Chair’s Report, By Kathi Bailey: Silvia Mendez – An Inspiration at MECA

As noted above, this past month I had the great pleasure of attending the Multicultural Education Conference (MECA) in Anaheim, California. For me, the highlight of the conference was a presentation by Silvia Mendez, a civil rights activist who is now 81 years old. She was an amazing speaker – very energetic and inspirational. Conference attendees – including many of the student volunteers who helped run the conference – lined up to have their photos taken with her.

According to Wikipedia, when Silvia Mendez was a child in Southern California, she was denied admission to a “Whites only” school. In 1946, her parents and their neighbors in the wider Hispanic community filed a lawsuit (Mendez vs. Westminster), which they won, enabling their children to attend the formerly segregated school. During the trial, the attorney for the Westminster School Board claimed that the Mexican children could not speak English, so there was a “language issue” that indicated Mexican children could not learn as well as White children. But testimony by one of the children revealed that this claim was false and the judge ruled against the school board and in favor of the parents and children.

U.S. President Barack Obama awards the Medal of Freedom to civil rights activist Sylvia Mendez during a ceremony at the White House in Washington February 15, 2011. REUTERS/Larry Downing

Of course, life in the newly integrated school was very difficult for Silvia as a child. She was sometimes bullied by other children. However, this lawsuit helped to end officially racially segregated education in the United States. It was the forerunner of the landmark anti-segregation case, Brown vs. Board of Education, which eventually went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Mendez vs. Westminster trial was commemorated with a U.S. postage stamp (see image above) and there is now a documentary film about the case, entitled Mendez vs. Westminster: For All the Children/Para Todos los Niños. Ms. Mendez has been working to have the story of the trial incorporated into the public school curriculum. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor, by President Obama in 2011.

The powerful presentation by Ms. Mendez, and the story of her life as an activist, reminded me how a few people working together can make a huge difference in educational policy. It is my hope that TIRF, with help from supporters like you, can play an equally important role in supporting and improving language education around the world.

Best wishes,