From left, Janice Mirikitani, Jean Feilmoser and Terry Collins. (Courtesy photos)

Guided by voices: Remembering the lives of Janice Mirikitani, Terry Collins and San Franciscans passed on

‘It’s the people of true revolutionary commitment…who are responsible for the culture of The City’

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The sudden death on July 29 of poet, activist and co-founder of GLIDE community Janice Mirikitani and the July passing of Terry Collins, co-founder and director of community radio KPOO-FM, leave a tear in the fabric of The City we may be hard pressed to patch. Aside from leaving family and friends bereaved, the values and spirit they brought to their roles as community leaders rippled well beyond city limits and into the world.

“When people in the community die, whether you have a personal relationship with them or not, it’s a loss,” said Julie Rogers, co-founder and director of TLC, Transitional Life Care. “They represent our home, our culture, our communities.”

Against the backdrop of the pandemic, The City’s losses have started to add up, particularly in communities of color and among artists where displacement and elective retreat from The City continues. As our brightest lights age out and ultimately crossover, without the next generation in place, we could become in peril of losing our emphasis on changing the wider culture through art and activism.

“A cat like Terry really stabilizes the community,” said San Francisco poet laureate Tongo Eisen-Martin. “Terry was still in motion, right on up to the end. A revolutionary never retires, they don’t belong to those kinds of paradigms,” he said, conjuring Collins’ commitment to the principle of self-determination. “Every conversation with him was a full immersion in revolutionary spirit that could sustain you for years.”

Collins, originally from Indiana, arrived in San Francisco in 1967, a veteran against the war. He joined the Black Panthers and the Black Student Union’s organizing efforts at San Francisco State where he participated in the historic student strikes of 1968-69, notable for giving birth to an Ethnic Studies Department which reshaped higher and secondary education in the Bay Area and beyond. As an outgrowth of raising liberation consciousness, Collins and fellow student striker Joe Rudolph created a media center to teach audio visual skills not only to Black students but to dispossessed communities who generally did not have a voice on the airwaves. Collins’ internationalist spirit of solidarity informs KPOO’s mission almost 50 years later, giving airtime to all forms of African American music and sounds from around the world, as well as to prison issues, news from the Arab world and reports from the Native nations (some of that programming has been covered in previous editions of this column).

Mirikitani’s radicalization took a slightly different road: Born in Stockton, Mirikitani was a survivor of relocation to a World War II internment camp on U.S. soil; she was also a survivor of familial sexual abuse. After studying at UCLA, she participated in student organizing for ethnic studies with the Asian American Political Alliance. Working as a poet and with a day job as an administrator at GLIDE, she became its director of programming in 1969. It was through her art, and her ability to identify with people’s suffering, that she began to heal and become a voice against oppression and for compassion. Married to the Rev. Cecil Williams since 1982, she and her husband made GLIDE Foundation’s name synonymous with radical inclusion and unconditional love. Through the AIDS pandemic, San Francisco’s never-ending housing crisis and the miasma that defines the Tenderloin, Mirkitani’s concept to “care dangerously” meant opening her heart and herself up to other survivors of trauma. Her poetry was a part of that work.

Serving as San Francisco’s second poet laureate from 2000-02, Mirikitani showed up for poetry and literacy when and where she was called to do so long after her term. In addition to the GLIDE community, her fellow poets feel the weight of losing another of their own in a rough year for burying regional giants of the art: Michael McClure, Diane di Prima, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Al Young and Q.R. Hand all joined their ancestors in 2020-21.

“People like Jan and Q.R. also really stabilize The City; regardless of what people think makes the world go ‘round, it’s the people of true revolutionary commitment, regardless of where they dance in relationship to the spotlight, who are responsible for the culture of The City,” said Eisen-Martin who is also an independent publisher. Last year he launched Black Freighter Press as a platform for Black and Brown voices. Among other titles, he’s published “Out of Nothing,” the final work of Hand, a poet and mental health worker here for 40 years.

In the spirit of remembering recent passings of seniors who contributed to making The City what it is, Don Skiles was a San Francisco State alumnus who spent most of his adult life as a writer and professor of English at Chabot College. Author of five books, Skiles contributed “The Poodle, The Refrigerator and You,” to the anthology “Your Golden Sun Still Shines,” which I edited. Married for nearly 50 years to Marian Schell, an artist and teacher at Lincoln and Mission high schools, Skiles cared for his wife through her cancer years, until her death June of 2020. A year later, Skiles sustained a stroke and died in June. I sometimes find myself wondering about the fate of their poodle, Alfie.

Jean Feilmoser was, among other things, a San Francisco tour guide and a cab driver — one of the few women in the business. I met her at one of the annual San Francisco History Days events at the Old Mint where she had come to deepen her knowledge of The City, even though she was born and raised in the Outer Mission. She fell into easy conversation with me and I Drive SF columnist Kelly Dessaint, and I took her card, hoping to profile her in this space; instead, I came to know her as a student in writing classes I facilitate for Litquake’s Elder Project. Feilmoser died in June, just shy of her 70th birthday after exhaustive caregiving for her mother — but not before she committed her story as a world traveler and election observer in East Timor, where she escaped the 1999 massacre.

“I was impressed by her story,” said Rogers, who is also among the teaching artists with the Elder Project. “I heard a woman standing up for herself in the face of potential great loss and she triumphed. When she lifted her hand in the air at the reading, it was a gesture of victory. She wouldn’t allow herself to be oppressed.”

As a poet and a grief worker, Rogers continues to explore the bereavement cycle that is not always supported in Western culture. Her husband, poet David Meltzer, died in 2016.

“The funeral industry has changed the face of death in America over the last 100 years,” she said. “Survivors are often left to fend for themselves with no tools and very little support.” She noted hospice services tend to be an overlooked resource. “They’re not just for the dying but for the family afterward.”

TLCserves.org operates through a Buddhist framework. There are other religious and secular organizations out there, too, like San Francisco’s Institute on Aging, which offers grief services for a reasonable fee and a Friendship Line that’s open for people in need of a live person on the other end of the phone.

“When you’re dealing with a loss, and no one’s listening, it’s a compounded loss,” explained Rogers. And in these times, loss tends to be all around us.

“Even if you happen to be fortunate and haven’t had financial fallout, there are other losses to consider,” she said. “We’ve lost our illusions of feeling safe. Lost our illusions of trust in the media, in politicians. We veer around each other on the street. The distancing we’ve had to put in place without reinforcing it with better communication, has been devastating.”

Cultural and political organizing can be among ways forward, as are bolstering organizational infrastructure and training for the next generation to lead communities out of oppressive conditions and outmoded systems. We hope to use this column as a space to explore these future possibilities as we grope our way through the darkness together.

“Moving forward, the key is we have to recreate or reinvigorate the conditions that create a Terry, a Q.R.” said Eisen-Martin. “There’s no way to raise the next generation of revolutionaries without a wave of revolutionary organization. What Terry would probably say is we need real movement.”

Until that time, there is still visual art, spoken and written word, music and performance to be tapped to transform consciousness in times of trouble. Donations and public memorials are also a way for the beloved community to gather and work toward closure if there is such a thing at the end of one’s life.

Eisen-Martin was among the congregants at the July 24 memorial for Collins at the African American Arts and Cultural Complex; he will deliver poems at two events celebrating the life of Mirikitani scheduled for the weekend, including today’s online event from 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. streaming live on GLIDE’s Facebook page. The City’s remaining living poet laureates memorialized Mirikitani on Aug. 14 at an online program, archived at SFPL.org. And donations can be made in Mirikitani’s name to the GLIDE Memorial Fund.

“I didn’t have a lot of interactions with Jan,” said Eisen-Martin. “I just know her legacy and I see her fingerprint all over everything that’s good in this city.”

Denise Sullivan, an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions,” can be reached at denisesullivan.com and @4DeniseSullivan. SF Lives/Live Talks are live streamed at 10 a.m. on the second Sunday of the month from birdbeckett.com.

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