Erin Brockovich, Celeste Guzman Mendoza speak at SafePlace Celebration Luncheon
Eleven years after the name Erin Brockovich became synonymous with the triumph of individuals over corporations, Brockovich herself was in town Friday to speak in front of 550 people at the SafePlace 2011 Celebration Luncheon at the Austin Convention Center, which was emceed by Olga Campos and also included a speech by Celeste Guzman Mendoza. SafePlace is a local nonprofit that works to end “sexual and domestic violence through safety, healing, prevention and social change,” according to their website.
If it’s been a while since you saw the film Erin Brockovich, let me give you a quick recap: single mother, down on her luck, gets a job as a file clerk at a law firm. She notices something odd in the medical records of a case, investigates, and discovers that the Pacific Gas & Electric Company had been covering up the fact that toxic chemicals from their plant had leaked into the water supply in Hinkley, California, leading to serious community-wide health problems. The resulting lawsuit led to a $333 million payout to 648 Hinkley residents — the largest toxic tort injury settlement in U.S. history.
But Brockovich, now the president of Brockovich Research & Consulting, hasn’t stopped there. “When I started in Hinkley, silly me thought this was a one-time event, and I couldn’t have been more wrong,” she said in an interview before her speech Friday morning.
Since that famous lawsuit, people all around the world have been reporting issues with environmental contaminant-related health problems to her. She is currently working with 1,900 contaminated sites around the United States alone.
Brockovich was in Austin for the Celebration Luncheon as a way to spread her message that it is possible for a single individual to make a difference — even with limited time and resources.
For many people, it’s just not possible to devote as much time and energy as Erin Brockovich has to a cause, even one they’re extremely passionate about. But Brockovich believes a lot can be accomplished through making small changes. “It seems so overwhelming for any of us to wake up and think that we can save the world, so we just kind of throw our hands up and say, ‘Well, there’s nothing I can do,’” she said. “There’s a lot you can do. How about you start with yourself and your own neighbors, and then suddenly you become a collective force, and things can change.”
She also stressed the importance of taking breaks when you’re feeling overwhelmed and thinking about giving up. “Go outside, enjoy the sunshine,” she said. “Enjoy your family, and get the energy to keep going. But if you keep pushing and pushing and pushing and don’t allow yourself that opportunity to stand back and reevaluate, we’ll all burn out.”
Brockovich focused on many of these same topics in her speech at the luncheon, but if she provided the “how” of making a difference in one’s community, it was Celeste Guzman Mendoza, the luncheon’s “survivor speaker” and a SafePlace board member, who provided the “why.”
Mendoza, who has kindly given me permission to reproduce portions of her speech, told of growing up in San Antonio as a bubbly, precocious child who was always ready to give hugs.
“I remember this child,” Mendoza said in her speech. “I have pictures of her. But by the time I was 6 years old, that child changed considerably. The summer after kindergarten, I was sexually molested by a counselor who worked at the day camp where my parents would leave me and my brother while they were at work. The counselor was 18.
“Of course, at the time I didn’t have a word for what he did to me. In fact, I had no idea what had happened to me until I was 12 years old, six long years later.”
Mendoza described the molestation and the confusion that followed from her 6-year-old self’s point of view: her parents weren’t sure whether to believe her, the camp director called her a liar outright, and though she begged to be taken to her grandparents’ house instead of going back to the camp, she was left there again, alone, the next day.
And when another male counselor at the camp took her privately into the movie room with him, “I didn’t struggle,” she said. “I thought, this is what men do to little girls. This is why God put me here. To punish me. I deserve this. … I thought to scream, but why bother — no one will believe me; no one will help me. I asked if he wanted me to sit in his lap.”
Instead, this man “knelt at my side. Asked if I was okay and then said something I still remember: ‘I believe you. He shouldn’t be touching you, and if he does that again, you come and get me. I will protect you.’”
Mendoza later found out that the 18-year-old who molested her was the camp director’s son, and her parents, who could not afford to press charges, had felt powerless to defend their daughter, and worried that she, not he, would be judged for the act.
Mendoza concluded by saying, in part, “I often wonder how my life would have been different if a place like SafePlace had been around when this happened to me. If my mother had heard about an organization that didn’t charge for its counseling services. If she or my father had been educated about sexual violence, and met other parents who were experiencing what they were. How would my life have been different? How would their lives have been different?
“We all suffered as a result of the molestation. The act itself was one layer of the violence, and the other was the silence that followed in our home, the deadly silence during which we all felt alone, ashamed, worthless. If [only] we had known that we didn’t have to be silent — that we were not alone.”
Brockovich’s speech offered some interesting insight into what it takes to change our world, and shared an important message for Austinites who want to effect change but don’t know where to start. But it was Mendoza who showed why change is worth fighting for.
I’ve decided to donate the proceeds from this article to SafePlace, because Celeste Guzman Mendoza made me truly understand the importance of what SafePlace does. If you too feel compelled to help women and children with experiences similar to Mendoza’s, you can donate to SafePlace here.