Editor's note: This is the fourth in a series of profiles on newly-elected members of the Camden City Council and School Advisory Board. The first in the series focuses on Nyemah Gillespie, the second on Shaneka Boucher and the third on Victor Carstarphen.
CAMDEN, NJ — Falio Leyba-Martinez talks at a Stairmaster's pace — his intensity for taking full advantage of his newly-elected role on the Camden school advisory board apparent from the passion in his voice to the gamut of topics he discusses in rapid succession.
College readiness. Youth programs. The power of education.
Unprompted, he points out the importance of people identifying the areas where the Camden school district can improve.
“By the same token if you want to point out that the mayor didn’t do something, that the council didn’t do something, or the school board, I say, 'What work did you do to change the situation?'” he said during a sit-down with TAPinto Camden. “The experience I got from my parents taught me that yes, if you’re elected you have a job to do, but as people we need to look within too.”
With the position on the Camden school board, the 31-year-old is the first Dominican elected in the city’s history.
Leyba-Martinez moved to Camden from Passaic around 1995 with two siblings, his father, once an uptown Manhattan cab driver, and mother, a certified nursing assistant.
It's been while tending to the Centerville corner store his parents purchased for the past quarter-century that he gleaned many life lessons he still carries today.
“I've been working in that corner store since I was nine,” he said, laughing. “I went to Riletta Cream Elementary School right up the street and being at a corner store for that long you get to know the neighborhood.”
While mopping floors and stocking shelves, Leyba-Martinez says he saw generation after generation. The very same people, in fact, he interacted with during his campaign trail.
“They told me, ‘I remember when you were behind the register and I could only see the top of your head.’”
And it wasn’t the first time he campaigned either.
In 2017, Leyba-Martinez ran unsuccessfully for the City Council — although he views it as a win for the message he was able to get across during that span.
A message about inclusivity and propping Camden up for all its grandeur, which he says he continued to fight for into the school board elections — the first publicly elected school board race since the state’s 2013 takeover.
“I probably knocked on easily over 3,000 doors in the last four weeks leading to the election,” he said. “I believe win, lose, or draw, your mission stays the same. Just because you lose an election doesn’t mean you stop….a title doesn't make the person, a person makes the title.”
Going to bat for Camden
Leyba-Martinez earned degrees in law and government, as well as criminal justice from Camden County College — where he would later be the commencement speaker.
A father of three, Leyba-Martinez is also a member of the Sheriff's Foundation, sits on the Dominicans of Delaware Valley, and is part of the Democratic National Committee.
Ever-vocal on the school advisory board, he is not shy about asking questions and letting his voice be heard on topics such as acquiring additional services for the district and bilingual services.
He also said he’s now in a position to act as a vessel for what the community needs and is always open to having that conversation with residents and parents.
At the January school board meeting, he asked whether Spanish services would be offered at an upcoming Financial Aid Night — and later on whether a textbook made available to students came in both languages.
“The fact that I speak Spanish and seven other of my board members don't, I believe means I should dedicate part of my focus on bilingual services. I grew up living through this...being a translator for my parents as young as 10,” Leyba-Martinez said. “I know there are families like that in our district.”
Adding, “I want to make sure the district is doing everything possible to not lose sight of these kids because of that barrier.”
Leyba-Martinez said he’s working “on something new” within that realm with details to be announced.
What he could discuss in detail was the Yankees.
Not the Bronx Bombers hailing from New York, but his 10 and under Little League team that had their inaugural season last fall — marking the first season of baseball in East Camden in 13 years.
After gauging interest in the area and following in the footsteps of the North Camden Little League, Leyba-Martinez said he put a team together.
“We played in a number of places including Maple Shade, Florence, Cherry Hill. We went 15-2 in the first season,” said Leyba-Martinez, who was a pitcher during his own Little League days. “It’s one example, but it’s why I say we have the best kids in the nation. There’s so much talent here, they just need a chance.”
And now that he has his chance, Leyba-Martinez said he’s, “excited about what being on this board will mean for my city.”