Honoring Theresa Martinez, VOW Narrator and Human Rights Advocate

Voice of Witness mourns the loss of Theresa Martinez, a narrator in VOW’s book Inside This Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women’s Prisons. Spending years in and out of prison, Theresa became a fierce advocate for human rights and a founding board member of Justice Now, a nonprofit working to build a world without prisons and end all forms of state sanctioned gendered violence. She passed away from medical complications on March 14, 2021. We are honoring Theresa’s legacy by sharing her powerful voice and the testimonies of colleagues and friends who knew and loved her.

If you’re able, please donate to this GoFundMe and share the link to help Theresa’s family at this time of loss.

Theresa’s Words:

Theresa shares her story in this Voice of Witness radio episode from 2013. Hear directly from her starting at 20:20.
Theresa speaks about empowering leadership among incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people in this four-part video series:
Hear Theresa read an excerpt of her narrative at this event (starting at 39:51 and speaking again at 1:24:48):

Tributes to Theresa:

Theresa was one of the co-founders of Justice Now’s human rights program. She became one of our first documenters, while in prison, and soon started to train other documenters. Soon after that, Theresa started revising the training and fixing it. Theresa ran the human rights program inside the prison. She was amazing. 

Theresa volunteered to be the first narrator for the Voice of Witness book Inside This Place, Not of It: Narratives from Women’s Prisons, right before she was released from prison. Only a few weeks after Theresa got out of prison, while still in the halfway house, she trained all the interviewers for Inside This Place via phone. Those instructions were transcribed and used by many human rights legal clinics, including Yale’s.

After her release, Theresa continued to be active in human rights for most of the remaining years of her life. She presented at colleges and human rights events across the United States and at the UN in Geneva. Significantly, Theresa shared human rights with people in her neighborhood. Theresa was always educating folks about human rights and how they could protect themselves. This was her passion. Just a month before she died, after more than a year of homelessness, Theresa was about to get an apartment and one of her first thoughts was to get reconnected with the US human rights movement.

Most importantly, Theresa was a loyal and loving friend. She always brought gifts for my daughters when she stayed with us and no matter how busy she was, she made sure there was space in her schedule for a Harry Potter marathon with them. She teased me about my cheapness and how I cleaned up well, she brought light and energy into the Justice Now office, and she gave me so much great life advice. That is how I will remember her.

—Robin Levi, College Outreach Manager at Students Rising Above; former Human Rights Director at Justice Now

Theresa Martinez and Robin Levi
Theresa Martinez and Robin Levi. Photo Credit: Belly of the Beast film

Theresa made such a significant, lasting impact on how Voice of Witness practices and teaches oral history, particularly in terms of duty of care towards narrators in hostile environments. Our work is embedded with the compassionate wisdom she shared during the making of Inside This Place, Not Of It and during our long conversations over tea and cookies after the book’s release. She was brilliant, driven, funny, and generous, and I feel so grateful and humbled to have known her.

Mimi Lok, Cofounder and Executive Director of Voice of Witness

Theresa was a fierce advocate! She was also curious and playful, and that is how I remember her. Theresa and I collaborated on our human rights documentation project at Justice Now, where we focused on conditions in California’s women’s prisons. I can picture her, in a scene from our early work together. She was reading a book about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the foundation of modern international human rights law and advocacy, and she was illuminated: interested, engaged, and inspired. And so inspiring. The simple but powerful idea that all people, no matter what, deserve to be treated with dignity was an idea that resonated deeply with her. Her eyes lit up, she smiled joyfully, we laughed together….and she was excited to do more. 

—Lynsay Skiba, Immigrants’ Rights Staff Attorney at CentroLegal; former staff attorney for Justice Now’s human rights program

Theresa was an amazing person with a tremendous spirit and a generous heart. I fondly remember all of the times she visited the Voice of Witness office. She would talk about how gratifying it was to share her experiences with college students, and how important it was for her to help create positive social change. I like to think these experiences were partially responsible for Theresa deciding to join our Amplifying Unheard Voices oral history training in 2014. She was eager to expand her skills in ways that she hoped would be in service to others. That’s the kind of giving person Theresa was. She will be sorely missed.

—Cliff Mayotte, Education Program Director at Voice of Witness

Theresa Martinez was a brilliant and courageous activist, a generous friend and collaborator. We first met nearly a decade ago when I was what our mutual friend Cynthia Chandler calls, a “baby filmmaker.” I had made a few short films, but had not yet completed the feature documentaries I have today, including Belly of the Beast, which was in part inspired by Theresa’s work. Awed by the incredible peer-to-peer human rights documentation work Theresa helped forge inside California’s women’s prisons, I became a volunteer legal advocate and began making a film in collaboration across prison walls, exposing modern-day eugenics and reproductive injustice.

I was starstruck when I first had the opportunity to meet Theresa and her comrade Beverly Henry (aka “Chopper”), founding board members of Justice Now, the only organization in the country with board members who were currently incarcerated and informed activist strategy from the inside out. Theresa had trained hundreds of her peers on how to document human rights abuses and created, along with Robin Levi, a human rights documentation framework that captured the attention of the UN, activists, educational institutions, and NGOs across the globe. I began chronicling this incredible process and how information about the abuses and statewide crimes—from inadequate health care to sexual assault to coercive sterilizations, primarily targeting women of color—were funneled out under the radar of the department of corrections.

I had the privilege of not only sharing a treasured friendship with Theresa, but also capturing snippets of her life, wisdom, and magnanimous spirit. Theresa championed so many people and I am fortunate to have been one of them. She instilled confidence in me as an emerging filmmaker and young activist, and frequently sent messages of affirmation and encouragement, intuiting when I needed them most. The ripple effect of lives Theresa touched is beyond comprehension, her legacy lives on. Rest in power, Theresa. 

—Erika Cohn, director/producer of the film Belly of the Beast

I was devastated to hear of the passing of Theresa Martinez. She was a truly wonderful human, one of the warmest people I’ve ever known — despite all she’d been through. And she was a brilliant communicator; she illuminated the horrors of women’s prisons with extraordinary detail and candor. Every social justice issue requires explainers — people who have not only been directly impacted by structural inequity, but who can explain that system in such a way that hearts are opened and minds are changed. Theresa had that gift. She was impossible not to love, impossible not to listen to, impossible not to support and follow. Her work for Justice Now, and as an advocate for women in prison and those who have been released, will not be forgotten.

—Dave Eggers, Cofounder of Voice of Witness

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