At 9 years old, Sylvia Mendez attended court trials with her family to fight school segregation in her community, and at 86, she continues to share her story with Orange County students who have faced obstacles of their own.
Addressing a virtual audience of alternative education students and educators from the Orange County Department of Education, Mendez spoke on her family’s legacy and her role as an advocate for students of future generations as a distinguished guest in the Careers Without Borders speaker series on Thursday, March 9.
Created by OCDE’s Alternative, Community and Correctional Educational Schools and Services program — also known as ACCESS — the series aims to open students up to different career paths and help instill confidence in their personal journeys. Through talks with prominent figures in their respective fields, Careers Without Borders allows students in alternative education the opportunity to gain insight into the humble beginnings of its successful guests.
Assistant Superintendent Vern Burton and Special Education Coordinator Nathan Goodly launched the series in 2020 to introduce a multitude of career options to students while featuring the success stories of those who share similar backgrounds. Since it began, students have had the opportunity to hear from over 30 well-known speakers across various industries including film and television, professional dance and even aerospace.
Fighting for public education
Following an introduction from hosts Burton and Goodly, Mendez shared details of her family’s role at the forefront of the landmark Mendez v. Westminster case. In the early 1940s, Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez sought to enroll their children Geronimo, Gonzalo, Jr. and Sylvia at 17th Street School in Westminster, but they were refused due to discriminatory practices. As a result, the Mendezes teamed up with four other Orange County families to file a class action lawsuit against the Westminster School District.
After multiple court trials and hearings over the next couple years, the families won the legal fight for 5,000 Orange County students who were negatively affected by the discriminatory policies. The case effectively put an end to forced segregation in California public schools in 1947 and laid the foundation for the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board case seven years later.
Since retiring as a pediatric nurse, Sylvia Mendez has made her mark as an activist and public speaker, meeting with political figures and visiting schools to speak on the civil rights that her parents paved the way for decades ago. During the Q&A, Mendez explained that she has worked — at the request of her late mother — to ensure her family’s legacy lives on in history.
“This family impacted the education of all young people and the systems as we know them today,” Burton said to attendees.
When asked at what point Mendez realized the importance of the case, she told attendees about a time she received discriminatory comments from a fellow student while she was attending 17th Street School. She recalls coming home to her mom and crying because she didn’t want to return to school. In that moment, Mendez’s mother reminded her that this was the cause behind their hard work and bravery as they fought for her right to attend school.
Inspiring future generations
As Mendez received more questions about her activist work, she reminded the students of the impact they can have on the future of this country. She addressed some of the issues the country is facing but said she has hope because “these students have the power to unite us and make change happen.”
Mendez’s civil rights advocacy earned her an invitation to the White House in 2011 by former President Obama to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Last December, her family’s groundbreaking influence on public education was cemented in the history of Westminster with the unveiling of the educational and immersive Mendez Tribute Monument Park.
Before thanking all the students and teachers for listening to her family’s story, Mendez said she wants students to walk away from this talk inspired to persevere in their goals, no matter how far-reaching.
“There’s nothing that can keep them from becoming a president, a lawyer, a nurse or a teacher,” Mendez said. “If my parents did it and I did it, there’s no reason why these students can’t do it and succeed.”