy campaigns around different bills. I’ve worked with the administration on different policy goals. So yes, each job has definitely entailed research and writing and lobbying. Lobbying has been a big part of each, each job.
Priscilla Bulcha: What has been like one of your biggest highlight moments in DC doing this work over the years?
Maritza Perez: I’m fortunate enough to say that I’ve had a lot of highlights, but probably something that happened recently was, was our work around marijuana. So as I said, I’ve been doing this marijuana work since it started at the Center for American Progress. And when I started there, we really started and I say, we, me and other allies or advocates, excuse me, me and other advocates started to come together to draft a model of marijuana justice bill, because we saw what was happening around the country. We knew that the federal government was really on the cost of legalizing marijuana. So, this was back in 2018. We brought together a large coalition of advocates and started drafting up a bill. And that bill resulted in the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement Act, the MORA, and this bill was first introduced in Congress, I want to say in 2019, and we were able to successfully bring that legislation to the House floor for a vote last year in December of 2020. And it marked the first time that the House voted to deschedule marijuana, not only was it a descheduling bill, but it really centered people who have been most impacted by marijuana prohibition. It was really a reparative justice bill. So that was a really exciting moment for me. And not only did I do that as the director of the organization, that’s been pushing for the bill, but I also led the coalition that made that happen. So that was really exciting. It’s not everyday a bill makes it past introduction. It’s really rare that happens. But the fact that we got a bill through the congressional chamber was huge.
Priscilla Bulcha: Yeah. Yeah. That’s so huge. And it’s, you’re on the cusp of something massive happening, like a massive shift in the US and to be behind that as a leader is I’m sure, really exciting. So at the Drug Policy Alliance, what are you typically in charge of as a director? Do you have a team that you manage or what does that look like?
Maritza Perez: Yeah, so I do have a team that I manage and my job really looks like making a lot of decisions throughout the day. I feel like it’s a really fast paced environment. You’re constantly talking to other advocates who work in your field. When you’re talking to other members of your organization. You’re talking to Hill staff, you’re talking to members of Congress. You’re talking with the administration and the media. The media is a big part of all of this. I feel like it’s just constant conversations with people. And also just having to be on top of what’s happening with the government, both on the hill and with the administration. So making sure that you’re on top of all of that, as it pertains to your issues, and it’s also a lot of pushing your issues for. So for example, something that we’ve been working on recently is marijuana legislation. So we’ve been doing the work to make sure that Congress keeps us on their agenda as an urgent priority. So it’s kind of, it’s constantly thinking about ways to make this issue urgent, to keep the pressure. But it’s also defending, a lot of the time you’re on defense, especially with us working in the criminal justice space. I feel like we’re constantly having to stop the government from doing terrible things like further criminalizing drugs or implementing draconian sentencing policies. So it’s definitely like a lot of offense, but we also do a lot of defensive work.
Priscilla Bulcha: Yeah. So, I saw that you were recently, you recently did your first sit down interview with Fox News. Congrats. And that also sounds terrifying. What was that like? And how did that come about?
Maritza Perez: I thought that was really fun, actually. I never thought that my first sit down live interview would be with Fox News first of all, because anyone who knows me, like, knows that does not make sense. But the program I decided to do was a program that actually has more balance. The interviewer is somebody who doesn’t identify with either party. So I felt comfortable in that sense. I knew that she was somebody who supports our issues. So it was a friendly interview, which was a good starting place, especially for a first time interview. I felt fine with it. I thought it was a lot of fun. I think, as long as you prepare for opportunities, you’ll be fine. At least in my experience, I feel like I always do better if I just prepare. And I definitely did prepare for this. Like I made sure I went over my talking points, made sure that I would get like my big point across. And I think I did. So it was a lot of fun. I hope to do more things like that.
Priscilla Bulcha: Yeah. So I know you’ve been obviously very successful in this policy, federal policy, advocacy world, but I do remember that you were a journalism major, and I am curious if you would ever consider going into broadcast journalism in some way, like whether it’s like in the policy space. And then I’ve also thought about you running for office, like becoming an elected. Have you thought about these other career paths or did you at one point and like, where are you with thinking about those other things?
Maritza Perez: Well, Priscilla, I’ll say you’re a mind reader, because both of those paths have been on my mind. I feel as much as I’ve thought about being a lawyer, I’ve also thought about those other career paths. The reason I majored in journalism was because I really wanted to be a strong writer. I knew that would serve me well in law school. But I feel like from that experience, I did glean a lot into the journalism world, including broadcast journalism. And now in my, in my advocacy role, I’m constantly working with the media. So one goal that I actually had for this year was to do more television interviews. So I was really excited that I already did one. Hopefully I can do some more and really meet that goal because I think that television is just such an important medium to getting your point across, to getting your message across. And the truth is we are so underrepresented in the media. When I say we I’m talking about Latinas, like it’s really hard to like ever find us on the news, even when like the issue areas being discussed totally pertained to. And I find that very frustrating. I want to see more Latinos on the news. I want to see us being invited to share our perspective more often. I think that voice is really lacking and I think it’s an important voice, especially to, again, especially if you want to, win people on your side. Like, you change culture, changing culture is how you change policy and television like it or not is a big part of that. So, yeah, I think that’s a career trajectory that I’m definitely open to and something that I’d like to explore.
And then as far as running for office, I’ve always wanted to run for office. I think this goes back to high school like when I learned about how our federal government functions and the role of lawmakers, it’s always been something that has interested me. But funny enough, the more I’ve actually worked with Congress, the less I want to do that. And it’s also an area where I think we are obviously very underrepresented where we need our voices. We definitely need more progressive people of color women, especially making our laws, but there are a couple of things that are holding me back from really, truly wanting to embrace that. The first is that it costs a lot of money. It’s really cost prohibitive, which I think is really messed up because it also like basically it shows that there’s no diversity in Congress when it takes so much investment financially to like actually make it happen. It can be done. We all saw that AOC (Alexandria Ocasio Cortez) did it, but it’s hard. And so I think, do I really want to like, especially after I’ve worked so hard to get where I’m at, am I comfortable with basically starting over? So it’s like the financial barriers are very real and scare me, but it also scares me to have like my whole life out there and people don’t like women, they especially don’t like outspoken women of color. We all see all the hate that The Squad gets. And I don’t know if I want that. I really don’t know if I want to put myself out there like that, put my public life out there. Like that’s really hard. And I have a deep appreciation for people who do that, but I just think that would be a really challenging aspect of the whole job. I even feel like I even feel like that now, to be honest with my job, I don’t like conflict. I don’t like people being mad at me, but part of my job is, sometimes not everyone’s going to be happy with you. And it sucks. Like I carry that like very heavily. I wish I was somebody who just let it roll off my shoulders, but I don’t, I like, it stays with me for a while. And I feel if you’re a lawmaker, you’re just going to have to deal with that. And I don’t know if I want to, so I don’t know. I feel like there’s a pin in that, like question mark, maybe at this point in my life I’m like, I don’t know if I want that.
Priscilla Bulcha: Yeah, that’s very well said. I feel like you touched on some points like mental health and wanting privacy and also wanting to enjoy your life free of all of that conflict and how nasty politics can get. Right. I think that is totally fair. Especially as someone who comes from a marginalized community and background. It’s fair to say, you know what? I have to set some boundaries somewhere. Right. All right. Well, thanks so much for being with us Maritza. It was great to hear your story, hear about the path that you’ve taken as a lawyer, and also just like the impact that you’re having on people’s lives. So thanks for being here with us.
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