When asked which women’s advocacy issues are most pressing to her, Marianna Toma rolled her eyes.
“Where do I start?” she laughed. “All of them.”
Toma and her husband, who recently left Paris for San Francisco, said they attended Wednesday evening’s Bay Area Women Activists event at The Women’s Building on 18th Street as part of a head-first dive into local organizing.
The couple was joined by a standing-room-only crowd in the Mission District community center to learn more about activism from a panel moderated by Karen Topakian, the board chair of environmental organization Greenpeace.
The activist life, it appears, is not smooth sailing. Shari Davis of the Participatory Budgeting Project told attendees it was not just acceptable, but essential, that advocates stand up for better pay for themselves and their colleagues, and to call out inequities around them.
“I think that there has to be a moment where you identify what your value is, and what you identify is sustainable,” Davis said. “So often as a young woman –as a young black woman — I’m saying ‘yes’ to things, and I’m feeding into this larger complex that is keeping my people from getting where we need to be.”
District 6 Supervisor Jane Kim, who oversees neighborhoods including the Tenderloin and South of Market, said a resurgent interest in how government works and what it can and can’t do is a “bright spot for activism.”
“The one thing that I think is incredibly important is that [President Donald] Trump is really highlighting what exists in this country today,” Kim said. “I think in many ways he forces us to address many of the things that, if we’re not feeling it on a daily basis, we’re not actually going to spend time working on it.”
Melanie Nathan, executive director of the African Human Rights Coalition, likened the United States to an “alcoholic that has hit rock-bottom.”
“It takes hitting rock-bottom to make a choice,” she said, “and that choice is, we can either rise out of this gutter of bigotry, or we can stay in it forever.”
To Jorge Rodriguez, a long-time community activist at the event, the policies and ideas swirling around Washington have galvanized civic engagement in San Francisco.
“I think now it’s becoming more energetic because of what we have going on with the government and the situation with immigration,” he said.
Wednesday’s event was the second in a speaker series by The Women’s Building that launched in March with famed feminist Gloria Steinem.
After a round of catered empanadas, things kicked off with an outdoor dance performance — along one of the four-story, mural-covered façades of the community center.
Attendees swarmed the opposite sidewalk to take in the vertical routine by three dancers on the fire escape. The performance was choreographed by another of the evening’s panelists, Jo Kreiter of Flyaway Productions, to exhibit what she calls “the range and power of female physicality.”
Waiting for the 100-or-so audience members inside was a photo gallery by eight Mission District-based Latina mothers, exhibiting the squalid and desperate living conditions suffered by poor and marginalized families who lack adequate housing.
Nathan said it was “distressing” that people are not “bringing America to a standstill” in the fight for greater equality and human rights. She offered her native South Africa as an example: The elevation of Nelson Mandela to president and the downfall of apartheid came after South Africans mobilized for change.
“You know how it ended?” she asked, leaning off of her chair onstage. “The people.”