Catching up with Diana Zuñiga isn’t easy these days. If she’s not testifying before the LA County Board of Supervisors against the construction of an unneeded Mira Loma women’s jail, she’s helping to organize the recent Justice On Trial Film Festival at Cal State Long Beach. Or organizing a Custody Town Hall with jail officials and the Sheriff Department’s inspector general. Or just generally fomenting outrage and focusing attention on California’s woefully inadequate approach to criminal justice.
In just two years as California statewide field organizer for Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), Diana has made a significant impact. Working out of Los Angeles, she provides leadership and support to county-level struggles around realignment, while developing a deeper base for CURB in Southern California. Diana holds a BA in Political Science and Chicano/a Studies with a minor in Psychology from Loyola Marrymount University.
Diana recently found time to share her thoughts with Justice Not Jails’ Peter Laarman.
Peter Laarman: We know that for you, as for many others in the movement, doing this work is personal–it’s partly rooted in the experience of a family member or someone else they know. Can you say something about this in your case?
Diana Zuñiga: This has always been a hard thing for me to talk about, but I think with a growing community of folks that I know have experienced similar things I have been more confident in my vulnerability. I also think that it has led me to think about my space while articulating the stories of my loved ones that are or have been incarcerated.
Their stories are theirs. My experience as a result of their stories is what initially drew me to the work of dismantling the criminal injustice system. Through my journey in discovering that I wanted to focus my energy on this work, I delved through the stories of each of my loved ones who had been directly impacted by the system.
Stories of trauma, abandonment, physical and emotional violence, racism, mental health diagnosis, unfair sentences and substance use. Stories of love, resilience, growth, hope, community and shifts in perceptions. The more I got in touch with these stories, the more I got in touch with myself and I realized that these are not isolated incidents.
The stories of my family are the stories of millions of people who are or have been incarcerated in a prison, jail or detention center. I felt like I needed to do something in some capacity to start breaking away at the system. I began by direct service work with at-risk youth where I saw the continued cycles of incarceration, poverty, and lack of resources that impacted each of them in unique ways.
I then realized that I wanted to do something on a macro level by working on propositions through the Latino Voters League, and policy through the Drug Policy Alliance. But it’s also true that my first experience challenging this system’s impact on my family was as an 11-year-old at a Families to Amend California Three Strikes Law Rally. This first familial experience is what called me to this work and I think the connection I heard and felt in my community and work experience is what has kept me going.
Peter Laarman: CURB is well known for its ferocity and for its determination to change the system fundamentally, not just tinker around the edges. Where does that uncompromising spirit come from?
Diana Zuñiga: The founding members of CURB, member organizations, and people that are most directly impacted make up our vast network. All these people are the essence of the uncompromising and transparent presence we hold in this movement.
I believe some of that spirit comes from the founding members of the coalition who continue to guide us and teach us to understand the lessons from the past in the present decisions we are making. Much of what we are fighting now—like gender responsive jails and mental health jails—are duplicated narratives that are pieces of the expansion of the carceral state we live in.
These narratives and the continued lack of transparency in the bureaucratic process we have to navigate can be used to fragment us into tiny subcategories of fights. However, I think as a coalition of diverse members we carry the basic principles that open us up to fighting the prison industrial complex through many different lenses, while still holding the same goals of dismantling a system that has hurt our families and intricately worked to push us out of the process.
I know that with the historical knowledge and the commitment of our member organizations we intentionally work towards amplifying the real life experiences of the community we advocate for. The strength and change that CURB envisions is truly a collective effort that works for a sustainable world for everyone because everyone deserves that.
Peter Laarman: People say that it’s not enough to end the mass incarceration of (mainly) people of color, that you also have to change the brutal economic system within which mass incarceration functions. What’s your response to that?
Diana Zuñiga: I agree. I believe CURB was created and functions to push back against carceral expansion and generate a vision of an economic system that helps people when they need the help, and enables people to flourish.
I was recently on a panel that focused on the challenging economic environment that we are all currently living through. Being that I always talk about policy and changes in the prison and jail system, I was a bit nervous. I reached out to a mentor from one of our member organizations, David Stein, who has done extensive work in this area and is really brilliant in connecting all the dots.
After our conversation I realized even more how connected these two issues are. The statistics continue to show that black and brown people are the majority of the folks incarcerated. And historically what we know is that deinsititutionilzation, deindustrialization, and social disparities have been used to push people of color and low-income people out of opportunities.
We know that after the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington one of the basic demands promoting a federal demand to guarantee meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages for all workers has not even been met. Let’s imagine that we were able to get this demand met 50 years ago or even today. How many people would this impact? How many people would we be able to add to the economic development of California and our nation?
Let’s also imagine that people that were coming out of incarceration were not pushed out of meaningful work because of their history. How many people would that keep from cycling into the system again? And finally let’s imagine if our country focused on the meaningful impacts that our immigrant community brings to our economic development instead of creating laws to push them out. What would our world look like?
In essence I agree that an end to mass incarceration needs to be met with an economic environment that meets people where they are at and guides them towards a more sustainable life with meaningful opportunities.
Peter Laarman: You and CURB are at the center of the fight to block construction of a huge new jail in LA County. It’s so odd that County officials will say one minute that it’s time to divert more people away from jail (the mentally ill, for example) but then in the very next minute they are moving to advance the jail plan. Is it possible that there are powerful pro-jail forces at work behind the curtain, so to speak–especially when there’s really no credible public rationale for spending all that money on a new jail?
Diana Zuñiga: Yes, there are several powerful pro-jail forces at work. Expansion is not a new thing and the form of expansion that is marketing law enforcement as social service providers has been present for a long time.
Los Angeles in particular has been the hub of an increasing presence of law enforcement, surveillance, racial profiling, and violence that has continued to influence this trend, statewide and nationally. Los Angeles has had a strong and powerful law-enforcement presence, and this is the framework the city and county governments have worked through for so long that they’ve had a hard time looking at anything different.
I also think that it doesn’t help that the state of California is sending down billions of dollars to Los Angeles and other counties for nothing more than to build jails. Why we are not building permanent and affordable housing when LA needs about 5,000 units to modestly decrease the amount of people that are homeless is the question that I believe we already have the answers to.
During the past 35 years in California we have seen the great prison boom that resulted in 25 prisons and only 3 public universities being built. And now we see these same pro-incarceration forces work to lobby our state and local officials to create a jail boom resulting in 41 out of 58 counties attempting to build new jails.
As much as these things seem hopeless, I’m hopeful that the tide is shifting in our favor. We’ve been doing things wrong for too long. With the approval of $20 million for diversion, possible federal oversight, and the community activation that stopped the transfer of 512 people to another county I think our movement is strong in Los Angeles County. I remain hopeful that something is bound to change especially due to the work of organizations like Youth Justice Coalition, Critical Resistance, LACAN, Dignity and Power Now, and so many others.
Peter Laarman: You are one of the movement leaders who never seems to rest. You carry huge responsibilities not just here in LA but also in Sacramento. You are also constantly uncovering new official shenanigans that you then have to raise hell about and combat. How do you sustain yourself at that huge level of output? How do you keep from burning out? Is there a spiritual discipline that helps keep you going?
Diana Zuñiga: That is still a huge process. Burnout in our line of work happens to everyone, but for me I have really relied on listening to my body. My body knows when I need to rest and when I am pushing too hard that will result in low quality output.
I bask in the community moments we have and in the small victories that we experience collectively in Sacramento and in LA. I spend time with loved ones whenever possible and with the people that I believe bring positivity to my life. I know that constantly being in contact with my family members who are still in the system continues to inform my work and brings hope that one day we will change things so that another person’s dad, mother, or other loved one will not have to live through these stories.
I am still figuring out my spiritual discipline, but it consists of lots of dreaming, visioning, meditating, and dancing that I believe brings me balance in a world and movement that experiences such chaos.
About Peter Laarman
Rev. Peter Laarman is volunteer project coordinator for Justice Not Jails. Until the end of last year he was the executive director of Progressive Christians Uniting, a network of activist individuals and congregations headquartered in Los Angeles. He served as the senior minister of New York’s Judson Memorial Church from 1994 to 2004. Ordained in the United Church of Christ, Peter spent 15 years as a labor movement strategist and communications specialist prior to training for ministry.