Lisa Martin '76
The Accidental Activist
Lisa Martin ’76 never envisioned that she would build a school for indigenous children in Zihuatanejo, Mexico. It all began during a vacation to the resort city on the Pacific coast in 2000, when she became haunted by photos she took of chicleros,, children who wander the beaches and streets selling Chiclets gum. Martin wondered who they were and why they weren’t in school.
Martin returned to Zihuatanejo the following year, again on vacation, but this time with $300 from her local Rotary club. Martin asked around about who the chicleros were and was told not to worry. “People said, ‘Oh, those are just Indian kids from the mountains,’” Martin explains, and it stirred her curiosity even further. Speaking to the desk clerk at her hotel about it, a taxi driver overheard and offered to drive her to the barrio where the chicleros lived.
The driver stopped in front of a cluster of shacks, 15 minutes from the hotel but a world away. The driver told Martin that this was a school for the migrant children, excluded from public schools because they spoke their own indigenous languages, usually had limited knowledge of Spanish, and no money for the state-required shoes and uniforms. A woman emerged from one of the shacks: Marina Sanchez Hernandez, the founder of La Escuela Netzahualcoyotl, or "The Netza School." She proudly gave Martin a tour of the dirt-floor school and together they agreed to use the $300 for a hot lunch program for the 100 children in attendance.
“That was the beginning,” she recalls. Martin had built a public relations and marketing consultancy, and she put her skills to good use. She went to the Rotary Club of Rockport, MA, where she was a past president, asked for $1,000, applied for a Rotary matching grant, solicited donations, and publicized the project. In the span of a year she’d raised $30,000 for the school.
Committing herself to making a difference
A self-described accidental activist, Martin didn’t initially know that she was embarking on a ten year adventure to help transform that cluster of shacks into a permanent, locally sustainable six-language public school for 500 Aztec migrant and street kids.
In the process, Martin went from seeing herself as a marketing and public relations maven to an activist, grassroots community developer, peace worker, and international fundraiser. Martin eventually sold her house and closed her business to work full-time on The Netza Project, the non- profit she founded to support the school’s mission.
She traveled extensively, speaking to dozens of U.S. and Canadian schools and civic organizations to share her experience. Preparing one speech, she asked herself why she was so intensely drawn to this work. Martin turned to her old photos of the chicleros for inspiration, and at exactly that moment, her email inbox pinged. It was the announcement that Simon’s Rock founder Elizabeth Hall had died.
“I remembered going to her house for fireside chats, her energy on campus, and at that moment I also remembered she used to joke that Simon’s Rock was the school Chiclets built because of her father’s depression-era investments in the chewing gum company."
“Suddenly it clicked: I had the chance to attend Simon's Rock on a full scholarship in 1976 because this woman, who became one of my great mentors, built a school for students like me who weren’t served by the traditional educational system. And here I was, building a school for these kids selling Chiclets who didn’t fit in and weren’t served by the public schools of Mexico.”
Making The Netza Project sustainable
Martin and Founder and Principal Marina Sanchez set out to make the school locally sustainable. After ten years, she reached her goal. “This was not an aid mission: It was an in-depth and long term exploration of how to help a community empower itself so that when the international partners exit the situation, what was built will continue to flourish and develop.”
“Once you gather children together and they start getting healthier and learning, their energy and that of their mothers, in particular, will help carry social change forward. A school is not just for children, it’s an investment in human capital that continually regenerates itself while paying enormous dividends.”
Schools can bring clean water into a neighborhood; they serve as spaces to teach about nutrition, health, and sanitary habits; and as hubs for other social services like adult literacy and microfinance. All of these programs expanded under Martin's tenure.
After a life-changing decade of work, Martin is back in Rockport, MA, restarting her public relations and fundraising consulting business. She continues to support The Netza Project, working to endow scholarship funds to send students on to high school and college. Martin is confident that the hundreds of young people who have passed through The Netza School are en route to becoming empowered social change makers, and will carry on what Martin helped to start.