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The AIDS Memorial Quilt Returns to San Francisco With New Purpose

AIDS Memorial Quilt

The head of the National AIDS Memorial reflects on a moving monument's past and future on World AIDS Day.

This World AIDS Day, the National AIDS Memorial welcomes back home to San Francisco the first group of panels of the AIDS Memorial Quilt and honors leaders who have helped bring together the vast voices of the epidemic with profound courage, unrelenting hope and unity of humankind.

A few of those voices are Cleve Jones, Mike Smith, and Gert McMullin. It was more than three decades ago, during the height of the AIDS epidemic, when a group of strangers gathered at a San Francisco storefront to remember the names and lives of their loved ones they feared history would forget. It was that seemingly simple act of love and defiance, where the first panels of the Quilt were created and sparked a national movement, which continues today.

Their passion and work has helped make the Quilt a powerful social justice teaching tool that today, has grown to more than 50,000 3-by-6-foot memorial panels, individually sewn together to tell the personal stories of more than 105,000 lives lost to AIDS.

Three years after those first panels were created, just a few miles away, another small group of San Franciscans, also representing a community devastated by the AIDS epidemic, came together in a neglected grove in Golden Gate Park to restore it and create a serene place where people seeking healing could gather to express their collective grief through a living AIDS memorial, which is now known as the National AIDS Memorial.

Both the Quilt and the 10-acre National AIDS Memorial are physical embodiments of activism, of community organizing, of what shared grief looks like across myriad communities. They are powerful, tangible statements of resilience and of legacy.

The common thread and common ground these two symbols share are reasons why the NAMES Project Foundation recently announced that the Quilt would move from Atlanta where it has been cared for since 2001, back to the San Francisco Bay Area, under the stewardship of the National AIDS Memorial. As part of that decision, the Quilt's archival collection will transfer under the care of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, making it available to the public through the world's largest public library.

Because the Quilt originated in San Francisco, it is fitting that it become part of our National AIDS Memorial. Our mission is to provide, in perpetuity, a place of remembrance so that the lives of people who died from AIDS are not forgotten and the story is known by future generations.

Individually, both the Quilt and the National AIDS Memorial tell stories of action, hope, healing, and remembrance. When paired, they offer a far more cohesive and national understanding of the enormous impact of AIDS and the destructive result of stigma and discrimination on the fabric of a society. At the same time, both the AIDS Quilt and the National AIDS Memorial invoke compassion and dispel discrimination and stigma.

As the national discourse has now turned to ending the epidemic, a challenge that is aspirational, achievable, and fraught with the same systemic injustices that allowed the epidemic to take hold in communities most heavily impacted -- racism, sexism, homophobia, lack of access to adequate health care services, etc. -- the need for community activism and organizing has become even more acute.

The National AIDS Memorial will help in that regard through the support of Gilead Sciences, which has provided a $2.4 million grant - the largest single grant the National AIDS Memorial has ever received -- that will be used to fund the Quilt programs, support its move back to San Francisco, and launch a new public education initiative in 2020 to bring the Quilt displays into communities across the country, particularly in regions adversely impacted by HIV.

Since the National AIDS Memorial relies solely on funding from personal donors and corporate partners to support its mission and programs, which now includes the Quilt, these resources will help ensure that the story of AIDS and the AIDS movement is known in perpetuity so that never again will our national conscience allow a community to be devastated by an epidemic because of fear, silence, discrimination or stigma.

The National AIDS Memorial is honored to recognize so many leaders on this World AIDS Day who have all been an inspiration, forging common ground by sharing their personal stories, through their activism and by changing hearts and minds in this long struggle against HIV and AIDS.

Their collective voices have made a difference, and through their loss, their love, and their activism, they have helped create a Quilt and an AIDS Memorial that will help us always remember the lives we've lost through this devastating disease.

John Cunningham is the executive director of the National AIDS Memorial. Learn more at

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