Exploring School Desegregation and Mexican-American Rights with Scholar and Author Philippa Strum

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The topic of history makes a bad first impression on many of us, I think, because it's taught from highly selective and seriously boring textbooks. News, often referred to as the rough draft of history, is skewed, reactive, and wearisome. Both formats focus too much on political intrigue and violent conflict and not enough on the human experiences that catalyze them.

When history's presented in its best light, though -- as stories of turning points in the lives of real, ordinary people -- it all comes together to draw you in. And the best writers of history often have a quirky, compelling, personal reason for telling each story.

Dr. Philippa Strum of Washington, D.C.'s Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, who's studied and taught constitutional law for decades, has written several works about people with differences working to live together and honor one another's human rights -- a process that seems never to end. This weekend, she's in the Valley to talk about her 2010 book, Mendez v. Westminster: School Desegregation and Mexican-American Rights.

"That's been my goal with all of my books: to tell stories," Strum says. When a serendipitous chain of events led her to an overlooked 1947 California court case that opened all the state's schools to Mexican-American and, eventually, all children, she knew she had to find out more and share it. "It's a really important slice of American history, not just Latino history."

Strum's text is full of inspiring strength, embarrassing examples of what passed for serious academic findings a mere 60 years ago, and odd, stranger-than-fiction coincidences. For example, the Mendez family was in Westminster, California, in the first place because they'd leased a farm from a Japanese-American family interned in Arizona during World War II -- a family whose children, had they lived in California, would have been legally excluded from attending "white" schools.

All this happened years before Brown v. Board of Education, but many of the arguments and precedents of the Mendez case laid the groundwork for that memorable, iconoclastic Supreme Court decision presided over by Earl Warren, who just happened to be California's governor during Mendez, which was somehow omitted from his biographies until Strum came along.

You could watch Strum talk about the book, as well her unusual account of how it came to be written, online (the fun part, at least for literary geeks, starts about four minutes into this video), but you can see her live from 4 to 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, November 5, at Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway, at a free event hosted by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Strum is in Phoenix today, leading the ASU School of Social Work's annual
Linda Haskell Memorial Master Class, which covers a human services topic each year in honor of a social worker who was killed in auto accident in 1992 at the age of 45. That luncheon lecture is completely booked, but it's a reminder to keep an eye out for the enlightening events our universities are now bringing to the downtown scene.

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