It was Marylin Zuniga’s first time teaching third grade. As an educator working in a predominantly black and Latinx community in New Jersey, Zuniga wanted to make sure her students connected with their history, so she taught them about social justice issues—not typical of an elementary-school curriculum.
But this decision, Zuniga claims, cost her her job at Forest Street School.
It all started in February during Black History Month. “I decided to cover a series of civil rights leaders, and I tried to cover those who aren’t often included in the average public school curriculum or elementary school education,” she told me. Three months later, Zuniga was fired.
Zuniga, 26, is part of a growing group of educators who teach from a social justice perspective, and say they’ve been fired for doing so. Think: Christopher Columbus didn’t sail the ocean blue and discover America; he accidentally stumbled upon an already inhabited land, and was part of a crew of Europeans who raped, pillaged, and colonized its local indigenous population.
The New York Collective of Radical Educators (NYCoRE) shares Zuniga’s philosophy (though she herself isn’t part of the group), and has searched for ways to insert social justice lessons into school curriculums since its founding in 2002.
During Black History Month, Zuniga taught her students about some of the unsung heroes and controversial players of black-led civil rights movements, including Ida B. Wells, a turn-of-the-century anti-lynching activist; Assata Shakur, a Black Panther Party member who was convicted of killing a New Jersey state trooper; and Angela Davis, a political activist and former University of California at Santa Cruz professor.
The city of Orange, where Zuniga taught, has mostly black and Latinx residents. Many of her former students have family members who are or were incarcerated, she said: “It seemed like anytime I would bring up something on [the] topic, it would really resonate with my students.”
That's why Zuniga also taught about Mumia Abu-Jamal, an activist and journalist sentenced to death for killing a Philadelphia police officer in 1982, though he denies any wrongdoing. His death sentence was reduced to life in prison without parole in 2001. In her lesson, Zuniga told students that Abu-Jamal had fallen ill recently.
“We talked about how we would feel if we were sick, who we’d want around,” she said of her discussions with students about Abu-Jamal’s poor health. “When we were having that conversation, one of my students raised her hand, and she said ‘Well Ms. Zuniga, can we write letters to Mr. Mumia telling him we hope he feels better?’”
Zuniga said yes, and later told her students that a friend of Abu-Jamal’s said their letters warmed him.
But that fuzzy feeling quickly faded.
“The only thing I heard was that Fox News picked up that these letters were sent to Mumia, and that people were demanding my termination,” Zuniga said, describing the aftermath.
But it wasn’t her students' parents who wanted Zuniga out, she claimed. “When everything went down, I had really strong support from a group of parents, adamant about the fact that these students deserve an education, and that they deserve to be taught the truth and not be hidden from the truth or from history.”
Orange Township Public Schools issued a statement, saying it was “surprised” to learn about Zuniga’s “‘get well’ letter-writing assignment to convicted cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal.” The school board ultimately voted to terminate Zuniga.
“There’s absolutely a pattern of teachers being targeted when they’re teaching from a social justice view,” said Bree Picower, a NYCoRE member and education professor at Montclair State University in New Jersey.
Picower, who was Zuniga’s professor at Montclair, said she's noticed that teachers of color, in particular, are getting penalized for teaching a social justice curriculum.
“Hostile racial climates,” she said, “makes it easier for teachers of color to get singled out.”
Sireen Hashem, who started working at New Jersey’s Hunterdon Central Regional High School in January 2013, claims she is one such teacher. Hashem, a Muslim American of Palestinian descent, told the New York Times that the school barred her from mentioning Islam in class after she showed a video of Nobel Peace Prize winner and teen education activist Malala Yousafzai to her students. Yousafzai, who is also Muslim, rose to fame after she blogged about her life in Pakistan under Taliban rule.
In April 2014, the school didn’t renew Hashem’s contract. In response, she filed a lawsuit last December, but the Hunterdon County district pushed back.
Hunterdon County told the Times that it didn’t fire Hashem, but rather declined to renew her contract for reasons “that were fully and clearly explained to her and her representation.” The district emphasized that “those reasons were not related to religion, national, or any other improper factor.”
The Hunterdon County superintendent did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Jeena Lee-Walker’s experience also parallels that of Zuniga and Hashem. In 2013, she began teaching English in a predominantly black and Latinx public school, the High School for Arts, Imagination, and Inquiry, on the Upper West Side.
After spending the 2010-11 school year in the Bronx and 2012-13 at Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers in Lower Manhattan, where she taught students with similar ethnic backgrounds, Lee-Walker developed a curriculum that she thought would appeal to her new students.
“I went to a predominantly white, elite high school in New York City and being in that environment [as someone who] was very much the minority in the classroom … that experience hit me,” Lee-Walker, who is Asian American, said. ”I wanted to have these kids see themselves reflected in the classroom … [and] subconsciously give them what I never had.”
At the start of the 2013-14 school year, Lee-Walker, 38, began teaching a social justice unit that included a lesson on the "Central Park Five," a group of black and Latinx teens wrongfully convicted of raping a white woman who was jogging in New York City in 1990.
While she claims her students were receptive—inspired even—by the lesson, the school’s administration wasn’t.
After the Central Park Five lesson, Lee-Walker said she at first received “subtle and diplomatic” pushback from administrators, but that tensions mounted afterwards. During a short-story unit later in 2013, Lee-Walker said she picked stories by celebrated Dominican author Junot Diaz, which “did not go over well” with administrators who suggested she cut whole sections of his stories.
Less than a week before Lee-Walker was due back at the High School for Arts, Imagination, and Inquiry for the 2014-15 school year to teach English again, she was reassigned as a college prep teacher. Although Lee-Walker said she was disappointed by the school’s decision, she took on her new role because her tenure was hanging in the balance.
But at the end of the 2014-15 school year, Lee-Walker said the school district’s superintendent terminated her contract, and didn’t give her tenure.
In January, Lee-Walker filed a lawsuit claiming that she was discriminated against for teaching about the Central Park Five, among other social justice issues. The New York City Law Department, which handles lawsuits filed against the New York City Department of Education, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
There are other, similar stories that haven’t received as much media attention. Awo Okaikor Aryee-Price, who is black, taught in the New Jersey public school system for 13 years and said she always had good evaluations. But last year, Aryee-Price’s contract at a Hackensack middle school wasn’t renewed. “I do attribute it to a lot of the work that I’ve been doing with my social justice work and even my public support for Marylin Zuniga and Black Lives Matter,” she told me.
At first, Aryee-Price said, her contract was renewed. But a month later, the school decided not to renew Aryee-Price’s due to “restructuring,” she said.
“One of my union representatives had been telling me I should not publicly support [Zuniga], and I should be careful of the things I do publicly because it would have an effect on me,” Aryee-Price said. “But that didn’t deter me because I felt strongly that this was something that needed to be supported in any way that I could.”
Hackensack Public Schools acting superintendent Joe Cicchelli told me that his office does not comment on personnel issues.
NYCoRE said in an email that it didn’t track the number of area teachers who were punished or dismissed for providing social justice lessons, but that it has anecdotal evidence from them. Meanwhile, the New Jersey Department of Education directed me to local school districts since each district tracks its own complaints. And a New York City Department of Education spokesperson told me that it has no record of an educator being terminated for teaching a social justice curriculum.
For her part, Zuniga said she “hated” school growing up. As the daughter of immigrants from Peru, who attended a predominantly white high school in New Jersey, she felt she couldn’t relate to the coursework. “I had a huge disconnect with a lot of my teachers. I really didn’t enjoy the learning process that went on in the public schools,” Zuniga told me.
That’s why she jumped at the opportunity to teach students of color about the stories and histories that are missing from some classrooms. Zuniga moved to Oakland, CA, earlier this year, and now teaches at an independent charter school that encourages social justice-oriented lessons.
“Students,” she said, “deserve to be taught the truth.”
Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.