Social Activist Dies in Nevada
Sometimes, greatness is not measured in celebrity status or grand acts. It can be quieter than that, deeper than that. A woman who has left the world recently reminds me of the greatness one can achieve in the simple act of
the way one lives one's life.
Probably, you've never heard of Brenda Mendiola. It's a shame. It's also
very understandable; She wasn't from Portland, and she wasn't a person who
chased the spotlight. But she was worth knowing. Her work was quiet and
often uncelebrated, but the world will be a little bit colder without her.
Brenda was a social worker form the Old School, the way it was before it
became a "profession." She was a deeply spiritual woman with a quiet faith
in God and humanity that I often found as inspiring as it was baffling. She did her praxis in the world face to face, one person at a time. When I met her, she was struggling her way through graduate school, while also working at a tiny treatment center on a shoe-string budget. She provided services to people with "dual diagnoses," meaning they had addiction problems and mental health issues. Most of them had just come from the prison system. All of them were grateful to meet Brenda.
She provided counsel and aid, not out of some misguided sense of charity,
but out of a sense of solidarity and mutual aid. She had a sincere
belief that we are all in this together. She did not preach, she did not judge, she did not pontificate. She shared of herself and her resources, and she called it like she saw it. Her talent as a social worker was born out of experience; She had been there.
By the time I met her, Brenda had been clean and sober, as they say, for at least a decade. Before that, though, she had struggled for many years with a raging heroin addiction and an apparent need to drown herself in whatever else she could find. She had watched one of her best friends die in her arms from an overdose. She'd been in and out of jail, and done some hard time. She had been left with scars, some of which would never heal. Yes, Brenda had paid her dues. She knew what it was like to be in the belly of the beast, and she knew how to raise her voice and her fist against it all when she had to. This gift would come in handy in the service of others as well as herself.
She had a strong spirit and she was a long way from the gutters she had known when I met her. She had cleaned up, found God, fallen in love, and learned that every day was a gift. She was now, as she said, "giving back." But she was no Hallmark saint. She didn't like dogma and never indulged in it. She was a vegan, she rode a Harley, and she never took any crap from anyone. Her most passionate cause was fighting the injustices of the prison industrial complex. She understood the predatory, parasitic nature of the "justice" system with regard to people who are poor, people who are not white, or people with mental health problems. Shoulder to shoulder, she fought with them all. Relentlessly, she struggled to pull everyone she could out of the system's grasp.
Brenda worked at the Equal Opportunity Board treatment center in Las vegas
for 9 years. She was proud of the contributions she made there -- she
brought in grants that funded shelter for hundreds of people, she developed
additional residential beds and housing units, she counseled and otherwise
assisted untold numbers of people, most of whom would otherwise have been
left to the ravages of opportunistic, state-sponsored recidivism.
Brenda went beyond the call of duty. She truly respected and believed in
the people she served, even when no one else did. She and her husband, David, spent every Thanksgiving and every Christmas in the shelter with her
clients, cooking and breaking bread together. It wasn't a once-a-year charity event, it was an on-going celebration of the strength, solidarity and friendship people can find in the most unlikely places.
Only a few months before her death, she wrote to me to tell me she was
making many changes in her life. She had gotten a new job, and would
finally be leaving EOB. Many other offers had come along, but she had resisted the idea of leaving her clients. At last, though, it was time to move on to help on a larger scale. She was scared, but excited about the new opportunities that awaited her. She started work as part of a mobile crisis unit last December, still serving the people she believed in.
Brenda was killed more than four months ago, though I only learned about it
last week when I received a letter addressed "to those who knew Brenda." It said she would be receiving an award "posthumously" at the Orleans in Las Vegas, and that her husband would be accepting it for her. I was stunned. I still can't believe she is gone.
According to David, she was killed on March 14th. He had tried to let me
know, but I had missed the message. It was a motorcycle accident. She was working, as always. She was heading from the building where she worked to a nearby hospital to see a client, when a charter bus made a left turn directly across her path. She never made it to the hospital.
David says the governor of Nevada called him twice to express his sadness
about the loss. He said the flags were flown at half-mast all across Nevada
for her from March 16th until March 21st. He said the state is planting a
tree in her honor, and that she's gotten some awards since she's been gone.
She deserved them. She had a biker's send-off, and David's motorcycle sat
next to her casket. Hundreds upon hundreds of people came to say goodbye.
Colleagues, clients, friends, family, and delegates from every motorcycle club in nevada showed. The Tribe, Vagos, Soldiers for Christ, Red Riderz, Hells Angels, HOGS, Iron Crossmen, Hessians, Bandidos, Skoners, CMA. They were all there. She would have liked it.
Words cannot express my sadness at her leaving, but somehow, I feel hope when I think of her as well. She had a sense of joy and purpose about her
life, as if every day really was a gift. While most of us drift along in a daze, ignoring the moments that pile up behind us, she never did. She was passionate about life, and in retrospect, I think she absorbed more of its essence than many people who live many more years than she did. Still...
I wish I had been a better friend. (I didn't call her enough, I didn't
visit.) I wish I hadn't told her baklava has butter in it. (She was happier not knowing that.) And I wish more people knew who she was and what she stood for.
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