Teaching About Political Prisoners Will Get You Fired!
Marylin Zuniga gives this exclusive interview after being fired for teaching about political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal during Black History Month
JARED BALL, PRODUCER, IMIXWHATILIKE: What’s up, world. Welcome to another edition of I Mix What I Like here at The Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball.
We’re here today at the Source of Knowledge bookstore in Newark, New Jersey to talk with Marilyn Zuniga. Marilyn Zuniga is a community organizer here in Newark, New Jersey. She is a graduate of Montclair State Teachers College, and is a new teacher recently terminated for having her students write get well letters to Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Marilyn Zuniga, thank you for joining us. Welcome to I Mix What I Like on The Real News.
MARILYN ZUNIGA: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
BALL: So for those who are not familiar with this story, please break it down from the beginning. What exactly happened? We start with you teaching, I believe, third graders, and take us from there. What happened?
ZUNIGA: Sure. So, I was a third grade teacher, and I taught social studies and English language arts. And we’re departmentalized, so I was in charge of those two subject areas. My third graders were absolutely awesome. I mean, the minute they walked in to the classroom I knew they were going to be a special group of kids. Not just because it was my first year teaching, but just because they were awesome, they held awesome energy.
So the month of February came around. And for Black History Month I had planned this civil rights leader series, where we were to cover civil rights leaders who are oftentimes not covered in our textbooks, not seen in our curriculum. And so my students were very familiar with the typical Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, even Ruby Bridges. And all of these, these figures we also explored. But we really wanted to take focus on figures who are often not seen, especially in elementary school classrooms. And so these are leaders who Dr. Cornel West calls prophetic black voices, right, so oftentimes are silenced. And Mumia Abu-Jamal was one of those voices, along with Ella Baker, Angela Davis, Ida B. Wells. And my students took a really, really large liking to Mumia Abu-Jamal, which I’m not surprised, because when I first heard his story I did as well.
And so we explored Mumia Abu-Jamal by looking at this quote. And the quote read: “So long as one just person is silenced there is no justice.” And my students, we had learned about justice, what justice means, what justice looks like. And so my students were able to break down the main idea of this quote on a third-grade level, and they did an excellent job.
That same day my students went home, and after learning about Mumia as a leader, as someone who worked with the Black Panther Party, who is a journalist, who did journalism within his community about police brutality and things like that, they went home and they did research on Mumia. It wasn’t asked of them, it wasn’t required of them. They went home and they brought back essays about Mumia, they brought back research about Mumia, pictures of Mumia. And they were just so taken aback by this historical figure that they, they wanted to learn more.
Well, when the month of April came around I told them that Mumia was very sick and that he was in the hospital. And I told them that the hospital was not letting Mumia see his family or his loved ones, and they were very, very upset. And they asked me, they said, Ms. Zuniga, well, can we write get well letters to Mumia to make him feel better? And I said, of course you can. And so my students wrote the letters. And when they wrote the letters, they actually had special–they had art afterwards. And they were so, so, so excited about the letters that they actually were late for art that day.
And my students asked me, one of my students asked me, will these letters get to Mumia? And I said, I’m not really sure. I don’t know if that can happen. And one of my students looked at me and she said, Ms Zuniga, please make sure that Mumia gets these letters.
And so then I took that as a charge. And when I told Professor Johanna Fernandez at Baruch College that my students had done this she was just, she was ecstatic. And so the letters were in Mumia’s hands the next Tuesday.
BALL: Was that the extent of your discussion of Mumia with your students? That is, this one quote. Because some of the coverage that is critical of what you did–
BALL: Right, has tried to paint this picture that you redirected the entire curriculum to be about this so-called cop killer radical. So tell us a little bit about what exactly was the extent of your work with your students regarding Mumia?
ZUNIGA: Absolutely. So what’s really important to highlight about this is that the third grade curriculum in the district that I was working in, Orange, New Jersey, does not have anything about black history. We are allowed as teachers, as professionals, to take, to take outside resources and bring them into the curriculum. So that’s what I–that’s exactly what I was doing, right. So I was taking resources outside of the curriculum, bringing them into the curriculum. And in third grade, we explore community. So all of this has to do with community, right, being active in your community, being a civil rights leader in your community, which Mumia is. Was, and still is.
So we covered Mumia insofar as him being a leader. We did not go into the details of his case, or the legality of his case. We really focused on what he did for his community.
BALL: And you didn’t make this about his particular politics, either, or philosophy of the [inaud.], right? It was just–right.
ZUNIGA: Absolutely not, right. The fact that he is a published writer, he published while still incarcerated, which is something that we all can admire, right. I have family members who are incarcerated. A lot of my students have family members who are incarcerated. So this is an important point to highlight. I mean, we all know someone who’s incarcerated or know of someone who’s incarcerated. And so the fact that he has published writings while he’s in prison is something that’s very admirable, right, and he’s been of course recognized internationally. He’s been a commencement speaker, a radio voice, and so many other things.
BALL: So then what did happen? You know, after, after you delivered these letters to Professor Fernandez, what happened?
ZUNIGA: So Professor Johanna Fernandez was so proud, just like me, was so proud of what these third graders had done. So she posted it to her social media. I posted it to my social media as well. I did not have a large following at the time at all. So when she shared it, actually, I guess in a lot of ways went viral and people started finding out. A lot of folks started attacking me for it. They found my social media accounts, and just started sending out my work email, sending out my principal’s work email, superintendent’s work email, and demanding for my termination. So at that point we were sure that the Fraternal Order of Police had gotten news that these letters were delivered to Mumia.
BALL: So did the attack or the backlash against you feel orchestrated, or organized?
ZUNIGA: Well, I would say it did feel organized and orchestrated just because of the fact that I was being contacted on social media over and over again by the same folks. And attacked by the same people on social media. So it was obviously a group of people who came together and who agreed on the topic that I should be terminated, and agreed that, you know, the district should fire me.
BALL: So then what did happen? I mean the, the moves were taken to remove you. And as we were talking a minute ago off camera, that was never made clear as to the official reason. So tell us, you know, what was the process, or what happened next after this backlash took off.
ZUNIGA: So the district actually immediately suspended me with pay. So literally the day after I found out that Fox News had already covered this story, I was contacted by my district. The left a voicemail on my cell phone saying that I was suspended with pay. And that following Monday coming back from spring break is when I had a meeting with some folks in the district. And they informed me that what I did was wrong, and they had a brief conversation with me. And then they said it would be discussed and tabled at the next board meeting. So whatever their decision would be would be discussed at the next board meeting.
That next board meeting I had an option to make it either public or private. So if it was an executive session it would be private, it would just be me and the board. If it was a public meeting, then anyone from the community can come in. so I asked for it to be public. And you know, a lot of people in the district were advising me to make it private so that I could kind of shut it out and it would be over with. The reason why I made it public is because there was parents who were concerned. There was parents who were supporting me who wanted to be there. There was community members who wanted to be there, and of course folks who are close to me, my family members, folks who I organize with and so forth especially in the community of Newark that wanted to be there as well.
I did not expect the turnout that happened that night.
BALL: It was pretty big.
ZUNIGA: It was a big deal. And I was overwhelmed, in a good way. So it was about I want to say 150 people there.
BALL: Now, I should have started with this, but give us the time frame we’re talking about here. When are we talking about? This is, this is last fall? This is this spring? [Crosstalk]
ZUNIGA: No, this was this spring. So it happened during spring break. The, I want to say the board meeting was April 15th. Yeah, it was April 15th that the board meeting happened. And that was–.
BALL: Yeah. Big community turnout.
ZUNIGA: It was a huge community turnout. I mean, it was just so–I haven’t been organizing for that long. I’ve been organizing for about five years now. But I have never seen something orchestrated so smoothly and so last minute. I mean, because the community really brought that together last minute. I made that decision to make it public that same day. So I literally turned in the official notice that I wanted it to be public about four hours before the meeting took place.
BALL: Well, I saw that Larry Hamm was there.
ZUNIGA: Larry Hamm was there.
BALL: The [inaud.] Larry Hamm, People’s Organization for Progress, they’re big time, they do a lot of great work. So I know that that helped quickly get people out. But if there were others that you want to shout out real quick, please do.
ZUNIGA: Absolutely. Absolutely Chairman Larry Hamm and People’s Organization for Progress. I mean, they have been such, such a help on my case. And they’re actually having a rally July 25th against police brutality and economic inequality, and that’s so important for everyone to come out to that. Also–.
BALL: That’s here in Newark.
ZUNIGA: That’s here in Newark.
BALL: Or New Ark.
ZUNIGA: So please be here July 25th. And also the Maroon Project, which is a newly-founded organization in Newark. And I’m part of the Maroon Project, and I have been since the beginning of its coming of age. And the Maroon Project is really a group of millennials trying to make a difference in Newark. And we’ve started programs like Books and Breakfast which came straight from Ferguson. And we were actually the first city after Ferguson to implement Books and Breakfast in our community. And we also have other programs like open mics and events for the community, and with the community. So a big shoutout to the Maroon Project.
BALL: Maroon Project. And again, Source of Knowledge Books, where I know a lot of [crosstalk] takes place, as well.
BALL: So you have this press conference, or press conference isn’t–.
ZUNIGA: It’s a board meeting, exactly, yeah.
BALL: Board meeting. And yeah, kind of ended up looking like a press conference. You read your statement. A lot of people gathered around you. It did look very supportive. It was a, it was a powerful moment. I could see why it would be overwhelming in a good way for you. But then what happened next?
ZUNIGA: So I really do believe that the board had made up its mind. I mean, they wanted to terminate me. They wanted this whole ordeal to be over and done with. And I think they had every intention to terminate me. But that night, the community came out. And they were just so passionate and so supportive of my reinstatement that they decided to table it until the next board meeting. They did not go forth and make a decision that night. So I continued with suspension, on suspension with pay. And, until the next board meeting, which was this past month. March 15th. I’m sorry, May 15th.
And so on May 15th they had another board meeting. And again, folks came out from the community. This time it was probably about 200 people who came out. And they literally had the community sitting there for hours. I mean, they did not start public comments until about 11:30, and we were there until 1:00 because people were, you know, demanding my reinstatement, saying that I should be back in the classroom, that I should be teaching in Orange, New Jersey and that these kids need me and they want me back in the classroom.
It is also important to highlight that a week before that we did a teach-in that People’s Organization for Progress actually organized. And one of my students came out and spoke himself. And so a third grader came out in front of press, in front of a big group of folks that came out for the teach-in, and he said that students miss me and they want me back in the classroom. And so–and multiple parents had come out and supported at that point, as well. So it’s important to highlight that the community was there. So a lot of media coverage has shown parents that disagree with it.
None of those parents that have been shown on the media were actually in fact my students’ parents. I didn’t recognize any of them. And so it’s important to say that my actual parents from my classroom have come out and supported me. And so–.
BALL: Did any of those parents that you did know or do know or did work with, did any of them have any issues with what you did?
ZUNIGA: Not that have contacted me directly. I mean, the parents who have been supportive have been a small group and they’ve been strong. I mean, they have come out and tried to call other parents and get them to come to the board meetings. They’ve called me on a daily basis, had me speak with the students because they miss me.
BALL: And of course if they had been in disagreement with what you did, they would have been sought out for interviews as well.
BALL: So it’s likely that since you didn’t recognize those who were given media space, it’s likely that those who you do know or do–whose children you did teach did not have–
BALL: –that serious a problem, if any at all.
ZUNIGA: Exactly. So on May 15th, the community was there. They were present. They made comments up until 1:00 in the morning. And the board decided to terminate me that night. They did not say it out loud. They did not say that I was terminated to the audience. They just kind of tabled the situation and they said the solution to this employment status is this, this, and that. And they used their own terms. And then they all voted on it, they all said yes. And then they, they left. They got up and left from the table.
BALL: So as far as you can tell the official reason for your termination is what?
ZUNIGA: It’s unclear. So we have actually requested a notification, and a notice with detailed explanation of my misconduct, and I have yet to receive that. So the district, according to their bylaws, they’re actually supposed to provide me with some type of notice along with my suspension and also along with my termination as to what my misconduct was as a teacher, and they have yet to provide that for me. So they provided me–when I requested that they provided me with a packet of policies, which in fact is not what they’re supposed to provide me with.
BALL: Are you supposed to thumb through that on your own and find the policy that you broke? Is that what the point is?
ZUNIGA: Yeah, I’m not sure what, I’m not sure what their intentions were with that. But we do know that according to their bylaws they’re supposed to give me a notice and a listing of my misconduct, which they failed to do.
So right now it’s unclear. I mean, they can say that it was different district policy such as sharing student information on social media, or things like that. But–and the only thing I have publicly apologized for is sharing it on social media. Because I felt as if that may have led or caused certain outcomes for the community that I of course do not want the community to have to bear. And so I did apologize for posting it to my personal social media. But I do have to be clear insofar as I did not share any student information. There was a first name of one student on the top of that picture that I shared on social media. There was no last names, no addresses, no personal information of the students. And so that’s really what a lot of folks are angry about, that I had posted it to my social media. But has to be clear that, you know, a lot of information of students wasn’t shared, or anything like that. I was by no means putting my students at risk by doing that.
BALL: So going forward, you’re still very active, as you said, in the community here. Maroon Project, Source of Knowledge Books, et cetera. What do you see happening for you next? Or what would you like to see happen next?
ZUNIGA: Well, I’m going to teach. I have in no way been turned off by teaching. I believe in public school teaching, and I also believe that teaching is a calling. It’s not something that you choose to do, it’s something that chooses you. And I think that I truly do have a calling for teaching. And that’s what I’m passionate about. That’s where I need to be. I need to be in the classroom with students. And of course, this whole ordeal has been very, very traumatic for me, but by no means has it turned me off from being a public school teacher.
And so I’m still pursuing positions in public school teaching. I have gotten some offers from charter schools in Newark, as well as some public schools out in California. So I think it’s really important to stress that, you know, I’m still going to be in the classroom, regardless, and I’m still going to be teaching, I’m still going to be community organizing and working with students.
BALL: Very good. Well, Marilyn Zuniga, thank you very much for taking the time to share your story with us here at The Real News Network.
ZUNIGA: Thank you.
BALL: And thank you for watching The Real News Network and our segment here, I Mix What I Like. And as Fred Hampton used to say, to you we say peace if you’re willing to fight for it. So peace. We’ll catch you in the [whirlwind].
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