ZBT at core of rising advocate’s success

By Andrea (Smithson) Benek —

Matthew L. Yanez’s advocacy career started as the oldest of three brothers. He would speak on behalf of his younger siblings to his parents and teachers.

Today, the Gamma Beta Chapter alumnus is a law student and rising national advocate who recently met with Vice President Kamala Harris to speak on behalf of people with disabilities. He credits Zeta Beta Tau as being the support network that allowed him to narrow his focus into law and advocacy.

“In ZBT, I learned the importance of community, a sense of belonging. ZBT really helped me. It wasn’t enough to be a community member — you have to stand up for your community as well,” said Yanez, Gamma Beta (California State University-Northridge) 2019.

Brother Yanez, 24, is native to the Los Angeles area. He was born with unilateral hearing loss, meaning he can only hear out of his left ear. His younger brother, Ezra, has a more severe hearing impairment.

Matthew had to navigate issues related to his hearing loss as best he could growing up, including in the classroom. He explained that he was often not aware of accommodations and resources that might have been available to him.

“As I got older, experiencing all the challenges that I faced, I really felt an instinct as an older brother: ‘This happened to me, I don’t want the same thing to happen for you,’” he said of his relationship with Ezra.

His mother works as a teacher. She would tutor her sons and always impressed upon them the importance of academics. Brother Yanez first attended an out-of-state university but transferred back to CSUN to be closer to family. He was able to save money for law school by living at home and working two jobs while a full-time student.

“CSUN was great. Everyone had a similar mindset. Everyone is trying to improve themselves. Everyone has their own challenges,” he said.

As a sophomore and a commuter student, Brother Yanez said he knew he needed to find his own community, to make friends at CSUN, so he went through fraternity recruitment.

“ZBT very quickly became my home. It was a group of guys that really care about each other’s success and were supportive of each other during the hard times,” Brother Yanez said.

At the Gamma Beta house, he was able to create a robust network and have great experiences in all areas. For example, Brother Yanez is very close with another brother who was preparing for law school on the same timeline, Daniel J. Glicker, 2020. They took the LSATs and applied to law schools together; Brother Glicker now is a second-year student at New York Law School. Brother Yanez said they still speak daily.

His advocacy career started at CSUN with an opportunity he found through a political science class, working as a canvasser for the first Latina councilor to be elected in their district to the City Council of Los Angeles. The skills he learned in ZBT gave him a boost.

“Although ZBT is a Jewish fraternity, it was super diverse. For example, we had a transfer student from Finland join our chapter. It was a really cool mix. This helped me learn to talk to a variety of people,” Brother Yanez said.

After graduating in 2019, he took a gap year before starting at Syracuse University College of Law, where he worked for nonprofits such as National Association of the Deaf and The Arc of the United States. Those organizations partnered with American Association of People with Disabilities in hopes of setting up a debate between presidential candidates specifically to discuss issues facing the disability community. Due to the pandemic, it was moved to Zoom, and Brother Yanez was the chat moderator and closing speaker, encouraging young people to vote.

“It was an amazing experience, to come out as disabled, being very proud of it and not hiding it in any way,” he said.

Speaking at that event put Brother Yanez’s name on the radar for President Biden’s administration. Imagine his surprise, he shared, to receive a random email from the Office of the Vice President. He thought it was fake at first, but soon he was having briefings with White House staff and preparing to walk to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, across from the West Wing.

Brother Yanez was seated immediately to Vice President Harris’ right for an hour-long discussion of voting rights and disability issues with several other advocates in the space.

“We just shared our stories with her. We had an open and honest discussion,” he said.

For current undergraduates or ZBT brothers who are looking for a way to make a difference, Brother Yanez says being active with his chapter helped hone his advocacy skills.

“The Sunday chapter meetings really helped me. It was a time when we technically were talking about policy and how that impacts our organization. Being able to share my thoughts and ideas in a room full of people who I trusted and knew really well was really important to my development,” he explained. “I still get very nervous when talking in front of crowds, so being able to get a feel for it in a supportive environment is a crucial reason why I’m able to do this now.”

The future is bright for Matthew Yanez. He has just started classes toward a master’s in public administration as well as his second year in the disability law program at Syracuse. He ultimately wants a career in government or policy space, advocating for rights of people with disabilities. Particularly he’s interested in working for the Department of Justice in the Disability Rights Section.

“Almost 1 in 4 or 1 in 5 people in this country have a disability. I know I’m not the only person with a disability that’s part of ZBT,” Brother Yanez said. “For those brothers (who have a disability), they should get connected with me. This is a great opportunity to show how diverse and supportive ZBT really is. I’m grateful for the opportunity to share my story.”

Connect with him on LinkedIn or email matthewyanez8@gmail.com.