Turning down 18th street, I make eye contact with Guatemalan human rights activist, Roberta Menchú Tum and know I’ve finally made it. Darting across the street, more bright colors emerge and four striking profiles representing the ancestral mothers of Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Europe come into view. I feel my steps slow as if I’m in a museum gallery and my gaze raises to study the mural surrounding the Edificio de Mujeres or Women’s Building.
I’m on my way to New Door Ventures, the nonprofit that I’m interning with thanks to the PACE Center’s PICS program. Dedicated to providing employment and education opportunities for 16-24 year-olds in the Bay Area, New Door’s headquarters is nestled in San Francisco’s Mission district and, for the past month, I’ve been working in-person. With this trip, I’ve not only been able to leave the New York/New Jersey area for the first time since the pandemic, but I have the exciting chance to pass by the Women’s Building on my daily commute to the office. I was researching the infamous murals of the Mission district in March of 2020 when the pandemic began, so finally being able to approach these walls feels surreal.
A groundbreaking institution for intersectional feminist activism and community building since 1971, the Women’s Building had a glowing reputation long before it was outwardly transformed by a mural dubbed the “Maestrapeace” in 1994. The Mission is known for its flourishing public art scene, but the field was still a heavily male-dominated space when seven female artists – Juana Alicia, Miranda Bergman, Edythe Boone, Susan Kelk Cervantes, Meera Desai, Yvonne Littleton, and Irene Perez – came together to commemorate the work of the organizations housed behind their five-story canvas. The mural they produced, as well as their art-making process, epitomizes the belief that women of drastically different backgrounds can find commonalities and support one another. I see it in the depiction of Audre Lorde, famed activist and author, holding hands with Lilian Ngoyi, a South African anti-apartheid leader. The image of a woman in a wheelchair dancing to the beat of painted drums and a tambourine. The collage of different medical workers, advocates, and healers. The welcoming hands which offer up grain painted above the door which swings open to reveal a weekly food pantry. The power of unity exudes from these walls.
Maybe it’s the pop of color or the massive scale of the mural, maybe it’s the carefully inscribed list of inspiring feminist icons which ends with “future generations,” but I know I will never be able to walk down 18th street without pausing for a moment to pick out a precious symbol and feeling a renewed sense of motivation before continuing on with my day.