DOWNEY – It was a set of circumstances that prompts people to think, “What a small world!” The reunion of two former co-workers at a reception this summer was the result of coincidence. Their lives had taken diverging paths since they last worked together at Los Angeles County Hospital, and there was little reason for them to mention their former professional relationship with family members.
But the daughter of one woman was an educator, and a special literacy project brought her in contact with her mother’s former nursing colleague – a surprise to everyone. The school literacy project centered around a legal case filed 70 years ago affecting all of the school children in California.
Retired nurse Beverly Gedney and her husband Albert have been Downey residents for decades. She is an active person whose weekly cycling regimen around town makes her a role model for healthy living.
Beverly Gedney’s former colleague at the county hospital is Sylvia Mendez, grandmother and retired pediatric nursing supervisor. It is only within the past 15 years that more people have come to learn that Sylvia Mendez, who just celebrated her 80th birthday, is also a historical figure, a tireless advocate for civil and educational rights, and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.
Sylvia Mendez never sought recognition for herself when she became an advocate for educational opportunity. She was a child when social forces put her at the center of historic events. It was at the urging of her ailing mother in the 1990’s that Mendez began speaking publicly about the groundbreaking legal case, Mendez, et. al v. Westminster, et. al, that led to the end of de jure school segregation in California.
The catalyst for the reunion of Beverly and Sylvia was Beverly’s daughter, Marisa Urrutia Gedney (Warren High 2002) who, since 2010, has been the Director of Education for the In-Schools Program at the writing and tutoring group, 826LA.
The occasion was a book release party at Olvera Street for a student anthology, “We Are Alive When We Speak For Justice,” written by 53 juniors from Mendez High School in Boyle Heights. Gedney coordinated the project which involved over a hundred people, including teachers, students, and volunteers. Sylvia Mendez wrote the foreword.
Mendez was also the featured speaker at the June event, marking the seventieth anniversary of when her father and four other parents filed their landmark desegregation lawsuit on behalf of their children.
Refreshments that night were cookies and lemonade, and a young Mariachi group entertained the crowd before the event began. When the formal program ended, students celebrated, snapping photos and autographing their essays in the volume.
At last there was time for Sylvia and Beverly to reconnect, take pictures with each other and their daughters, and marvel over the unexpected turns in life. The connection between Sylvia Mendez and Gedney’s mother lent a poetic ending to the culmination of this school project that started 10 months earlier.
826LA Writing Programs
As director of education for 826LA, Gedney oversees the recruitment and training of volunteers to help teachers further the development of student writing skills. Staff and tutors work in a school by invitation from classroom teachers.
“Because class sizes are so large,” explains Gedney, “it is rare for students to get individualized attention for the writing process. That is where 826LA comes in.”
Gedney tells classroom teachers, “We’re coming to support what you’re already doing.”
With classroom volunteers available for specific writing projects, students receive more one-on-one time with coaching and feedback from an adult. The focus on student writing is defined in the 826LA mission statement: “…strong writing skills are fundamental to future success.”
In 2012, Gedney’s success with the literacy programs put her on the list of Forbes Magazine “30 Under 30” to watch. Consistent results with volunteer recruitment and project completion have convinced many educators that 826LA is an organization that delivers.
“I’m never contacting new teachers now,” says Gedney. “They call 826LA.”
The In-Schools program of 826LA has two components. Each fall Gedney recruits a team of volunteers to help high school seniors write their Personal Statements for college applications. The vetting and training are thorough, requiring a TB test, fingerprinting, and attendance at two meetings.
People do not have to be writers themselves to volunteer. Their role, Gedney stresses, is “to listen, encourage, and support ideas, and offer guidance as [students] put their ideas to paper. Everyone has a story to tell and their voice is important.”
In addition to her organizational skills, Gedney’s ability to collaborate, with teachers, students, and administrators, is a major factor in her success. As a writer herself, Gedney also understands the difficulty of putting thoughts on paper.
Hearing about her work, two parents from the Warren High Academic Boosters Council met with Gedney this year and invited her to lead a Personal Statement workshop for students and parents. Over 200 people showed up
“The response was incredible,” says Gedney, “and I am happy that I was able to share such important information with so many people in my community. I hope to do more in the future.”
The other yearly component of 826LA’s program is the Young Authors’ Book Project. Each spring Gedney recruits and trains tutors for a seven-week, in-class, writing project at a selected school, culminating in a published book.
“The interaction with more adults and our focus on publishing allows [the students’] confidence to grow,” says Gedney, “and helps them to see themselves as writers.”
Working with classroom tutors, students brainstorm, write, revise, and edit. Students are not limited by topic or genre and can express themselves in any form – short story, essay, personal narrative, poetry, interview of another person, etc.
Files with checklists and daily goals for each step of the writing process, are reviewed by students and tutors together. Reminders may include: Is there variety in your vocabulary? Are there details that bring a scene to life? Have you checked your spelling?
Guidelines for working with sensitive topics are made known to students and tutors at the beginning. Rules have catchy, easy-to-remember names, such as the “Anti-Rolling Stone Rule: No sexual content, no drugs.”
When the allotted class time is over, all of the work is reviewed by peer editors who volunteer to work after school. Student authors must sign off on the final copy. Professional copy editors review the work one last time. The non-profit group sponsors professional book design and cover artwork, and the final printing.
Last year’s book project, Beyond the Gates and Fences, was by students of Manual Arts High School, with a foreword by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.
The Mendez Lawsuit
What made this year’s book different from those of earlier years was the month-long study of local history that served as the starting point for inspiration, and the innovative collaboration of staff members at 826LA, a high school history teacher, and two college professors.
Last August, Jennifer McCormick, Professor of Education at Cal State Los Angeles, had been gathering documents about California’s little-known desegregation lawsuit, Mendez v. Westminster, as part of her research on the impact of educational opportunity.
In 1945 five Mexican-American families filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court charging that the segregated schools in Orange County were harmful and unfair, and in violation of their children’s civil rights under the Constitution.
Sylvia Mendez was one of the fifteen children name in the suit, and she has vivid memories of the difference in schools and her testimony during the trial.
“I didn’t know anything about the issues of the trial,” she laughs, “I just wanted to go to the pretty school with my friends. It had a beautiful building, and the playground had monkey bars and swings. Our school was a two-room wooden shack next to the dairy. The flies were awful.”
The verdict in favor of the plaintiffs was upheld on appeal, with the outcome causing a stir in the legal community throughout the country. But the case only affected California schools, and it fell into obscurity as people went on with their lives. Mendez’s younger sister, born after the trial, only learned about her parents’ accomplishment when she read about the case in a Chicano Studies class at college.
At the urging of her mother, whose health was declining, Mendez began speaking about the case publicly in the 1990’s to whomever would listen.
“’Sylvia, this is history,’ she would tell me,” recalls Mendez. “It needs to be taught in the schools.’ So I sent out letters to universities and went to [schools].”
Mendez’s efforts to raise public awareness took hold, and educators and scholars turned a fresh eye to transcripts and legal correspondence. Many now believe that Mendez v. Westminster laid the groundwork for the Supreme Court ruling in Brown V. Board of Education that declared segregated schools unconstitutional throughout the country.
In 2007 the United States Postal Service honored the families who filed the landmark lawsuit with a commemorative stamp. Mendez herself has since received many honors in recognition of her efforts on behalf of educational equality. The California State Board of Education now includes the Mendez case in its curriculum frameworks that help guide public school instruction.
Yet, despite the impact of the case, only two public schools are named in honor of this legal effort. Mendez High School in Boyle Heights is one of the two.
826LA At Mendez High
When McCormick called Gedney to ask if 826LA would consider using the Mendez case as a focal point for this year’s student anthology, Gedney was enthusiastic.
“It’s unusual to approach a school with such a specific project,” says Gedney, “but when I heard Jennifer’s suggestion, I just knew we had to do it at Mendez High.”
History teacher Benjamin De Leon was Gedney’s contact at the school, and he was immediately on board. MCCormick’s colleague, Professor of History Chris Endy joined the effort to help with lesson plans. Emilie Coulson, another staff member at 826LA, was the fifth member of the team.
De Leon set aside a month for in-depth study of the case by his fifth and sixth period history classes, along with selected events in neighborhood history. The special unit was to be a starting point to encourage thinking about civic and social issues, and a springboard for students to further develop essential literacy skills and discover more about their own interests. He wanted student work to reflect the themes and spirit of the case.
Essay prompts were varied and open-ended, such as: “What do you gain from being in environments where people are different from you?”, “What are the strengths and weaknesses of your neighborhood?”, and “Think of someone in your community who has fought hard for change. Why did they do it? And how?”
The team also contacted community figures who were willing to be interviewed by students. Along with Mendez, interviewees included Bobby Verdugo, a leader of the historic 1968 high school walkouts in East LA; Heriberto Garza, retired teacher from Mendez High; Laura Urias, immigration attorney and partner in a legal firm; and Evelina Fernandez, actress and award-winning playwright;
Personal narratives in the student anthology include descriptions of the struggle to learn Spanish after growing up in the United States, life in the foster care system, and the experience of a youth whose parents emigrated from India. Several students wrote about the struggle of siblings and cousins affected by autism.
Summing up the final project and experience, Gedney says, “It was very special to bring such local history to life with students…We were able to bring in amazing local heroes as interviewees for the book, and several students transformed as people through the process after getting to speak with people like Evelina Fernandez and Laura Urias”
Now that the volume is published, Gedney says her team hopes that the book will be used “when studying social justice in education.”
“I’m proud that this book is part of the legacy Sylvia Mendez is working so hard to continue,” she adds.
Graduating from UC Santa Barbara in 2006 with a degree from the College of Creative Studies, Gedney felt early on that she wanted to work in education in some way, although she could not have imagined her present position ten years ago.
“Even currently, it seems unreal,” she says. “I get to learn from and work with incredible teachers, students, and volunteers every day.”
Despite the demands of her career, Gedney makes time for her own writing every day, sending out poems for publication and attending readings. “It’s the way I stay balanced,’ she explains. “If I gave up on writing, I would feel like I am not living my full life.”
During one summer Gedney spent a week studying poetry with Juan Felipe Herrera, California’s Poet Laureate, and this summer she attended the residency at Voices of Our Nation (VONA) in Miami.
When she has time, Gedney reads at local poetry events in and around Downey. “I am grateful for being part of a strong writing community in LA and in Downey,” she says, “that keeps me motivated and inspired.”