Edward James Olmos encourages alternative education students to tell their own stories

Edward James Olmos speaks to alternative education students and staff over Zoom.
Edward James Olmos speaks to alternative education students and staff over Zoom as part of the Careers Without Borders series.

From the silver screen to the computer screens of OCDE’s Alternative Education program, Golden Globe and Emmy award-winning actor Edward James Olmos spoke to students about the important roles passion and discipline played in his journey to success.

On Sept. 29, Olmos became the latest distinguished guest to the Careers Without Borders speaker series, which was hosted over Zoom by OCDE Assistant Superintendent Vern Burton and Dr. Nathan Goodly, a special education coordinator.

Created by OCDE’s Alternative, Community and Correctional Educational Schools and Services — also known as ACCESS — the program invites prominent figures to discuss different career opportunities with students and help them build confidence in their personal and academic journeys. Since its inception in 2020, the program has hosted more than 30 well-known speakers, including astronaut Dr. Bernard Harris, civil rights activist Sylvia Mendez and musician Julian Marley.

Growing up in East Los Angeles, Olmos said he was exposed to all different cultures while playing baseball on his street with the neighborhood kids. He had plans to play the sport professionally until enrolling in his first acting class at the age of 17, altering the trajectory of his career and life.

The renowned actor and director got his big break starring in the 1981 film “Zoot Suit,” launching an almost 50-year career defined by notable characters in television and films like “Blade Runner” and “Stand and Deliver.”

Despite receiving praise for his natural talents from industry peers and audiences worldwide, Olmos told students that he has worked seven days a week since the start of his career to do what he loves for a living.

“I never try to be better than other people,” Olmos said. “I just try to be as good as I can possibly be.”

He reminded students that learning to use self-discipline to achieve their goals will allow them to grow in ways they never thought possible.

Highlighting diverse narratives

With his expertise, Olmos is helping to build these skills through his nonprofit called the Youth Cinema Project, which provides students opportunities to work behind the camera and learn how to tell their own stories. The program currently serves more than 1,500 students in 12 school districts including Santa Ana Unified and has produced more than 600 student films to date.

“My activism is nothing more than sharing,” Olmos said. “I’m giving a lot of energy but I’m getting back energy from all of this work.”

Before wrapping up his discussion with OCDE educators and students, Olmos shared that he and his team are developing a new film about a cross-cultural love story that takes place during the events surrounding the attack on Pearl Harbor.

While reflecting on a resumé that includes “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez” and “Battlestar Galactica,” Olmos shared “how incredible it is to be a storyteller” and tell the tales of diverse characters.

In spotlighting these stories through his work, Olmos said he hopes to inspire each student to take pride in their own.

Students and their families can watch previous installments of the series and learn more on the Careers Without Borders site.