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Saluting 37 Soldiers of Social Change
Lauren Murrow and Sydney Johnson | Photo: Helena Price | November 19, 2015
From Black Lives Matter to transgender rights, women are on the front lines of the culture wars.
One soundbyte from any presidential debate makes it clear: The country is divided as never before. From abortion to immigration to racial injustice, the clashes are fierce and the stakes are high. And if we are a society at war with itself, those pictured here are the battle-hardened commanders on the front lines. “There’s a historic consciousness in the Bay Area of the fights that have happened here,” says Celeste Faison, cofounder of the BlackOut Collective, an Oakland-based black activist group.
Within the past five years, the Bay Area has become ground zero not only for pervasive local issues like discrimination in tech and housing abuses but also for national causes like Black Lives Matter, transgender rights, and reproductive justice. Though these movements encompass all genders, an outsize number of those leading the charge are women. They organize grassroots and big-picture efforts, from advocating for groundbreaking legislation to teaching underprivileged kids to code.
Throughout the ranks, there’s the sense of a common goal. “Activists today are attracted to an intersectional framework,” says Samara Azam-Yu, co–executive director of the reproductive justice organization Access. “We’re not just about abortion or housing or immigration anymore. We’re interested in every issue and how they overlap.” The movements’ leaders include doctors, lawyers, doulas, engineers, pastors, and a self-professed “diva and screaming queen.” They’ve found strength in diversity, says Theresa Sparks, executive director of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission: “These people represent every element of our culture in San Francisco.” Whether taking to the streets or to social media, they’re shaping the future of our society.
THE CAUSE: DIVERSITY IN TECH
Isis Anchalee, Platform engineer and founder of #iLookLikeAnEngineer
You may have seen her face on BART. If not, you’ve probably heard about developer Isis Anchalee’s famous article calling out issues surrounding diversity and sexism in the tech industry. After Anchalee posed for her employer OneLogin’s ad campaign, which ran posters in BART stations throughout the Bay Area, the combination of her job title and her appearance elicited countless disbelieving reactions. She responded with the #iLookLikeAnEngineer campaign, which quickly went viral. Since the ad campaign, Anachlee's role has expanded to speaking engagements; she is also a part of Women Who Code, a nonprofit dedicated to inspiring women to excel in technology careers.
Leanne Pittsford, founder of Lesbians Who Tech
Entrepreneur and investor Leanne Pittsford encourages a global community of over 11,000 queer women and allies in tech to promote representation among women and lesbians in technology. Before Lesbians Who Tech, Pittsford founded design and tech company Start Somewhere, which aided various social organizations. This spring, Pittsford will launch a new project called Social Good Tech Week to help connect the world’s best technologies to the social good community.
Laura Weidman Powers, co-founder and CEO of Code2040
As CEO of Code2040, Laura Weidman sets her sights on nothing short of closing the achievement, skills, and wealth gaps for minorities in the United States. A member of the National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Weidman Powers was named one of the Root’s 100 Most Influential African-Americans in 2013 as well as one of Goldman Sachs’ 100 Most Intriguing Entrepreneurs of 2013.
Tracy Chou, engineer and diversity-in-tech activist
A software engineer at Pinterest, Tracy Chou has been called one of the fastest-rising engineers in tech, but her attention to women's numbers in tech distinguishes her as well. Chou published an article on Medium that calls on insiders to contribute to an online data repository tracking numbers of women in engineering at different companies.
Freada Kapor Klein, founder of the Level Playing Field Institute
Equal parts entrepreneur and activist, Freada Kapor Klein invests in seed-stage startups dedicated to positive social impact through her Oakland-based venture capital outfit, Kapor Capital. Kapor Klein, who is the author of Giving Notice: Why the Best and Brightest Leave the Workplace and How You Can Help Them Stay, also advises startups on diversity and workplace culture.
Danielle Rose, director of programs at the Level Playing Field Institute
With a background in math and mechanical engineering, Rose leads programming at the Level Playing Field Institute. The Oakland-based nonprofit prepares students from underrepresented backgrounds to pursue science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM subjects.
Carolina Huaranca Mendoza, entrepreneur-in-residence at the Kapor Center for Social Impact
A first-generation Peruvian American from New York with a background in investment banking and technology, Carolina Huaranca Mendoza works toward boosting diversity in technology and education. Before joining the Kapor Center, she was the founding national director of Girls Who Code Clubs, a nonprofit that works to close the gender gap in technology.
Laura I. Gomez, founder and CEO of Atipica and diversity-in-tech activist
A veteran of both Google and Twitter, entrepreneur Laura Gomez recently founded Atipica, a startup that harnesses big data and machine learning for applicant databases. As the first Latin American–born woman on Twitter’s international team, Gomez was responsible for the expansion of Twitter en Español, among other international projects.
THE CAUSE: BLACK LIVES MATTER
“There’s a spirit of rebellion and a fearlessness to challenge oppression in the Bay Area that I haven’t seen anywhere else. That consciousness permeates everywhere. For many black people across the country, this is the first time they’ve been able to directly confront power. It’s transformational.” —Celeste Faison
Celeste Faison, black organizing coordinator at the National Domestic Workers Alliance and co-founder of the BlackOut Collective
Celeste Faison is a strategic organizing powerhouse. At the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Faison organizes a program called We Dream in Black, seeking fair treatment for domestic workers. “It’s an innovative program that organizes black domestic workers across the country,” says Faison. The group is currently working with Haitians in Miami and Afro-Brazilian workers in Boston, and has plans to launch in North Carolina and Chicago in February.
Cat Brooks, Black Lives Matter leader and founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project
Cat Brooks' Anti Police-Terror Project is dedicated to ending state-sanctioned violence against the poor and people of color. The coalition supports families who have lost loved ones to police violence and pushes for legal reforms. “Police terror doesn’t only happen when someone is killed,” says Brooks. “Our communities have been targeted by occupations, assaults, and stops, and we needed to do more than just call a protest when murder happens. It’s not about being reactionary; it’s about being visionary.”
Alicia Walters, movement building director at Forward Together
Before joining the multiracial organization Forward Together, Alicia Walters launched Echoing Ida, a project that cultivates black women thought leaders across the country. “Never have black women's voices been more needed in our national dialogue,” says Walters. “Whether we're discussing the impacts of incarceration, ensuring safe and respectful schools for our children, or affordable housing, Echoing Ida lifts the voices at the crux of our most pressing social issues.”
Gina Clayton, founder of the Essie Justice Group
Last year Gina Clayton launched Essie Justice Group to tap the power of women with incarcerated loved ones. A Los Angeles native, Clayton started as a youth organizer for the NAACP at the University of Southern California. Clayton emphasizes that mass incarceration as one of the most pressing issues of our time: "When one in four women has a family member in prison, mass incarceration has become the most significant barrier to gender equality for women of color in the United States today," she says.
Etecia Brown, co-founder of the Black Love Festival
The music extravaganza Black Love Festival is all about "the importance of self-care, self-healing, and collective efficacy in the black community,” says Etecia Brown. “Black people are unjustly murdered by the police force and face the highest rates of poverty and incarceration," says Brown. "It is important to provide opportunities for the community to peacefully come together and talk about love as a form of liberation.”
China Pharr, co-founder of the Black Love Festival
Given that the black community comprises less than 3 percent of San Francisco, China Parr and her festival co-founder Etecia Brown say the festival, which began on July 18 at Heron’s Head Park in the Bayview, “gave the voiceless a safe space to be radically black and beautiful.” Starting in January, they will begin holding pop-up events in the Bay Area in anticipation of the second festival in July.
Chinyere Tutashinda, co-founder of the BlackOut Collective
As communications organizer at the Center for Media Justice, Chinyere Tutashinda helps build “a powerful racial justice movement for media rights, access, and representation.” Along with Celeste Faison, Tutashinda is also a founding member of the BlackOut Collective.
Rheema Calloway, Black Priorities Project organizer of Causa Justa
Rheema Calloway's work with the Black Priorities Project (BPP) involves building power for black workers, youth, seniors, and families and improving conditions for black people in the Bay Area. “I’m deeply impacted by the forced out-migration of my family and friends out of the SF Bay Area,” says Calloway. “It is my duty to fight for and protect the last 3 percent of black San Francisco.”
THE CAUSE: REPRODUCTIVE JUSTICE
“I like to think of myself as running the war room. I bring together all the top people in command—strategists, activists, and policy experts—and let them do their work really well. We’re the only state in the country to have expanded abortion access since Roe v. Wade. It is quite stark.” —Shailushi Ritchie
Shailushi Ritchie, director of the California Coalition for Reproductive Freedom
The California Coalition for Reproductive Freedom (CCRF) is an alliance of almost 50 organizations that promotes sexual and reproductive health, rights, and justice. “I think of my job as running the big tent,” says Shailushi Ritchie. “I create space, and CCRF is all about making spaces for people to come together with information on what we can do proactively.” This unique platform, Ritchie says, is what has allowed California to be relatively progressive when it comes to reproductive health and justice: “We are able to anticipate problems and policies that roll back our rights and take action.”
Samara Azam-Yu, co-executive director of Access Women’s Health Justice
Samara Azam-Yu sees the on-the-ground work as a crucial component in the politics of reproductive justice. As co-executive director at the Oakland nonprofit Access Women's Health Justice, Azam-Yu helps organize a wide range of support for women considering or seeking an abortion. "In a time when these issues are so heavily politicized, being there for someone can be one of the most radical acts,” says Azam-Yu.
Sierra Harris, co-executive director of Access Women’s Health Justice
Alongside Samara Azam-Yu, Sierra Harris helms Access Women’s Health Justice. “Reproductive rights are meaningless when no abortion provider accepts your insurance,” says Harris. “Or if you are afraid to seek prenatal care because of your immigration status, or the closest clinic is hundreds of miles from your home.” At Access, Harris manages the bilingual reproductive healthline and leads policy efforts. “Working on policy helps me to feel like we are working on systemic change, toward a more just and equitable California,” she says.
Eveline Shen, executive director at Forward Together
Eveline Shen knows the traditional family is on the wane. “The 2010 census revealed that 80 percent of households don’t have a nuclear family,” says Shen, “so we are working with about 30 organizations to change policy so families to have what they need.” In particular, Shen says the Oakland organization is looking at the impact of mass incarceration on women and families, as well as more comprehensive sex education strategies. The group recently developed the nation’s only guide to help LGBT families navigate the Affordable Care Act.
Jill Adams, executive director of the Center on Reproductive Rights and Justice at Berkeley Law
“Our plans are unapologetically ambitious. I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Jill Adams says of the Center on Reproductive Rights and Justice at Berkeley Law. Aptly pronounced “courage,” CRRJ focuses on public support for low-income reproductive rights. Equal parts strategist, author, lawyer, and lecturer, Adams says she's in the movement for the long haul. “I’m comfortable setting 30-year goals, knowing I’ll be around to see them through to the end,” she says.
Sabrina Andrus, executive director of Law Students for Reproductive Justice
The Oakland-based Law Students for Reproductive Justice (LSRJ) helps train and mobilize law students to support the fight for reproductive justice. LSRJ works with more than 100 law schools nationwide and is researching policy work and immigration, abortion rights, and LGBT reproductive justice. “We are working with brightest, most dedicated leaders out there, and I’m glad they’re on our side of the issue,” says Sabrina Andrus.
Poonam Dreyfus-Pai, fellowship manager at CoreAlign
Noting the setbacks for reproductive choice in recent years, Poonam Dreyfus-Pai says reproductive rights nonprofit CoreAlign and the fellowships she manages there offer opportunities for leaders to test out new strategies. Previously, Dreyfus-Pai also co-directed the Bay Area Doula Project. Of her work at CoreAlign, Dreyfus-Pai says, “There is still lot of work to do so people can have the love, sex, family, and community that they want.”
THE CAUSE: TRANSGENDER RIGHTS
“Fifteen years ago, a trans person couldn’t walk around the city without being the object of ridicule, discrimination, or violence. That’s different now. This year alone, San Francisco is contributing over $1.5 million to transgender programs. We’re doing more than any other city in the country.” —Theresa Sparks
Theresa Sparks, executive director, San Francisco Human Rights Commission
Before leading the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, Theresa Sparks served as CEO of Good Vibrations and then as a commissioner on the San Francisco Police Commission. "One common thread over the last 20 years is that I have the privilege of serving the good people of San Francisco,” says Sparks. “These positions have allowed me to give back to this great city a small amount of all it has given me."
Janetta Johnson, executive director at the Transgender, Gender-Variant, and Intersex Justice Project
The TGI Justice Project serves low-income transgender women of color who are in prison, formerly incarcerated, or targeted by the police. Recently, Johnson survived three years in federal prison, and has dedicated herself to limiting the recidivism rate in the transgender community by developing new interventions and strategies.
Clair Farley, associate director of economic development at the San Francisco LGBT Center
At San Francisco's LGBT Center, Clair Farley helped build the nation’s first ever LGBT-specific economic development department from the ground up. The center has a small-business program for those interested in entrepreneurship, as well as employment services to connect LGBT individuals to employers in the Bay Area. “We try to look at our work holistically, with an emphasis on social and economic justice,” says Farley.
Rev. Megan Rohrer, pastor at Grace Lutheran Church
The first openly transgender Lutheran pastor ordained in the United States, Reverend Rohrer currently serves as executive director of Welcome, a nonprofit that has worked with San Francisco homeless since 1996. Many of those Welcome serves identify as LGBT, and Rohrer says the organization is teaming up with Project Homeless Connect to study the needs of LGBTQ people who are homeless. Through Welcome and ministerial work, Rohrer says she works “to use the power I have to advance the rights and basic survival needs of my kin in the LGBT community who continue to struggle to find affordable housing, sobriety support, educational opportunities, and jobs.”
JoAnne Keatley, director of the Center of Excellence for Transgender Health at UCSF
“I look for what’s fresh and current in the field of trans healthcare,” says JoAnne Keatley, director of the UCSF Center of Excellence for Transgender Health (CoD). She has developed numerous healthcare and service programs for the transgender community in San Francisco, as well as several federally funded research and HIV-prevention projects. During Keatley's tenure, the CoD has begun to explore access to gender-affirming healthcare on a national level.
Nikki Calma, program supervisor for Trans Thrive
Trans Thrive is a drop-in center by and for the transgender community in San Francisco. The center, a program of the Asian & Pacific Wellness Center, offers everything from HIV prevention to counseling and health services. “We use a holistic approach,” says Calma, aka Tita Aida. “We want to address the issues that people here immediately need: housing, employment, healthcare, social support, and HIV testing.”
Felicia Flames, transgender pioneer and activist
Better known as Felicia Flames, activist and icon Felicia Elizondo has been fighting for transgender rights for well over 50 years. “I’m a Mexican spitfire, a screaming queen, and a diva,” says Flames, a 29-year surveyor of AIDS and a Vietnam veteran. Flames, 69, participated in the Compton’s Cafeteria Riots of 1966, a turning point in the LGBT movement and one of the first recorded riots over violence against the transgender community. “The people who started the cafeteria riots and Stonewall were transgender people of color,” says Flames. “We need to remember who sacrificed their lives. We went through a lot to get where we are now.”
THE CAUSE: HOUSING AND TENANT PROTECTION
“Housing has become the absolute number one issue on everybody’s mind in this city. That stronger interest in the work that we do means that we’re increasingly known as a force to be reckoned with. In the end, we’ll do whatever it takes to keep longtime San Franciscans from being forced out. We’ve proven that we mean business. ” —Sara Shortt
Sara Shortt, executive director of the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco
After establishing itself in the movement to pass rent control in 1979, the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco takes up the cause of tenants' rights through counseling services, political advocacy, community organizing, and public education. Under Shortt’s leadership, the committee has expanded programs to address the needs of tenants in subsidized and public housing and grown its staff from 4 to 13 members.
Maria Zamudio, Housing Rights Campaign organizer for Causa Justa
As an organizer with the housing and immigrant rights group Causa Justa, Zamudio has fought against evictions, gentrification, and displacement for black and Latino working-class communities in San Francisco. “My job is to support those impacted in the Mission so people can stay in their homes,” says Zamudio. “I advocate for their right to stay in a neighborhood where thousands of Latino families have been pushed out by gentrification.”
Jennifer Fieber, development and policy coordinator for the San Francisco Tenants Union
Amid the second tech boom, Jennifer Fieber co-founded the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project in 2013. “We share a deep concern for the growing displacement of our friends and neighbors. Yet we were initially unsure how we could participate,” Fieber says of the volunteer cartography collective. The group harnesses data analysis, research, and direct action to combat displacement. Also a staff member at the San Francisco Tenants Union, Fieber works to expand tenants' rights and the availability of affordable housing in San Francisco.
Tina Cheung, senior community organizer at the Chinatown Community Development Center
Tina Cheung has been a pivotal force in guarding against the displacement of Chinatown residents. At the Chinatown Community Development Center, Cheung runs tenant and housing rights counseling programs. She says tenants’ struggles aren’t restricted to Chinatown or the Mission, but are part of a larger systemic issue. “We have one of the highest rates of poverty in the Chinatown and North Beach radius,” says Cheung. “I’m inspired by the strength of the tenants I work with. They’re badasses.”
Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness
Jennifer Friedenbach takes a no-excuses approach to housing rights and homelessness. "The issue of homelessness is not complex,” she says. “Our federal government decided to create mass homelessness through divestment in housing and an almost full elimination of the social safety net. Our local government has responded with the criminalization of those forced to sleep on the streets.” Last year the Coalition on Homelessness pushed the Board of Supervisors and Mayor Lee to award $2 million to prevent the displacement of more than 2,000 households. “The solution is simple," says Friedenbach. "Homeless people need a safe and decent place to call home.”
Doniece Sandoval, founder of Lava Mae
After learning about the deplorable lack of showers and toilets available to homeless San Franciscans, Doniece Sandoval founded Lava Mae, a nonprofit that transforms old Muni buses into mobile showers. Since rolling out its first bus in 2014, Lava Mae has earned worldwide attention. Many have asked Sandoval to help start similar programs in their communities, including Senator Holly Mitchell of Los Angeles. Sandoval hopes to serve 30,000 homeless people in California by 2020.
Julie Levak, founder of VanishingSF
Writer and activist Julie Levak has been making gentrification visible in San Francisco since starting the blog and social media campaign VanishingSF in 2013. VanishingSF presents “stories, events, and not-so-random facts about the influences and effects of San Francisco’s growing inequality on the city's community life and culture,” she says. Recently Levak helped launch Vision-SF, “a new organization committed to reclaiming San Francisco as a vibrant city that works for everyone,” she says, “not just the wealthy few.”
Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco
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