By Jack Quach
Surrounded by a sea of brilliantly colored, intricately designed fabric, Barbara Albanese crouches next to a quilt patch, reaching toward it in a silent reflection. Heart-shaped decorations clothe the fabric with notes and photos delivered from family and loved ones. “Ode to My Big Brother,” the largest heart reads.
In the embrace of Robin Williams Meadow in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, Albanese visits the hand-sewn quilt patch she made in honor of her brother, Ronald Allen Salser, who passed away from AIDS during the 1990s. When she heard that the quilt would be displayed, Albanese — who currently lives in Lake Tahoe — immediately knew that she needed to travel to San Francisco.
“‘Let it be.’ That was my brother,” Albanese said in a tearful remembrance. “It meant so much to me because he struggled with being who he was. Just let people be, that’s my message.”
Walking between sprawling depictions of life stories embroidered into patchwork, Albanese joined the tens of thousands of visitors to the National AIDS Memorial Quilt showcase on June 11-12. The event represented the largest display of the quilt ever in San Francisco and marked 35 years since the first stories of the international community arts project were sewn.
The national quilt, which began in 1987, allows family members and loved ones space for mourning, healing and acceptance by sewing personalized patches representing someone who died from AIDS. Today, the full quilt consists of more than 50,000 contributions from around the world.
As the dewy grass began to dry off on a clear-skied June 11 morning, hundreds had already gathered in the serene section of Golden Gate Park in anticipation of the opening ceremony.
After musical performances by the GLIDE Memorial Church Choir, National AIDS Memorial Quilt Co-Founder Mike Smith began his introductory speech. Many of the several dignitaries on city, state and federal levels in attendance at the showcase also shared their reflections on the resounding impact of the stories revealed through the memorial quilt.
Featured speakers included Assistant U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Adm. Rachel Levine, San Francisco Mayor London Breed and White House AIDS Policy Director Harold Phillips.
Quilt co-founder Cleve Jones took the stage just before the thousands of panels on display were opened for public viewing. With an impassioned voice, he described the immense fear and anxiety he felt as an HIV and AIDS patient. Throughout the decades, however, the quilt and its rallying community became for him “the physical embodiment of love and courage and hope.”
Volunteers then unfurled the quilt panels onto the Golden Gate Park lawn one by one, thousands of names and notes of love billowing in the breeze. The stunning commemoration, made possible by the quilt’s move from Atlanta to its hometown Bay Area, drew the attention of all in attendance. Initiated by Jones, public readings of the lives lost to AIDS/HIV accompanied public observation of the quilt throughout both days of the weekend.
Breed celebrated the historic event and its aspirations to spread awareness of the ongoing HIV/AIDS epidemic, which – despite developments in treatment since the height of the spread of the disease during the late 20th century – still impacts millions around the world.
“We still see people becoming infected, and these are things that we can really avoid by being deliberative in our investments to support people in communities that don’t traditionally have access to medicine,” Breed said. She announced a funding increase to support the goal of no new infections in San Francisco by 2025.
“My hope is that [the AIDS memorial event] continues to really shine a light on what happens when we come together and recognize that [the HIV/AIDS epidemic] is an important issue to pay attention to, but more importantly, to make changes to policy for.”
Levine said the increase of awareness was important to preventing new HIV cases.
“HIV is not gone, Levine said. “We still have new people contracting HIV in a number of different ways, but we have the ability to prevent that. So, awareness equals action.”
Levine is the first openly transgender Senate-confirmed federal official.
Phillips added that he would search for ways “to use the power of the quilt to bring us together and unite.”
Along with the central quilt panel display, social media and volunteer tents lined the edges of Robin Williams Meadow offering opportunities to stay connected with the National AIDS Memorial, to learn more about the ongoing efforts to find a cure and to display solidarity with people impacted by HIV/AIDS.
Expanding healthcare access to marginalized populations was a central theme at the memorial event. During the procession of keynote speakers, Dafina Ward, the executive director of the Southern AIDS Coalition, stressed her conviction to bring the same advancements in HIV treatment seen in cities such as San Francisco to people of color and communities in the southern U.S. This region of America experiences 52% of all new cases, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“HIV has been invisible for so long because of stigma, because of shame that people experience and because a lot of times, we’re under-resourced,” Ward said.
Ward emphasized the importance of community-based organizations – which formed the origin of the National AIDS Memorial Quilt – to her work in education about the epidemic, of which under-resourced communities face a significant scarcity.
Observers wove through walkways lined with panels; they knelt to touch the meticulously sewn panels, embraced each other, and even made additions to the inscribed stories. Some have hope in their eyes, others love, others grief for lost loved ones. But, while leaders and volunteers continued to read names aloud, there was a whole-hearted, united recognition of how the movement for HIV/AIDS awareness “can save lives,” as Cleve Jones said to conclude his speech.
National AIDS Memorial CEO John Cunningham described justice as the root of the movement represented by the June event.
“And if we can stand in the place of justice and join forces together and continue to fight together, we can accomplish so much more,” Cunningham said.
For more information about the National AIDS Memorial and the Quilt, go to aidsmemorial.org/quilt35. Go to hiv.gov for more information on federal initiatives to fight the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
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