By Becky Hanks
Valley Women Writer
4:13 PM PST, February 22, 2011
Taught by her father that a person’s word is his bond, El Centro City Councilwoman Sedalia L. Sanders has spent 38 years drawing upon her life’s experiences to serve her fellow man — experiences she’s culled from a continuum of history spanning racial segregation all the way to the wonders of life-saving modern science and technology.
A native of El Centro, Sanders shares a local connection with her mother, Edith Willis, who was also born and raised in El Centro. Following graduation from Central Union High, Edith earned her credential and spent her career teaching in the El Centro school system until her retirement.
Sanders’ father was Eddie White, a hard-working man of integrity and a strict disciplinarian who regaled his nine children with lively stories of his childhood and journey to the Imperial Valley in a covered wagon in the early 1900s.
One of a set of triplets in which one brother died, White and his twin Freddie were left to make their individual marks as pioneers upon a burgeoning and rapidly growing Imperial Valley.
A cowboy by trade, White learned his skills from the caballeros in the Yuma/Bard area and, at one point, became so fluent in Spanish that he had to relearn English when he returned to Imperial Valley. Throughout their lives, he conversed interchangeably with all his children in English and Spanish, and they affectionately referred to him as “the man who won the West.”
White had three children from a previous marriage when he met and married Edith, and they had six children of their own, including Sanders, making for the perfect blended family of nine.
White’s down-to-earth work ethics and morals united with their mother’s emphasis on education and culture gave their kids the best of both worlds, Sanders notes.
They cut their teeth on venturing out to work in the fields with their dad, and then spent weekends perched on top of corral fences, watching him compete in rodeos held in Pine Valley and Jacumba.
“My mother and father were very unique,” she recalls. “Our blended family felt love, peace and secure. Each one of us was encouraged to blossom individually.”
For family entertainment, they surrounded themselves with books and music. Sanders’ mother, who owned a library card, routinely took them to the library to sit and read for hours among the shelves. After saving for months, they would make a trip to Balboa Park in San Diego where they attended discounted shows with understudy performances of Broadway plays and musicals. Sundays were for church, and they faithfully attended the Edwards Chapel Methodist Church with their mother. It was an upbringing rich in faith, diversity, culture, discipline and education.
“In our household, respect was mutual,” says Sanders. “We laughed together, played together and worked together.”
Throughout school, Sanders frequented Y-Teen Youth dances put on by the local chapter of Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), and she played softball, tennis, basketball and competed in archery and swimming at Central Union High School.
In eighth grade she was transferred to Wilson Junior High from Booker T. Washington Elementary School where the Washington students had the distinction of being among the first students involved in desegregating the El Centro school system.
Although she was aware of the historic ramifications of the move, she was already comfortable with integration because of her father’s rodeo and baseball events where everyone would congregate to compete without noting racial lines.
“My father was involved with horses and baseball, and they both transcended socio-economic and ethnic borders. There were different families within our surroundings all the time.”
“My parents always encouraged us to believe we had a God-given right to be where we were,” she says, “and we were not taught to be bitter or resentful of the limitations a biased society attempted to put on us.”
While attending the numerous baseball games in McGee Park where her father coached and umpired, she met her future husband Albert Sanders. Although he wanted to develop a more serious relationship, she was focused on school. She stayed busy attending school functions and banquets where only alums were allowed to attend. Unfortunately, Albert was left out of these school activities.
Occasionally, he would meet her on campus, and they ate lunch together. Over time, their relationship grew stronger.
In high school, she worked part-time jobs for a group of medical doctors washing the glassware and sharpening needles. At that time, Sanders realized the beauty and complexity of the amazing world she could see through a microscope. Recognizing her intellect, the doctors encouraged her to complete her education in the medical field.
“I was smitten with the absolute revelation of looking through a microscope and the wonder of medical discovery,” she states, “and the avenue for providing a doctor with the data for a diagnosis.”
Sanders graduated from Central Union High in 1960 and attended Imperial Valley College to fulfill the basic requirements for college. Then in a brash and independent move, she went to Minneapolis, MN where she majored in chemistry and minored in mathematics at the College of Medical Technology, a branch of the University of Minnesota.
She loved the atmosphere of college life and laughingly confesses that “the cold was more of a shock than the culture.”
Completing her degree in Medical Technology took two years. She never made the expensive trip home to visit; instead, she remained at school taking summer terms and spending the holidays alone.
College cost more than she or her parents ever dreamed, and she nearly quit after the first quarter. Thankfully, the dean of women gave her the alternative of living with a local well-to-do family, and she was able to cut back her costs by babysitting for them.
The family, of Jewish descent, was more than hospitable, Sanders remembers. They embraced her, allowing her to bring in girlfriends from school for slumber parties and loaning her heavy coats and shoes that helped her make it through the frigid winters without incurring debt.
Although they never celebrated the Christian holidays of Christmas or Easter, they encouraged her to follow her traditions while also sharing theirs.
“I truly believe God placed me there,” she says.
It was a time of cultural and ethnic awakening for the young black woman with a small-town background. At school, she befriended students from all over, including the Sudan and Egypt, and learned about their Islamic faith.
“I was like a sponge. I wanted to know everything I could know,” she says.
One day, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at her church about joining in his historic March on Washington planned for the next year. Although she did not attend the march, Sanders recalls donating a small amount of cash for the cause.
Her memories of hearing the Nobel Peace Prize recipient speak in addition to personal stories from the Holocaust survivors within her Jewish host family are recollections she continues to share with her grandsons.
“I had firsthand accounts of all those atrocities and some of the world’s ugliness that occurred,” she says. She tells them, “It was not a documentary; it was live and in living color!”
That variety of cross cultures and religions was in stark contrast to what she observed in her hometown. When Sanders returned from college, it was prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and she was not allowed to rent an apartment on the west side of El Centro that would have eased her commute to work.
“I can reach back and touch vivid memories of that time period,” she remarks. And yet, the experiences of the larger city remained with her and gave her a foundation for co-existence with people of all faiths and ethnicities — a foundation that has served her well at work and in the political service arena.
When she returned from college, her father gave her some of this stern, down-home advice. “All right young lady,” he told her. “You have an education, now use it to help others – do not stand back and gloat in yourself.”
Coming home from Minneapolis, she found Albert Sanders patiently waiting for her return. They married in June 1963 and just celebrated their 47th anniversary. They have two sons and six grandsons, some of whom they have raised in the same family home where their sons grew up.
Her first job was with a local woman pathologist, the first of her kind in Imperial Valley, Dr. Irene Chen. After a year, Sanders moved on to work for the Imperial County Health Department where she stayed for 38 years, progressing from laboratory technician to administrative analyst to project coordinator.
In 1979, she received an honor that is especially dear to her, the “Outstanding Faithful Service” award from El Centro’s Sweethome Baptist Church, from her church family in recognition of her service. From 1980 to 1984, she represented both San Diego and Imperial County as a Babe Ruth Baseball commissioner.
She entered the local political scene in 1982 when she was appointed to the board of El Centro Community Hospital, now known as El Centro Regional Medical Center, by the late Tony Beltran. In August 1984, she was appointed to fill the El Centro City Council seat of Ron Hull who had resigned to work for Imperial Irrigation District.
Her parents, while proud of their daughter’s accomplishments, took her selection in stride. They stated simply, “Do your best.”
At the urging of several local politicos, she filed to reenter the race as a candidate, submitting the paperwork the day before the deadline.
“I thought, ‘I kind of like this!’” she remembers, speaking of her work on the council. “I believed I was making a difference. And I wanted to continue assisting the city of El Centro in meeting its goals.”
Therefore, in the March 1985 special election, she ran against eight other candidates in a controversial race and won by a landslide. Her fellow council members gave her a nod as she was chosen mayor in November later that year. At that time, she also served weekend duty for the local chapter of the American Red Cross where her international skills could be tested as she collaborated with fellow Red Cross volunteers aiding Americans involved in the conflict in Beirut.
The early 1980s was a time of economic upheaval, a world in which gas shortages and high fuel prices were sending families into economic spirals. Her mother Edith, while sympathetic with the plight of the citizens, felt it important to share with her daughter the experience of living through two world wars and a depression.
“It gave me a dose of reality and what’s really important,” Sanders says.
In instances when things did not turn out as planned or hoped for, Sanders felt an obligation to either explain or apologize to her constituents and, in that way, honor her father’s credo of her word being her bond.
Instrumental in helping bring the local prisons to the Valley to benefit the work force, she has valiantly advocated for bringing jobs and employment opportunities to Valley residents.
In 1992, Gov. Pete Wilson appointed her to his Task Force on Rural Competitiveness, and she chaired the Education Sub-Committee until he re-appointed her again in 1994 as vice-chair of the Rural Development Council.
And yet, accolades are not what she is after. She’s looking for results.
“I’m comfortable working in the background,” she says. “It’s not important who gets credit as long as we get the end result.”
She has the distinction of serving on the Salvation Army board for over 20 years as well as being the first woman accepted into the El Centro Kiwanis. She was recognized as the first woman Kiwanian of the Year and then elected the first woman president of the service group in 1993. As president, she guided them as they built a house for a needy family through Habitats for Humanity.
Bringing large groups of people together for a common goal despite their different backgrounds, interests, educational levels, religions and ethnicities is something she delights in accomplishing, she says.
“I speak to them on areas of interest that bring us together, not those things that divide us.”
Sanders’ public service branched out into the state and national arena, and she served as president of the League of California Cities in 1995-96. In 1996, she was elected for a two-year term to the board of directors of the National League of Cities.
Running for Imperial County Supervisor in 1990, she lost an election for the first time when she did not garner enough votes for a win. She tasted loss again when she left the El Centro council in 1999 and made a failed run for the California State Senate 37th District in 2000. But she has no lingering disappointment from her losses.
“Leaders are not made just from winning,” she points out. “Losing can strengthen your resolve and commitment to public service. I have no regrets.”
In 2001, then-Governor Gray Davis appointed her to the 45th District Agricultural Association board of directors, and she was also elected to the El Centro Elementary School District board where she served a two-year term, including one as president.
She reentered the city of El Centro’s political field in 2003 when she won another term on the council where she continues to serve today. With four one-year terms serving as mayor under her belt, she has been instrumental in the growth, advancement and dreams of her hometown city.
In 2009, she was the recipient of the National League of Cities Women in Municipal Government Leadership Award. Traveling to Washington D.C. and other lobby hot spots, she works tirelessly to keep Imperial Valley and the issues affecting it in the forefront of political consciousness of the U.S. President and Governor of California, as well as state and congressional members.
Sanders has continued her education, earning a Bachelor of Science and a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Phoenix. Her husband Albert retired from the El Centro School District in 2002 after 45 years and after earning the distinction of Employee of the Year.
In the humble home she and Albert have shared for 45 years, there is a wall of family photos that spans seven generations — a visual reminder of her history and the family love that has brought them to this sweet spot in their lives.
Although her vibrant dark hair has grayed, Sanders shows no other signs of aging. She says she balances her busy schedule by compartmentalizing the many positions and jobs she holds within the scope of her church, her city and her family. She aspires to continue serving the people and the city she loves and hopes to achieve that by examining multiple philosophies, angles and possibilities, “…and then I work like the dickens to make it become a reality.”
Copyright © 2013, Imperial Valley Press