We're on the phone with Areva Martin after she's just done a spot on "Access Hollywood," commentating on possible criminal charges in Prince's death. Earlier in the week she was on "Good Morning America" talking about David Hasselhoff's alimony woes. She'll do another national TV hit in a few hours. All of this in addition to her gig as a panelist on the nationally syndicated "The Doctors"; an in-development primetime series for Fox; authoring books; speaking out as an activist; her Special Needs Network, a non-profit that raises awareness of issues that impact people with autism and similar disabilities in underserved communities; and her award-winning law career.
Where do Martin's multi-disciplinary talents and drive to succeed come from? Take a glance at her resume, and you'll think you have it figured out: the prestigious University of Chicago and iconic Harvard University, where she earned her law degree. But to get to the true source of what makes her who she is, you'll have to look back a little further to an unlikely place: a North St. Louis housing project called Carr Square Village.
"A lot of single [-parent] families, a lot of single moms, single grandparents raising their kids, and it was a pretty tough neighborhood," recalls Martin. "Lots of folks impacted by drugs and violence. But I was fortunate and blessed to have in my home, in my little tiny apartment, a grandmother who I was living with who was a paraplegic, her name was Suzanne, and my godmother Ethel, these two women, despite really limited educational background and financial resources, were the epitome of what you think of when you think of Americans who are resilient. They were just hard-working, positive, optimistic women, and they didn't let their circumstances define their happiness or their outlook on life, and they imparted that to me, and one of the things that I live by today is a work ethic that was imparted to me. "
For Martin, it was a simple case of "watch and learn."
"I just watched them work," she says. "My godmother was what they'd call now a housekeeper or a janitor. She cleaned offices, and she worked in the morning, she'd come home, and then she'd come back home at night. After school I would often go with her to clean offices and I watched her use that job, that I know paid whatever minimum wage was, below that, and save money to just help pay for what was a Catholic high school that I attended. She would send me little care packages when I went off to college. ... I love the women in that community, the people in that community, that wraps its arms around its members and nurtured and supported and loved, and that's the family that I know and the family that I will always be connected to."
A kid from Carr Square making it out of the projects to attend college was "incredibly unique," but it did not come without its challenges, cultural and otherwise.
"I didn't have the confidence, I didn't have the deep academic background that my peers had, and my English was what today would make you billions of dollars in the rap industry but back then was considered horrible," says Martin, laughing. "I got shamed, what we call shaming today, speech shamed. An upperclassman from Long Island - I curled by Rs, I had this really distinctive accent - and I was saying something, and this junior, she was like, 'Oh my God, what is she saying? Where did you come from?' I literally stopped talking, which is ironic now because I talk for a living, but I was so shamed and so humiliated and embarrassed that I stopped talking for a semester except when it was absolutely necessary. And I went to the library and I got grammar books and I got tapes, and I had to remake my whole speech, my diction, everything. Again, that was that work ethic kicking in. It leveled the playing field."
After graduating from Harvard Law and becoming a practicing attorney - she is now based in Los Angeles and a founding member of the Martin & Martin firm - she got a first-hand look at the improprieties that continue to plague the United States. Again, she felt called to level the playing field.
"For me, criminal justice and education," are the two biggest issues we face right now, she says. "The criminal justice system in terms of the national conversation we've been having not just about the police shootings, although those are critically important to the debate, even what we saw in the Ferguson report out of the DOJ, the disproportionate way African Americans are targeted by certain police departments, the way they're stopped, the way they're profiled. We've seen this whole debate at the democratic level about the 1998 Crime Act and how the criminalization of crack cocaine and the privatization of the prison system resulted in an explosion in the incarceration of African American men, so I think this debate we're having about how do we level the playing field so that the criminal justice system isn't disproportionate negatively impacting people of color so that African Americans, Latinos, particularly males, don't feel and are not targeted simply because of their race. How do we change that narrative from getting stopped on the streets to how you're prosecuted to how you're sentenced?
"Then education because African Americans continue to lag behind the nation in terms of graduation rates, matriculation to major colleges and universities, and I do a lot as an advocate for kids with special needs and disabilities; we're working mostly in underserved communities, and the quality of education is still tremendously different in poor black neighborhoods versus more affluent neighborhoods."
Helping the less fortunate is at the root of the Special Needs Network as well, which Martin says grew from her own struggles: her son, Marty, was diagnosed with autism as a toddler.
"My husband and I, like a lot of parents, were devastated by his diagnosis, and when we started researching how to get him help, what doctors to have him examined by, what services, I was just appalled at the disarray, the millions and millions of things that would come up on a Google search under the word 'autism' but how fragmented and how contradictory a lot of the information was. And then, as I met more and more people, I began to realize that there was just this false impression created by the media that autism was a white Jewish disorder or little smart white kids who were from really super smart affluent Jewish families always had autism, and there was this whole community of African American and Latino kids who had autism, and many were not aware of the diagnosis, they were being misdiagnosed, and many families weren't talking about it because they didn't really have a voice. ...
"Yes, it was another huge disparity. I didn't set out to be an autism advocate. I couldn't say the word autism without weeping, so God knows I was going to be the last person to be a champion for it, but God puts you sometimes in the right place at the right time, and here I was, taking a class with these families, and they're looking to me because I was a lawyer and I had to figure something out for my kid, and these parents were like, 'help us.' I had access to a lot of the political leaders in L.A., I had a law firm, so I had an infrastructure from which to launch an organization."
She has raised millions of dollars for autism and is leading the SNN on a campaign to build California's first autism medical health home for kids as a part of the historic Martin Luther King Hospital health campus in Los Angeles. "We're coming into a medical desert, South Los Angeles," Martin says. The SNN has already launched ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) direct intervention services, bring premiere car to children who traditionally would not have access to it. A goal, she says, is "to get the clinic up and running and then promote this clinic as a model that can be replicated throughout the country, showing the country who a community-based heath clinic like ours can to do to address families holistically."
As far as Martin's media career, the most exciting on the horizon is the aforementioned Fox show, but it's one thing the affable lawyer can't be too talkative about yet. "We're just waiting for them to announce the premiere dates," she says. "It's as close to a go as there is Hollywood."