By Andrew Cohen
Reading Maritza Perez’s dazzling résumé, one envisions an extrovert with natural leadership skills. So much for appearances.
“I’m actually a really shy person who doesn’t like the spotlight,” said Perez, who graduated from Berkeley Law in May. “But I’m passionate about injustice, and that drives me to push for change. I feel compelled to take on key issues that aren’t getting much attention, and to help alleviate the given problem.”
That mindset drove Perez to pursue a prestigious Soros Justice Fellowship from the Open Society Foundations—and helped her become one of just 15 recipients out of more than 350 applicants. In September, Perez will begin an 18-month project at the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF) in Washington, D.C., advocating for better educational opportunities for Latinos who are currently or formerly incarcerated.
Perez began working on her application in September, learned she was a finalist in December, and flew to New York for interviews in January. As an extern at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund last fall, she became increasingly driven to work at the intersection of education and criminal justice reform.
“Education played such a transformative role in my life,” said Perez, who taught at low-income schools in New Orleans and Atlanta with Teach for America. “My parents had no opportunity to go to school, and I’ve seen all the sacrifices they’ve made to help me pursue my dreams. Latinos who are or were incarcerated face so many barriers to entering or re-entering school, be it junior colleges, four-year colleges, or vocational schools.”
Soros Fellows receive stipends ranging from $58,700 to $110,250 for projects that benefit marginalized populations. The 2015 group includes journalists, educators, social workers, lawyers, grassroots organizers, formerly incarcerated people, and survivors of crime.
“This program has been a vital pipeline for new voices and new ideas in the criminal justice arena…” said Ken Zimmerman, director of U.S. Programs at the Open Society Foundations. “We believe the new set of fellows will contribute further transformative thinking and doing.”
At the University of Nevada, Perez founded the school’s Latino Student Advisory Board and ACLU student chapter. She also interned for U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and was named to the Huffington Post’s 2014 “40 Under 40: Latinos in American Politics” list.
In law school, Perez worked in the Death Penalty Clinic, helped undocumented youth apply for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals at the East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC), helped a San Quentin inmate gain parole through the Post-Conviction Advocacy Project, and co-chaired the Women of Color Collective.
Other recent Berkeley Law graduates to obtain major fellowships that begin this fall include:
- Raul Arroyo-Mendoza ’15, Pride Law Fund Tom Steel Fellowship. Working at the National Center for Youth Law in Oakland, Arroyo-Mendoza will provide legal services and policy advocacy to LGBTQ youth engaged in the sex trade for survival. This includes representing clients at school disciplinary proceedings; accessing special education accommodations, mental health services, and medical care; and presenting policy recommendations.
- Anne Bellows ’13, Equal Justice Works Fellowship. Working at Public Advocates in San Francisco and sponsored by Morgan, Lewis & Bockius and Hewlett-Packard, Bellows will use fair housing law and new tenant protection ordinances to fight the displacement of low-income communities and communities of color from gentrifying Bay Area neighborhoods.
- Lily Eagle Colby ’15, Equal Justice Works Fellowship. Working at the Youth Law Center in San Francisco and sponsored by Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, Colby—a former foster child—will engage in educational projects and policy work to improve foster parent training that focuses largely on helping foster children succeed in school.
- Evelina Nava ’15, Equal Justice Works Fellowship. Working at Tenants Together in San Francisco and sponsored by Intel and Perkins Coie, Nava will provide legal advocacy and outreach to low-income tenants in Silicon Valley to improve rental housing conditions, help combat slum housing, and defend against retaliatory eviction actions.
- Mindy Phillips ’15, Equal Justice Works Fellowship. Working at EBCLC’s Immigration Law Clinic and sponsored by an anonymous donor, Phillips will confront barriers to education and employment for undocumented youth and families. She will pursue legal advocacy and community education in partnership with the Oakland Unified School District.
- Melissa Trent ’15, Equal Justice Works Fellowship. Working at the Legal Action Center in New York City and sponsored by the Friends and Family of Phillip M. Stern, Trent will strive to expand access to opioid addiction medication and treatment for people under criminal justice supervision. Her project encompasses legal services, education, and policy advocacy.