Soft-spoken and self-conscious, Erisdania Martinez used to yearn to speak out and find the power of her voice with others. That longing continued until the day she found herself in a debate class, arguing points of law, standing up for herself. Things haven’t been the same since for the high school senior.
“I used to be extremely shy,” Martinez recalled. “That completely changed when I started to do debate and learn more about the law.”
Martinez will graduate soon from St. Vincent Academy in Newark, New Jersey. This fall, she’ll enter the prestigious Drew University in Madison, New Jersey.
“NJ LEEP to me means family, it means dedication, and it's a big part of who I am.”
— Erisdania Martinez
None of that would have happened, she said, without NJ LEEP — the New Jersey Law and Education Empowerment Project. Through the nonprofit’s in-depth tutoring, mentoring, career building, coaching, and other college preparatory resources, she found a new vision for her life.
“NJ LEEP to me means family, it means dedication, and it's a big part of who I am,” said Martinez, who completed NJ LEEP’s debate program. “Not only are (other students) dedicated, but you yourself are going to be dedicated, because you see the dedication that every other student has.”
Since its inception in 2006, NJ LEEP has helped scores of young people from low-income, urban households and first-generation college students enter universities in preparation for careers in law, business, and other professional fields.
The nonprofit honored Wells Fargo CEO Allen Parker with its award for Leadership in the Promotion of Diversity at its annual fundraising gala on May 29. Wells Fargo Deputy General Counsel Tom Trujillo was also honored.
Parker’s former law firm, Cravath, Swaine & Moore, co-sponsored the gala in past years when he was lead partner, and it continues to be a co-sponsor. Wells Fargo is a first-time co-sponsor of the event this year.
Such support allows NJ LEEP to offer students career exposure through field trips, on-the-job programs, mentorship through a Constitutional Law Debate and Mentoring Program, and professional contacts through networking events, nonprofit officials said.
“Leaders like Allen Parker are so critical in the promotion of diversity and inclusion, and in supporting our community,” said Matthew Feinstein, NJ LEEP executive director. “Since opening our doors 12 years ago, NJ LEEP has been incredibly fortunate to have the support and partnership of dozens of corporations and corporate leaders. Thanks to leaders like Allen, our students and families are more connected to each other and to their community, which makes us all more successful.”
Parker said it is clear that ensuring diversity in legal education and law schools is the main avenue through which the law profession itself becomes more diverse and better serves the greater population.
“The single most important thing in terms of creating greater diversity in law firms is making sure we have a diverse pipeline of students,” he said. “One of the primary ways we do that is through great organizations like NJ LEEP that actually do the hard work to enable young people to become law students and ultimately part of the diverse workforce that we need in our law firms.”
When he joined Wells Fargo in early 2017 as its general counsel, Parker launched the Legal Excellence Project, which emphasized an open and collaborative work environment in which everyone on the legal team would feel he or she had voice, value, and respect. Diversity and inclusion played a big role in that effort, he said.
“We believe that by building an environment where we have people with diverse viewpoints, we build better relationships with our team members, our customers, and all the people we serve.”
— Allen Parker
Now, as CEO, Parker presides over a companywide landscape that has “diversity and inclusion as one of its foundational values.”
“We believe that by building an environment where we have people with diverse viewpoints, we build better relationships with our team members, our customers, and all the people we serve,” he said. “We want to create an environment where people are comfortable exchanging their ideas and are valued not only for what they can do, but also for who they are.”
By creating that same atmosphere in education for diverse students in law and other fields, organizations like NJ LEEP can encourage them to pursue their dreams, Parker said.
“We know some students face higher hurdles when it comes to thinking about going to college or a graduate program like law or business,” he said. “NJ LEEP works to address this problem. They are a first-rate organization with a terrific mission and a proven record of success.”
For Martinez, the experience at NJ LEEP has given her an unwavering motivation to set her goals for the future as she enters Drew University in the fall. One of the college’s available courses is Semester on the United Nations, in which students have the opportunity to attend classes near UN headquarters, hear guest lecturers from top UN officials, and attend actual meetings of the General Assembly.
It resonates with her goal to become an international lawyer, Martinez said.
“I just have so many people around me doing great things, that have inspired and influenced me,” she said. “One of my biggest goals is to work at the UN and help people.”