10 years out, Ujima participants reflect on lessons for success

headshot of Pabel Martinez (left) and Brittany Chambers (right)
Courtesy photos

For Brittany Chambers, Northeastern University’s Ujima Scholars program provided community. 

“It just all goes back to community again,” Chambers says. 

For Pabel Martinez, the program offered an opportunity. 

“They found potential where others saw doubt,” Martinez says. “Without Ujima I would not be where I’m at today.” 

The Ujima Scholars program was founded in 1972 as a partnership among the John D. O’Bryant African African American Institute, the Department of African-American Studies, and Residential and Cultural Life, and provided academic, social and financial support to inner-city students attending Northeastern. 

About 10 years ago, the program became the Ujima Global Leaders Program, focused on developing leaders for an increasingly diverse and complex world. Ujima Global Leaders are supported by a scholarship in recognition of their accomplishments and their potential to become agents for positive change in both our local and global communities. 

Northeastern Global News recently caught up with Chambers and Martinez, both members of the class of 2013, to see how the Ujima program has shaped their lives.

Both credited the program with providing them with a strong base on which to build future success. 

Martinez calls it the start of a “domino effect” that continued with his co-op experience, to jobs in technology and technology sales, to his current role as CEO and founder of Plurawl, a community-based learning platform that encourages workers to be their authentic selves. 

Meanwhile, Chambers referred to the program’s very name—Ujima is a Swahili word meaning collective work and responsibility—as paramount to her role as a manager in corporate social responsibility at Verizon. 

“Ujima means collective work and responsibility—that transcended to my career,” Chambers says.

Brittany Chambers: Gaining access to opportunities

Originally from Queens, New York, Chambers graduated from Northeastern with a degree in business management. In addition to being in the Ujima program, Chambers was a student ambassador, orientation leader and resident adviser.

She also completed three co-ops. Her first was on the supply chain team at Johnson & Johnson, where she learned all about logistics and organization. Her second was with Dannon yogurt’s sales team, where she traveled among 40 stores throughout Massachusetts to support sales efforts. 

A third co-op gave her the opportunity to travel for her first work abroad, as she helped Sibanye Township Restaurant in South Africa create a sustainability plan and develop a philanthropic program.

They found potential where others saw doubt. Without Ujima I would not be where I’m at today.

Pabel Martinez, a Northeastern graduate and a Ujima Global Leaders Program participant

The experiences taught Chambers she longed for three crucial aspects in her future career. 

“I was interested in logistics, sales and supporting an initiative that gave from the heart, Chambers says. “Heart to me was supporting communities in gaining access to opportunities.”

She had learned firsthand the importance of gaining access to opportunities.

To improve opportunities, Chambers’ maternal grandmother immigrated to the United States from Panama. Her father immigrated from Jamaica and, for over 30 years, worked in security at Columbia University to create opportunities for himself and his family to gain an education. Chambers earned her master’s and doctorate degrees in education.

Now she is paying it forward.

In her role at Verizon, Chambers oversees two community-building initiatives: Verizon Community Forward, a program she started that renovates a room in a community support space and offers learning opportunities to prepare families for careers of the future; and Verizon Innovative Learning STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Achievers, which works with over 40 colleges nationwide to offer an on-campus summer program for middle school students to explore STEM fields.

“I’m so grateful to be able to pay it forward through these programs that are part of Citizen Verizon’s goal to provide 10 million youth with digital skills training by 2030,” Chambers says.

As for the Ujima program, Chambers says the support that the program offered, and the camaraderie that she developed with fellow leaders, were invaluable.

“I was a New York City student who had never left home alone and came and although I was alone, I found an immediate community,” Chambers says. “The camaraderie that was built, I’m still in touch with some of those people today—that shows how much camaraderie we had and the depth of those relationships.”

Pabel Martinez: ‘Co-op put me ahead of the world’

Pabel Martinez came to Northeastern from the Upper West Side of New York, and was also a member of the class of 2013, graduating with a degree in economics. 

Following graduation, Martinez worked as an analyst at AOL, crediting his co-op experience with the Boston tech company Compete (which has since been acquired), with getting him into the technology industry. 

“That co-op program put me ahead of the world,” Martinez says. “I left with experience where I was able to get a job immediately.”

He transitioned into sales at another tech firm, Collective, and then went to work for Facebook. 

While at Facebook, Martinez launched Plurawl.  

“Its mission is to redefine professionalism so that people feel empowered to bring their most authentic selves to work,” Martinez says. 

Martinez explained that society’s images of professionalism often fail to accommodate individuals’ personal styles, personality and unique characteristics. 

“I know this is an experience that, especially, people of color face,” Martinez says. “We’re told our entire lives we can’t be ourselves to be successful.”

Recognizing that these images had an impact on his own life—for example, he recalled that the Catholic high school he attended prohibited traditional Black hairstyles—he learned that colleagues and friends shared this anxiety about revealing their authentic selves and were, as a result, less productive and happy employees. In fact, many people of color experience a mental health crisis after they have been “acting” for 20 or 30 years, Martinez says. 

So, Martinez began being his authentic self at work (he was now at TikTok)—speaking up against the culture of a 72-hour work week.

“It was met with resistance,” Martinez says. 

He decided to quit. His podcast explaining why he quit went viral, and Martinez was featured in media including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post and the Times of London.

“When we don’t talk about experiences, we feel like we’re the only ones going through it, like we’re the problem,” Martinez says. “But we’re not the problem … there’s macro-society-level type shit going on.”

Now he dedicates himself full-time to Plurawl, holding corporate trainings about recognizing and supporting employees’ authentic selves.

Martinez says that he hopes to expand Plurawl to a wellness app—“instead of just a content library, we’re going to help you learn about yourself so that you can be more comfortable about yourself,” he says—and advocating for policy changes.

He said that the Ujima program was crucial to his success

“I don’t think I would have made it without the Ujima Scholars,” Martinez says, referring to his undergraduate days. “I owe everything to the Ujima scholar program, everything.”

Cyrus Moulton is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at c.moulton@northeastern.edu. Follow him on Twitter @MoultonCyrus.