Our words and activism can’t just reside behind lit screens and gray keyboards, but in the streets and the classrooms where our present and future learn. Until justice is truly served, not just for Ms. Zuniga, but for all social justice educators, fairly and equitably, we must lock arms. - José Vilson
For the thirteen-year-old me, Joan Baez’s Daybreak was a revelation. An autobiographical combination of essays, poetry, and memoir, it cemented my commitment to pacifism and laid the groundwork for my eventual emergence as a social justice activist like no other single work of art before or since. I’ll add that growing up in Amherst, MA the child of a future president of American Women in Science and one of the world's leading advocates of multiculturalism in counseling psychology provided the perfect context within which to read the book.
José Vilson’s recent blog, “Of Challenge and Controversy (Why I Support Marylin Zuniga)” took me back to those days. From the first line, “Prison is not justice,” through the final ringing call to action “Until justice is truly served, not just for Ms. Zuniga, but for all social justice educators, fairly and equitably, we must lock arms,” Mr. Vilson builds a case for treating people with compassion and humanity that is frequently breathtaking in its power.
Ms. Zuniga, for those who may not know her, is a teacher who was suspended and roundly vilified for having her third grade students in Orange, NJ send “get well” letters to “convicted cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal.” (Eromosele) To give you a sense of the simple power of Mr. Vilson’s convictions around the case and his central message, here’s just one excerpt: “The second honest question I get is, “If this was a KKK member who had killed a Black kid, would you have the same feeling about this?” In my disposition, the answer is a complicated yet [sic?]. If I believe in social justice, and I do, and the context of the lesson was compassion and rehabilitation, then I would want that letter sent.”
Mr. Vilson further challenges us to ensure that “Our words and activism can’t just reside behind lit screens and gray keyboards, but in the streets and the classrooms where our present and future learn.” I couldn’t agree more.
Recently, one of the Humanities 7 students, for her Focus Question in the student-designed Education unit, chose to research, write, and present on girls’ education in the world. The students were deeply moved by the movie Girl Rising which we agreed to watch at the request of the student presenter, by her own words during her presentation, and by a short video she showed by The Girl Effect. They agreed they wanted to Do Something, and fairly quickly settled on a plan.
They will propose to the EL Humanities students in 7th grade that the class sponsor a girl through World Vision, thereby ensuring that she is supported in getting an education. They will also either take a proposal to Student Council that all classes embark on a similar project, or present in housemeeting on what they are doing and encouraging other classes to follow their lead.
Meanwhile, in housemeeting on Family Weekend, members of the Community Service club, holding a large poster that read #BringBackOurGirls, gave an update on the Nigerian girls kidnapped just over a year ago and led everyone in a moment of silence. Members of the Gay-Straight Alliance announced we would be observing GLSEN’s Day of Silence this coming Wednesday to call attention to the silencing of LGBT(etc.) voices through closeting, harassment, bullying, and more.
In short, as these students seize leadership opportunities within the school and prepare to go out into the world. the words and activism of our present and future are not only resonating but also showing every sign of only gaining in power as we all continue to grow.
There is so very much to do, and I’m sure I am far from alone in being acutely aware of my own imperfections and the relative puniness of my efforts. But these students, as they so often do, are showing me the way. It may, for now, still be a road less travelled. Still and all, it does indeed make all the difference.