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Women’s Building builds community

Mills College Weekly

Teresa Mejia remembers one of her first experiences after leaving Puerto Rico in 1991 and arriving in San Francisco; “I opened the doors to The Women’s Building and said, ‘wow, this is what I want. This is what every woman in Puerto Rico wants.'”

Sitting comfortably in her fourth-floor, corner office with one leg folded up on her chair, wearing a red-knit sweater and a beaded red necklace, Mejia recalls how the organization helped her with job referrals and gave her information on English classes. It’s almost 5 p.m., but Mejia is clearly in no rush, gesturing with her hands as she speaks and smiling often as the sunlight softens through the windows. She seems like she’s at home rather than at work.

When the Bookings Coordinator position opened in 1992, Mejia applied. “That would be my dream, working at The Women’s Building,” she thought then. Eleven years later, Mejia is the Executive Director. “I know by experience that for many women this is the first place to go for help or support.”

Home to eight different non-profit organizations, The Women’s Building also offers a number of services including child-care, information and referrals, free access to printers and computers, and professional training programs.The organization began in 1971 when a group of women activists created San Francisco Women’s Centers (SFWC) in order to support projects developed by women in the Bay Area.

Originally located on Brady Street, SFWC eventually expanded and required a larger physical space. The new and current location turned out to be Dovre Hall, a large building housing seven bars and two high-ceiling meeting halls.

Walking through the lobby in the morning, children’s voices bounce around the auditorium as the Head Start program begins. Visitors frequently wander around the first floor, leafing through pamphlets, community newspapers, and flyers on local events ranging from theater performances to educational workshops to anti-war protests.

Amelia Avila is usually sitting at the front desk, switching easily back and forth between Spanish and English, answering phone calls and providing people with any information they need. Since starting her job a year ago, Avila has answered several phone calls from women experiencing abuse and needing immediate help. “They were so depressed and they were looking for some to help or someone to talk to.”

After one conversation, she remembers hanging up the phone and crying. Her work can be heartbreaking but it is always satisfying. “I want to be here all day and all the time…I love my job.”

Avila came to work for the organization through her involvement with Mujeres Unidas y Activas (Women United and Active), a non-profit housed in the building.

Over the last ten years, she has seen many inspiring developments. In the last decade, the organization has undergone two major projects to keep the physical space current and dynamic: the creation of an internationally known mural and a $5.9 million dollar renovation project.

Spreading over the two exterior walls of the building, the mural faces 18th Street and Lapidge Street. Seven women created Maestrapeace, meaning Woman Teacher of Peace, in 1994. Meastrapeace recognizes the contributions of woman today and throughout history. Stretching four-stories high, the vibrant wall painting includes familiar faces like Georgia O’Keefe and Audre Lourde, as well as significant images and colorful textiles from around the globe.

“I think it’s one of the most important murals in the world,” said Jovida Ross, the Director of the Community Resource Center and a Mills Alumna.

When she was a student at Mills, Ross took a painting class taught by two of the women artists who created the mural. Her class visited Maestrapeace and she came to a few events in the building before learning about the work and history of the organization.

“Reinforce the Dream,” the renovation project completed in Fall 2000, marked an important turning point for The Women’s Building, making the building seismically sound and creating room for modern facilities like the 300-seat auditorium, the Community Resource Room, and additional rooms and office space.

“We’re definitely aiming to become more of a hub for community events now that we have this really beautiful space,” said Ross. “It’s been designed for that.”

In March, The Women’s Building welcomed women and men of all ages and backgrounds for two evenings of performances in celebration of International Women’s Day.

Local professional and student artists came together to create an original series of music, dance, and theater pieces. At the show’s conclusion, the audience, led by eleven performers beating large drums, paraded around the block, stopping at random spots along the way to listen to young people singing songs and reciting poems.

Ross encourages Mills students to come to events in order to learn more about the organization, and welcomes students interested in volunteering and working in the Community Resources Room. “I have a full internship program which can be really valuable in gaining experience,” said Ross.

While the organization faces the financial challenges many non-profits are experiencing, community support continues to be strong and growing. The current annual budget is just under 1 million dollars, generated from donations, fundraising activities, and the income from community tenants and other organizations that rent space on a regular basis.

Looking into the future, Mejia emphasizes the organization’s commitment to remain focused on the needs of the community. “We change. We always look at the needs of the community and see the changes that we have to make.”

Recent concerns are specific. “Because of the economy, women and their families are looking for jobs. The other [concern] is with all these drums of war. I think the community sees us a stable, safe place to meet, talk about the war.”

Recent challenges are also specific. Since March of last year, The Women”s Building, for the first time ever, experienced several instances of vandalism hate crimes on the mural.

The vandalism included hateful messages aimed at Arabs and women. Community members and organizations responded immediately with a vigil to show support of one another and send a message of peace.

In addition to encouraging women in various endeavors and providing the larger community with resources, services and support, The Women’s Building has always been committed to diversity and social justice.

“There’s different sectors of the community with diversity in the Bay Area,” says Mejia. “Including our staff we are very diverse, in terms of ethnicity, in terms of class, in terms of sexual preference.”

Getting up from her chair, Mejia hands me several postcards with information on the latest events at The Women’s Building.

Her shelves are stacked with books and her desk is piled high with papers, but Mejia does not seem overwhelmed.

Her casual and relaxed manner conveys strength and confidence.

As afternoon turns to evening, women continue to come and go through the doors of The Women’s Building.

Mejia encourages Mills students to visit and check out the schedule of events in the lobby or on the organization’s website.

“If you’re a student and you want to be involved with the community, this is a great place.”

Whether coming to see the mural, going to a performance, or checking out volunteer opportunities, The Women’s Building is worth a visit.