Luchadora: Iris Zuñiga, Fighting to Increase Academic Achievement for Los Angeles Area Youth

Iris Zuñiga grew up in the Northeast San Fernando Valley in Pacoima and went to the public schools in her neighborhood. She attended Los Angeles Mission College and then transferred to the University of California, Los Angeles, where she majored in sociology and Chicano studies. From a young age, she was always interested in education and the kind of support systems that existed or don’t exist for young people who came from working-class communities like her own. Fortunately for Iris, her father laid out the expectation early on that going to college was required, and he had his heart set on UCLA for his daughter.

As a student who was interested in issues around equity and access, Iris had been speaking out and writing opinion pieces about how students from neighborhoods like Pacoima could have better educational outcomes. Her dad would back her up and ask her what she needed to do to make sure that she had AP classes and the other activities that she needed to get into a college. Iris’s mom had a third grade education, and her father had completed some high school. While her parents often weren’t equipped to steer her in the right direction and offer specific suggestions, they did offer support, and Iris’s dad would encourage her to ‘figure it out’ because she had to get into UCLA.

Working as a union carpenter, Iris’s father would frequently go on jobs in West Los Angeles and Beverly Hills and would sometimes bring Iris along and tell her, “UCLA is where the smart kids go.” When she was a senior in high school, Iris applied and was accepted to several UC schools, but she did not get into UCLA. She was devastated because she had let her father down.

Determined to become a bruin, she went to the local community college and then transferred to UCLA. While she was at UCLA, she started to work with the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) working with schools in the Northeast San Fernando Valley to try to get more students with experiences similar to her own to apply to UCLA.

When Iris finished college, she worked as a caseworker for some time at an adult day healthcare center and then worked with children who were about to be referred to the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. This experience was life changing because Iris was working with children who were runaways and who had trauma issues that would make even applying to college a huge challenge. Going from working with eager high school students who wanted to go to UCLA to working with children who were on the verge of entering the child dependency system was night and day for Iris, and she witnessed how larger systems of support and welfare can make a difference the life path for students.

Iris then earned her master’s degree in public administration from California State University, Northridge. She also worked as a field deputy for a state senator where she worked on education and community health programs before she ended up at the Youth Policy Institute. When she was working for the state senator, Iris witnessed the real impact that policy making has on community and young people specifically. After working for the state senator, she started working as the Director of Youth Services at the Youth Policy Institute. She started working directly with schools to build after school programs for K-12 students that included tutoring and enrichment services. While at the Youth Policy Institute, Iris had been promoted to the Chief Operating Officer and is currently the Executive Vice President of the organization.

“When we think about the communities that we work in, I’m always thinking about what we need to do as a non-profit to provide quality and needed support for the youth in our neighborhoods. For me, it’s always been about filling in the gaps where the schools are lacking. I want to bring in talent that connects to the communities we work in so we can better serve the students,” Zuñiga said.

For her efforts as a leader to eradicate poverty and increase academic achievement, La Comadre honors Iris Zuñiga as a luchadora!

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Adriana Maestas

Adriana Maestas

Adriana Maestas is a Southern California-based freelance writer and education professional. Her writing has been published in NBC Latino,,, Alternet, and The Electronic Intifada.

She has worked in the non-profit sector, in the K-12 system, and in higher education in various capacities. When she's not writing stories or working on media projects, Adriana trains instructors to teach online at the University of California, Irvine.

She holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of California, Irvine and a master’s degree in public policy from Claremont Graduate University.

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