Three decades ago, a small group of women wanted a room of their own. Instead, they got a building.
The Women’s Building marks its 30th anniversary Thursday with tours, storytelling, food, and entertainment.
It also celebrates the 15th anniversary of the MaestraPeace mural, one that begins on the façade with the faces of luminaries such as Audre Lorde and Rigoberta Menchú and now continues inside the door, with an indigenous weaver. The strands from her loom twine together and up the building’s stairway. Each strand is inscribed with the names of women — mothers, activists, lovers, and daughters.
“It makes you feel like you’re walking through the mural. When you come through to the other side, you’re still a part of it,” said Susan Kelk Cervantes, who was part of the team of women muralists who created MaestraPeace. Five of the seven original muralistas worked on the new addition.
Just as MaestraPeace is known for its images of women who have changed the world, what goes on inside the Women’s Building is legendary, too.
“It’s a landmark building. It’s a landmark organization,” said Cervantes.
Owned and operated by women, the Women’s Building was born in the feminist movement during the 1970s, when San Francisco Women’s Centers were organizing a national conference on violence against women.
The group planned to hold the event at San Francisco State University, said Roma Guy, a longtime activist and cofounder of the Women’s Building. But the cultural wars were already underway and conservatives protested, calling the group lesbians and man-haters. The university caved, and told the feminists to find another venue.
The experience confirmed something Guy had been advocating for a long time — women needed their own space in San Francisco “to heal, be safe and strategize,” she said.
The group bought the building in 1979, but not everyone welcomed the new owners. Some called in bomb threats. Hecklers taunted women as they waited in line for events. And an arsonist’s fire caused $50,000 in damage in 1980.
At the same time, the group faced internal struggles around race and politics.
But the center survived, and its mission is as relevant as ever, says Teresa Mejía, the center’s director.
“Women have gained and have been able to win a lot of battles. But we still have issues to deal with: issues with men, issues with discrimination, issues of violence,” said Mejía.
Today, 11 organizations call the Women’s Building home. They range from a food pantry for immigrants to a group that helps women get restraining orders to a running club for girls. A daycare center is onsite, along with a resource room where women can search for jobs and connect with community services.
The Women’s Building serves 20,000 men and women a year, and is often rented out for parties, meetings and events.
“It’s great when you come in and there’s a wedding with a mariachi band in one room, and the bike coalition’s meeting in another,” said Mejía.
Mejía first came to the center in 1991, shortly after moving to San Francisco from Puerto Rico.
A longtime women’s rights activist, she was looking for a job, English classes and connections. “I opened the doors and said, ‘This is the dream of women all over the world,’” she said.
Within a year, she was working for the center, referring women to jobs and services.
With the recession, demand for food, jobs and affordable housing has increased, and the number of Latinos using their resources has steadily risen, said Mejía.
“We’re in one of the hearts of the Mission, and the Latino community has been hit so hard by the recession and anti-immigrant initiatives,” she said.
Like many nonprofits in this economy, the Women’s Building has seen demand for services growing as its funding sources have shrunk. Donations are down and the organization has lost some funding sources. Though the group has been able to maintain its 20-person staff, Mejía said this fiscal year will be a challenge.
The new mural is a fundraiser. Donors paid $150 to $200 to add more than 230 names — 30 more than planned.
“We were starting to get panicky. We barely got all the names on there,” said Cervantes, who included her granddaughters in the mural.
Sonia Sotomayor’s is there too, along with Mejía’s mother, sister, and two young nieces, who were all murdered by her sister’s abusive husband in 1977.
The Egyptians believe that saying the names of the dead aloud helps them live forever, she said. “For me having their names there and being able to say them aloud will keep them with me for eternity.”
When the MaestraPeace muralists first came together in 1994, many of them didn’t know each other well, and the group was diverse in terms of race and age. However, creating the mural so bonded the group that they continue to get together every month.
For Cervantes, extending the mural was a chance to work again with friends. Five of the original muralists designed the extension, and three did the actual painting.
“We’re still all together and that’s important, too. Because of this project we’ve become the best of friends anywhere for a lifetime,” said Cervantes.