Tony Hill Award winner helps young people soar

For the past decade, Jacob Martinez, UC Santa Cruz alumnus and founder of nonprofit Digital NEST, has developed programs guiding students of color toward college and beyond

photo by Carolyn Lagattuta

Jacob Martinez, this year's Tony Hill Award honoree, is a strong advocate for low-income Latino and Latina youth who are interested in science, math, and technological careers but face obstacles along the way.

Martinez (Oakes '04, ecology and evolutionary biology) will receive the award during the 31st annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Convocation at 7 p.m., January 28, at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium. The event, featuring keynote speaker Angela Davis, is free and open to the public.

This special honor recognizes individuals whose lives and actions exemplify the late Tony Hill's work and legacy.

Hill, a longtime advocate for social and economic justice in Santa Cruz County, was known for his skills as a community bridge-builder and mediator. He died in 2007 at age 62.

Award recipients receive $500 to donate to the charity of their choice.

For the past decade, Martinez, 37, has developed and overseen programs guiding students of color toward college and beyond. He has worked hard to increase the confidence and skill levels in Latinos interested in information technology.

Last year, Martinez further increased his impact by founding Digital NEST (Nurturing Entrepreneurial Skills with Technology), which creates sustainable and scalable technology centers in vulnerable communities all over California. The goal is to create economic equality for the residents of low-income and rural communities by breaking down the "Digital Divide," teaching them the technology skills needed to become competitive and self-sufficient in the digital future.

When Martinez found out about receiving the award, he was "blown away," he said. "It was very humbling to be mentioned along with someone like Tony Hill."

Melanie Stern, Tony Hill's widow and a member of the award selection committee, praised Martinez's sincerity, hard work, and commitment.

"I visited Jacob and got a great sense of Digital NEST," Stern said. "I thought it was extraordinary. It's a great space. He is addressing an unmet community need in Watsonville. His work is very grassroots, which is right in line with Tony's beliefs about working within the community. He's also partnered with so many different groups, which was another strong value for Tony."

Martinez takes great pride in steering young Latinos and Latinas toward careers in science and technology. This desire dates back to his undergraduate years at UC Santa Cruz when he was studying the sciences "and often found myself one of the few people of color in my science classes," he said. Around the same time, he became immersed in community studies courses, which helped fine-tune his philosophies about impactful, socially conscious work. Upon graduation he wanted to find a way to stay involved in the sciences while working with youth in underserved communities.

"The youth I have been working with for the past 10 years have the same aspirations, the same interests, as youth in any community," Martinez observed. "They like tech, they like sciences, and they want to help out their community, but there are these barriers they confront on a daily basis.

"Their parents are often working in the fields, trying to make ends meet, or working manufacturing jobs," Martinez continued. "They don't have professional adults and parents guiding them on the path to college and careers."

Many lack role models and don't have access to the necessary tools including good working computers at home or web access, he said.

"They need a place to build careers and get more technical information. For me, it's a social justice issue. There is an industry with tons of available jobs, but here is this demographic of people who don't have the means to pursue them. It's almost like a form of segregation. They need role models. They need access. They need work space."