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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, May 15, 2002

Gertrude Wilks: Trying to change the world Gertrude Wilks: Trying to change the world (May 15, 2002)

EPA resident makes 'a way out of no way'

Gertrude Wilks' non-narrative resume simply lists her career activities, workshops and seminars, current and past activities, awards and honors -- stretching it out to six closely typed pages.

"I thought I could change the world," she said. And Wilks is not finished trying. At 75, the longtime East Palo Alto resident continues to serve on community boards organize willing hands and minds.

Born in Duboc, La. to a poor, struggling black sharecropper family, she learned quickly about hard work. She also learned about "making a way out of no way."

She met her husband, Otis, as a teenager and they married when she was just 17. The two told no one of their marriage until she graduated from high school in 1947. That marriage would last for 54 years and through three children and several foster children.

Perhaps her best-known roles were as director and founder of Mothers for Equal Education in East Palo Alto, which eventually led to her becoming director of a small private school in that community known as the Nairobi Day and High School. The incentive for her commitment to education was fueled by a painful reality in Wilks' own home: "My oldest son, Otis Jr., graduated from Ravenswood High School and he couldn't read and I was very unhappy about that," she said.

In 1981, the Nairobi Day and High School became the Gertrude Wilks Academy. "We tried to instill in young kids that they could, they would and they must," she said. Today the school has become affiliated with the former Shule Mandela Academy in East Palo Alto.

Wilks' service and experience have frequently been called upon outside the demanding work of the school.

She was involved in a range of seminars and workshops across the country, including the League of Cities workshop in San Diego, the Black Child Development Institute and the National Black Women's Caucus -- both in Washington, D.C. -- the San Mateo Commission on Aging, and the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment officials in New Orleans.

She also sat on the East Palo Alto Municipal Council and served as the community's mayor in the late 1970s.

Never afraid to take a bold stand, Wilks fought against incorporation of East Palo Alto and found herself in the thick of controversy. In 1983, she was elected to the first city council of the newly incorporated city.

Wilks took another bold stand when she and a group of citizens decided to help drive drugs out of their city. That led to the birth of the "Prayer Warriors."

"In the '90s, we started praying on the streets at noon because we were having a lot of problems and it was our young people mostly who were being killed," she said.

Wilks also served on numerous other committees and agencies.

Paramount in all of her activities has been her concern for education, and she continues to fight for equality for the children of her community.

"I want to establish a place for children to be educated," she said.


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