The Family Advocacy Wall of Fame honors the role that families have played as activists and justice-seekers in education, celebrating the power of parent voice in protecting the educational and human rights of children.
With his wife Leola and thirteen other plaintiffs, and represented by their local NAACP and future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Oliver Brown successfully challenged the “separate but equal” policy of the Topeka, Kansas Board of Education through multiple courts of appeals ending with the Landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1954, where segregation was declared unconstitutional on the basis that separate is inherently unequal. Learn more about Rev. Brown at History.com.
In an interview, Leola recalled trying to explain to their daughter Linda why she could not go to the nearby elementary school. As she told NPR, “Her daddy told her he was going to try his best to do something about it and see that that was done away.”
Leading up to this case during the 1940’s and 50’s, many separate desegregation battles were fought across the United States. By the time the U.S. Supreme Court heard Brown v. Board of Education, five separate cases had been merged together for their consideration. In addition to Brown, the Court considered previous rulings in Bolling v. Sharpe, Belton v. Gebhart, Briggs v. Elliot and Davis v. Prince Edward County – each of which had been brought by activist parents demanding educational access for their children.
Learn more about the children and families behind these cases in this powerful series by The74. For further context, the National Trust for Historic Preservation surfaces even more stories of students, mothers and families who fought for education justice in their collection, The Black Women Who Changed the Face of Education.
Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez
Gonzalo Mendez was an outspoken and successful early challenger of racial segregation, whose case against Westminster School District of Orange County, CA has been credited as a “dry run” for Brown vs. the Board of Education. Thanks to his persistence in challenging discrimination against Mexican and Mexican-American children in California, the state became the first in the nation to desegregate schools. Mendez’s daughter Sylvia remembers his fierce determination in an L.A. Times profile of her family. Each day, Sylvia would get off the school bus and walk past a beautiful “White” school to attend a substandard “Mexican” school nearby. When her father hired a lawyer to fight for her rights, she remembers the attorney telling them, “Let’s not do this just for your children. Let’s do it for all the children.”
Elizabeth Monroe Boggs, Ph.D.
Inspired by the promise of a better future for her son David, Elizabeth Boggs left her career in chemistry and mathematics to become a pioneer in education, services, and public policy in support of individuals with developmental disabilities. A founding mother of The Arc, Elizabeth advised federal legislatures and U.S. Presidents on the rights of persons with developmental disabilities. Among her priorities were community inclusion, support for families, and enhancing the legal and human rights of disabled persons.
Boggs is credited as a crucial leader in the Family Support movement, which arose during the 1940’s and 50’s as families pushed back against professionalized systems that pushed institutionalization as the only option for children with disabilities.
- Learn more about the role of families in disability rights activism in this comprehensive review and History of Developmental Disabilities from the State of Minnesota.
- Learn more about Elizabeth Boggs from the Boggs Center for Developmental Disabilities of Rutgers University.
Boggs’ legacy has touched the lives of countless individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Today The Arc operates over 1000 community programs via hundreds of local chapters, promoting and protecting the human rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and actively supporting their full inclusion and participation in the community throughout their lifetimes.
The image of a child named Ruby Bridges being escorted by National Guard troops into a forcibly desegregated school is indelibly etched in the minds of all those who care about justice in public education.
Just beyond the frame, Lucile Bridges supported her daughter and agitated for the rights that Ruby asserted on that day. According to an interview with NPR, Ruby’s father hesitated to push his children into the heart of controversy, when states were refusing to implement the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling. Lucile insisted on asserting her children’s rights. Quoted in the article, she stated, “I wanted it better for my kids than it was for us, so that my kids could go to school and learn.”
Martha Ziegler refused to give up on her daughter’s potential at a time when an autism diagnosis was typically followed by a recommendation supporting institutionalization. A co-founder of the Federation for Children with Special Needs, Ziegler was an influential advocate for the educational rights of children with disabilities who helped to shape Massachusetts legislation (Chapter 766) that would become a model for the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA).
With her colleagues Phyllis Sneirson and Janet Vohs, she also helped to create the Parent Training and Information Center which today provides education and support to families seeking to exercise their rights and partner with schools in crafting effective educational programs for students with disabilities. Read a tribute to her contributions in the Boston Globe.
Harriet Shetler and Beverly Young
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) exists because of two mothers sharing their experiences. According to NAMI Wisconsin, it only took two lunchtime meetings for Harriet Shetler and Beverley Young to realize that individuals with mental illness and their families needed more support.
Quoted in a profile in the Wisconsin State Journal, Shetler wrote of NAMI’s mission, “We are trying to change, one person at a time, society’s attitudes toward mental illness. We are trying to level the playing field to improve job opportunities, access to housing and the chance to live in the community instead of being warehoused in an institution.”
Today, NAMI is a national organization with hundreds of local affiliates. Hundreds of thousands of people access their national helpline annually, and millions seek information via their website. Thanks to the connection between two mothers, individuals with mental illness and their families never have to feel alone.
Popper, who passed away in 2013 and whose work continues through a Barbara Popper Foundation, was a fierce proponent of parent/caregiver leadership. She explained, “There are parents who call us every day seeking support and information often distraught as they tell their stories of dealing with medical systems and school systems that simply won’t respond to the needs of their families. They call because their instincts tell them to persist, to be tenacious, and to keep trying to help get what their child needs, but they have been met with policies, programs and attitudes that confound and block them. What they need is affirmation that their instincts are good and that as parents – they can trust those instincts as they work with those systems.”