Our Characters

Leyla Martinez grew up and still lives in the Bronx. After her son’s father was sent to prison she turned to illicit means to support them and was herself imprisoned. There she made up her mind to get a college education. She fought the welfare bureaucracy and eviction and in 2018 that dream became a reality when she graduated with a BA in Human Rights from Columbia University where she served as a program coordinator for the Center for Justice and was both a Justice in Education Scholar and a PALS Scholar.

Leyla has been an advocate with the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls,Welfare Rights Initiative, JLUSA, Women’s March, FRRC and many others. Today she is a Soros Justice Fellow and the Founder of Beyond the Box, an organization to increase access to higher education and other opportunities for people after incarceration. She works tirelessly as a criminal justice reform advisor to LatinoJustice PRLDEF, #cut50 and is on the board of The Canary Impact Fund.

Hirah Mir was born in Pakistan, moved with her family to Australia and then to Brooklyn and lived in a homeless shelter while in middle school. Though her family was then on welfare Hirah focused on her studies and looked forward to college. When she turned 18 she was faced with having to go to work in a dead-end job but Hirah found a way to Hunter College. There she worked with the coalition that achieved passage of a NY State law to allow people on welfare to get a 4-year degree. She went on to get her Ph.D. from UAlbany/SUNY.  While there she was an award-winning lecturer and Adjunct Professor.

Now as a Research Scientist at the NYS Office for People With Developmental Disabilities she leads initiatives to increase access to benefits for people with disabilities. She has worked in other advocacy and legislative efforts including equitable pay for contingent faculty, fossil fuel reduction, and implementation of culturally responsive practices in NYS’s health care system. She is also working on an independent project to capture the migration stories of her family members, who are also first generation immigrants.

Shawnta Alston grew up in Queens when welfare recipients were not allowed to go to a 4-year college. Her mother had her already meager welfare benefits cut to $68.50 a month because she insisted her daughter go to college. Their dream came true in 2015 when Shawnta was a SEEK Honors Graduate at Hunter College. Her powerful story has been featured in a June 2003 Time article written by Karen Arenson.

As a NYPD School Safety Officer she supports students, by making them more aware of the impact of policy and informing them of their rights. This setting has allowed her to apply her experience of creating social change for young adults and further fuels her passion for social justice.

She is also a poet committed to use her voice as a tool of empowerment, (stage name: LA Paparazzi). She continues to be involved in volunteer activities such as serving the homeless population and creating opportunities for youth to do community service.

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