Co-founder, Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt
Mike Smith co-founded the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt in 1987. Now living through his second pandemic, Smith is finding ways to help out amid COVID-19 -- and to inspire others to do the same. He shares his Brief But Spectacular take on turning grief into action.
Judy Woodruff: Mike Smith has been responsible for producing some of the most historic fabric in the U.S.
In 1987, he co-founded the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, which honors the lives of people who have died of AIDS-related causes.
In tonight’s Brief But Spectacular, Smith discusses that initiative and a more recent one that has galvanized people to support those vulnerable to COVID-19.
Mike Smith: You know, I don’t think I’m the only one with a little bit of PTSD these days.
For a lot of us that lived through those really dark days, suddenly here we are again with a virus you can’t see randomly affecting people, life being put on hold, all sorts of things changing.
Around the time of the lockdown here in San Francisco, it suddenly occurred to me that this is going to be the second pandemic of my life. And I really — no one should have to live through more than one.
All those years ago in San Francisco and in the early ’80s and mid-’80s, it was a really dark time. I had just finished Stanford Business School and had taken care of a friend and a classmate who died during school, and moved up to San Francisco without really thinking much about a career and a job, a little heartbroken, a little bit lost, and kind of stumbled into the middle of an epidemic.
The Castro back then was horrible. You would walk down the street and you would pass dozens of people who you knew you were probably never going to see you again. The country didn’t seem to be responding or didn’t seem to be caring.
When some friends and I started the AIDS Memorial Quilt, it was really a cry for help, some way to reach Middle America with something that’s not threatening and feels warm and comforting. And you think of your grandmother when someone says quilt. And that wasn’t the world we were living in with AIDS right then.
It was a much different world where people were either — there’s you and there’s us, and we don’t have it, and you do. And that’s all there is to it.
Almost immediately, I thought, this is an idea that’s really going to resonate. We said we were going to do that first display at the March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights in October of ’87, like four months after we decided to start building this thing, which was crazy.
And I think I thought we would do this for a little while and we’d make our point and that would be the end. And I don’t think we were prepared for the beauty of the quilts. We had been making something that were basically bedsheets to make a protest statement. And, suddenly, we had mothers all over the country sending us panels for their dead son, expecting us to preserve them and care for them in perpetuity.
I never thought it would become my life’s work, but it has become my life’s work.
In the middle of all of this, COVID, when it first happened, I wasn’t the only one that was kind of looking for a way to be helpful, a way to do something, which has always been my mode.
Gert McMullin, who’d been very involved in sewing together many of the panels in the quilt for years, was feeling the same way. She used to be able to go into hospital rooms in the ’80s and be with dying friends. She just couldn’t stand that she couldn’t touch people and she couldn’t be up close with people.
Finally, she said, you know, I’m going to go into the workshop. It’s empty. There’s nobody else there. And I’m going to start making some face masks. And we can give them away to people.
I made a phone call to an old friend, and it turned out she was working at an agency that was desperate for masks. This project has really opened my eyes to see how many vulnerable and at-risk populations there are in an epidemic like this.
In a homeless shelter, in a youth rehab program, people are right there up close with each other, and you can’t get that kind of distance.
The AIDS Memorial Quilt has gone from a protest banner and something we were going to take to Washington to make a difference for one day, to a national treasure. I mean, it’s the largest community arts project in the world. More people have worked on the quilt than built the Pyramids.
And a lot of what we did at the time was not just the fabric. We inspired people to do something, anything, to express what they were going through, to tell their stories.
And I think now about where we are with this mask project, and it’s the same thing. We may make 2,000 or 3,000 masks, and that may save some lives. I’d much rather have this be a catalyst for other people to feel like, I can find something to do. I can get out of my house and go help stuff food at the food bank.
If we can do something simple like make masks, you can do something simple, like find a way to be helpful. And that’s what I’d much rather be remembered for, that — being that catalyst, than for just doing some sewing.
My name is Mike Smith, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on turning grief into action.
Judy Woodruff: And a beautiful message, and one we all need to hear.