The Women’s Building's Teresa Mejia on empowering women and girls

Teresa Mejia is the executive director of The Women’s Building, a center for women and girls to gain the resources needed to be an active member of society. The native of Puerto Rico dealt with the death of her mother, sister and two nieces in 1977. They were killed by her sister’s husband. She came to San Francisco in 1991 and landed her first job, as a counselor, through The Women’s Building.

Who has had the biggest influence on you in your life?

My mother has always inspired me. She was a social and political leader in her community. She was very sensitive, caring and compassionate, and gave herself completely to the causes she worked on. She worked with poor people and taught me that we have the responsibility to do whatever we can to help the marginalized peoples of our communities. Puerto Rico was very conservative about lesbians and gays, and my mother received and welcomed in her home lesbians and gays who weren’t welcome in other homes in the town.

Where do you find inspiration?

The Caribbean culture is both my strength and my inspiration. When I am tired and need energy, I go back to my early memories of Puerto Rico, growing up in a strong community where women solved huge problems. With these memories, I remember that there is always a solution possible.

To whom do you turn to in tough times?

I have many close friends, family — especially my daughter, Nadia — and in really tough matters I go to the spirits of my mother and my sister.

What one book or piece of writing has had a large impact on you?

Pema Chodron’s book “When Things Fall Apart” was so helpful for me in showing me how to manage difficult times. I can react quickly and I have learned to stay in my discomfort longer before I act.

How did you come to work in women’s rights and against domestic violence?

A personal, tragic experience brought me head-on to care about women’s issues. Basically, I lost my family due to domestic violence. We struggled as a family for four years to keep my sister and her family safe, but my sister’s husband killed my sister, their two daughters, ages 2 and 3, and my mother. At the time in Puerto Rico, there were no battered-women shelters, hot lines or legislation that recognized and addressed domestic violence.

How did you begin working at The Women’s Building and what drew you there?

A friend of mine, Norma Del Rio, who was on the board, introduced me to The Women’s Building. The minute I opened those doors, I felt it was a place I belonged and felt comfortable and safe. I learned that, indeed, it is a rare institution — there isn’t any space like this in the United States.

What makes the Celebration of Craftswomen so unique?

The Celebration of Craftswomen [which began this weekend and continues next weekend at Herbst Pavilion in the Fort Mason Center] is a beautiful juried crafts fair that has been in existence since 1978. We love that we are supporting women as they grow their own creative businesses in arts and crafts.

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