EDITOR’S NOTE: Transcribed by podcast producer Daniel Baker.
Aaron Maybin was a first- round NFL draft pick out of Penn State University. Now at age 30, he is a teacher in Baltimore and the author of the book Art and Activism. He was a recent guest on The Nation’s Edge of Sports podcast and it was so great that we wanted to release more of the interview.
Dave Zirin: Can you talk about the journey from the NFL to being a Baltimore teacher and author by 30 years old?
Aaron Maybin: Even when I was playing, I started my foundation in 2009—and my foundation is an arts-based foundation. The aim was to supplement arts programs that were destroyed by budget cuts due to lack of funding. We would go into the schools that didn’t have an art curriculum or music curriculum. We would supplement it with our own. We did that for about the first year and a half. After that point in time, I realized that, even though I was young and I had just came into a whole lot of money, there was no way that I personally could finance, staff, and oversee as many schools as fell under that umbrella. It just left me really wondering where that space for me to do the best in my community was, knowing that I didn’t want to overextend myself, but I definitely wanted to have a sustained impact with specific groups of children that I could tell were passionate about art but just didn’t have either the resources or the outlets available to them to pursue the craft that they love. So I switched to more of the advocacy and public legislation side of it. I tried to work with a few grassroots organizations and local policy-makers to see some of those funds reallocated.
The position that I teach through in the school system now is as an independent contractor for an organization that basically does the exact same thing. We go into these schools that don’t have these arts and theater programs and tech programs and we supplement them with contractors that are well-known in their field and really want to make an impact in the lives of youths. So, going from playing in the NFL, you’re constantly inundated with different requests for your time, for your voice, for your attention, but my passion has always been for my hometown. It’s always been for the city that helped to raise me and the youth that are coming up in a lot of the same conditions that I did myself.
When I was released from the Cincinnati Bengals, I realized that I was in a position where I was either going to have to take a couple years and play that journeyman role. I might land on one or two teams during that time, trying to find the right home, and I was thinking about that whole process and I was thinking about the fact that my real passion was no longer in the game itself, it was in the work that I was doing outside of the game. I’ve always been one of those guys where I felt as if you weren’t truly passionate about what you’re doing, if your heart isn’t 110 percent in it, when you’re playing a violent sport like the one that I played, it doesn’t make sense to keep playing. And in a way, you’re kind of stealing because you have guys who would chop their left arm off for the opportunity to play this game professionally and I got to the point where it wasn’t as important to me as everybody wanted it to be. Regardless of how important everybody tries to make football, to me it’s always going to be a kid’s game.
So the work that I’m doing now, to me, it just seems like it’s much more needed, much more impactful and I think that it’s something that I’m a lot prouder of because I know the real impact that I’m having every day.
When I interviewed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, I left the interview thinking, “My goodness, if this person had been 5’10”, instead of 7’2″, he would’ve been a first-class English teacher in New York City and had a very happy life, just doing that.” Was it the sort of thing where you just happened to have this athleticism, but your passion was just somewhere else?
I’ve always been athletic. I’ve always been gifted. I’ve always been an extremely hard worker, too, and I think that was one of the reasons that allowed me to get as far as I did, you know what I mean? I was always the hardest-working guy on any team that I played on—I still believe that to this day.
The thing that most people just don’t know is that I’ve always been just as passionate about my artwork. I’ve always been just as passionate about the work that I do in the community. I was creating art from the age of like 3 or 4 years old. I was creating art before I could even form words and speak. Art has always been a huge part of my life. And I’m the son of two pastors, so I grew up watching my father working in the community, working in this capacity with the Baltimore City Fire Department. Working with our most vulnerable brothers and sisters and it’s always been something that’s motivated me to get to a position where I could do something similar.
I never saw myself as a preacher or a member of the clergy—my father’s church is in the temple and mine is in the streets. The same work is getting done. We’re ministering [to] people, we’re serving people, you know what I mean? I think that that is a key requirement of anybody that wants to do this work. It’s really the act of service.
If someone says “Baltimore” to you, what are some of the words that come to mind?
That we’re a blue-collar city. We’re a city of tough love, but we’re also a city of arts. We’re a city of renaissance that’s taking place right now. We’re a city of creators, we’re a city of innovators, you know, we’re a city of resilient people. There’s nowhere else that I’ve wanted to live. I’ve had the opportunity to travel all over the world, but there’s only one place that I feel at home, that’s in my city.
You made this decision to make this video and it just went so viral, of you talking to these kids about [their] being in their winter coats and hats in school. What pushed you to go public with that and were you surprised by the reaction?
I think what pushed me to go public with it was just the reality of what my students were dealing with. When you say you’ve got two classes in one room, the lights are half out, it’s 40 degrees, the kids are freezing, for some reason, that wasn’t enough for some people. They were still trying to find a way to dismiss the issue, and something in me basically just said, “There’s no way that a human being can see what these kids are dealing with and not feel some type of empathy or some type of regret for allowing this to take place.” I can’t necessarily say that I was surprised that it took off, but I was definitely shocked at how far it went. This isn’t the first time that a video of me and my classroom has kind of gone viral, but for an instance like this, for it being something negative, and for it being something that I felt like wasn’t getting enough attention, it definitely blew up.
That did translate not to any long-term solutions yet, but we definitely were able to leverage that into real pressure onto our policy-makers to do whatever was necessary in the immediate to at least get most of the systems running again, but, you know, we’re nowhere near close to fixing this problem until all of the schools that are dealing with these issues get the new system updates that they need in order for them to function properly.
In the aftermath of the video going viral they had an emergency school-board meeting where the community came out and it was a really ugly exchange between the community and the school board. The mayor went on a huge PR campaign. She was at almost every single one of the schools over the weekend that had issues. School was cancelled for the last couple days of the week, so she brought in contractors working around the clock at most of these locations. By Monday of the following week, they were able to have all but, I think, five or six of those schools open, if I’m not mistaken. But the very next day, I believe we had a two-hour delay and the day after that, we got out two hours early.
So there’s been a lot of PR happening, but the larger issue can’t get lost in people thinking that this problem is fixed because they saw some people working on heating units. At the end of the day, they got them running again, but these units are still having problems. At this point, because the story has gotten so national, you have our elected officials and people on the school board going through back channels to control the narrative in a way that they can spin. And obviously, with this being an election year, everybody’s trying to politicize this issue. I can’t even tell you how many politicians I have in my inbox trying to leverage this for some kind of political ploy. So this is an extremely nuanced story because this is an issue that is so old. It’s an issue that so many people are complicit in, and it’s an issue that’s literally passed from administration to administration for the last 20, 30 years. These heating and cooling systems must be updated, because we’re talking about classrooms that are 40 degrees in the winter and 95 degrees in the summertime.
We’re talking about school buildings where kids can’t drink the water because of lead contamination, so we have water jugs there for them. We run out. We literally run out of water. We literally run out of cups. These are issues that our kids have to deal with every single day.
Asking a kid to learn is one thing. Asking a kid to learn when they’re starving is another. Asking a kid to learn when they’re freezing is another. Asking a kid to learn when they’re sweating bullets is another. These are basic necessities of education. And these are the same kids that we have no problem buying into the idea of their criminality when they make mistakes, but we seem to have every problem in the world when it comes to investing in their futures, in the most basic ways that one can invest.
We’re not even talking about getting them 21st-century technology in their classroom or laptops or TI-83 calculators. We’re talking about getting them heat. You don’t walk into a white school that had to deal with issues like being able to stay warm. I hate the fact that the issue becomes something that people say you can play the “race card” on, but that’s just a fact. I’ve never been into any school that deals with the kind of things that I deal with at my school, and so many other educators deal with all around the city of Baltimore, when the demographic is not black and brown kids.
I do need to ask you about your book, Art Activism: The Revolutionary Art, Poetry, and Reflections of Aaron Maybin. What was the motivation for you and what is art activism?
Art activism, essentially, isn’t a new thing. I’m not the first person to do this…. I come from a long line of artists who have used their art as a tool as a weapon to fight against issues of injustice, issues of racism, issues of misogyny, issues of oppression. Art has always played a role in telling the story and the narrative of these communities and these people, but I’m somebody who particularly tries to always use my platform in a way that pushes society and our culture forward in some way. Most of my artwork, most of my writing, most of my photography deals with issues that are relevant, not just to me, but to my city that I come from, the city of Baltimore and to cities all across the nation. I started working on it around 2015—not in the aftermath of the uprising, but really beforehand. A lot of my writing and a lot of my artwork was pointed in a singular direction. And then in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death, a lot of the essays, a lot of the paintings, a lot of the poetry really started to take a specific direction, and I felt as though a body of work was forming. But I didn’t want to rush it.
I take my craft as an artist very seriously. I take my craft as a writer very seriously. So I took two years to really develop these ideas, to work on it and to make sure that the project was something that before I even put it out, that I myself could even be proud of. And I did that. I self-published it. It was something where I wasn’t about to put myself in a position where a publishing company could edit away the content to something that they felt like was palatable. I wanted it to be pure. I wanted it to be raw, and I wanted it to be in my own voice. I think that when you read the book, that content carries through.