Janice Mirikitani, the beloved GLIDE Co-Founder and Japanese American Sansei poet, whose activism helped define the social justice culture of San Francisco, and whose verse illuminated her struggles with ethnic identity and personal adversity, died on Thursday, July 29, 2021. She was 80.
Mirikitani was a teacher, artist, and activist whose work and commitment to empower and give voice to the most marginalized has transformed tens of thousands of lives in San Francisco and beyond. As co-founder of the Glide Foundation, she played a seminal role in creating what many consider the nation’s boldest and most unique fusion of social justice activism, social services at the raw edge of society, and the celebration of human creativity, all converging to break through traditional lines of race, gender, class, and creed.
“Janice was a force of nature,” said GLIDE President and CEO Karen Hanrahan. “She was fearless and transformational in the honesty with which she loved us all and held us all accountable. Janice’s legacy and her unique, powerful voice are all around us. It will continue to inspire GLIDE’s work as we transform hearts and minds, and the landscape of poverty and homelessness, in San Francisco.”
Mirikitani spent her entire adult life in a relentless pursuit of the kind of justice that brings the extreme and sometimes hidden needs in our society to the forefront of our attention. She did this on three fronts: as a poet who rendered the rage of the oppressed, the incest survivor, and the invisible onto the page; as a teacher-choreographer who guided thousands of children, women, and men in the exploration of their own histories; and as Founding President of the Glide Foundation by ensuring those struggling the most in San Francisco had access to food, housing, recovery, medical care, and a place to grow.
Born February 5, 1941, in Stockton, California, Janice Mirikitani was incarcerated as an infant with her family in an Arkansas concentration camp during the mass internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. Following her family’s release from the camp in 1945, the five-year-old Mirikitani moved to Chicago with her family and then to Petaluma with her mother. She has spoken publicly and through her poetry of these years where she endured emotional isolation, poverty, and the trauma of sexual abuse by her stepfather. Mirikitani is known as a woman who can illuminate the horrors of war, lead a group of homeless women in writing their own histories, and confront institutional racism in public life – all while exposing the raw vitality, joy, and rage of speaking truth.
Mirikitani earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from UCLA in 1962 and her teaching credential from UC Berkeley. She also taught in the Contra Costa School District for a year before pursuing a graduate degree in creative writing at San Francisco State University.
In 1965, Mirikitani came to work at Glide Memorial Church as an administrative assistant. There she met Reverend Cecil Williams and quickly became active in political movements for human rights and the 1960s anti-war and peace movements. Her exposure to the injustices of structural racism and sexism, particularly against poor people, propelled her activism.
Calling herself a “warrior of peace,” as director of GLIDE programs beginning in 1969, Mirikitani shaped GLIDE’s outreach and support for women and families facing challenges of substance abuse, domestic violence, single parenting, childcare, health and wellness, education, and access to employment. Under her leadership, GLIDE programs increased in size and scope. In 1982, GLIDE named Mirikitani Executive Director and President.
On January 1, 1982, Mirikitani married Williams. Working closely together, they built GLIDE into a visionary, internationally known social justice leader, advocate, social service provider, and inclusive spiritual community.
In 2000, Mirikitani was appointed San Francisco’s second Poet Laureate. Her works of poetry include “Awake in the River” (1978), “Shedding Silence” (1987), “We, the Dangerous: New and Selected Poems” (1995), “Love Works” (2001) and “Out of the Dust: New and Selected Poems” (2014). Additionally, she was the editor of nine landmark anthologies which provided platforms for writers of color, women, youth, and children.
Mirikitani and Williams collaborated on the book “Beyond the Possible: 50 Years of Creating Radical Change in a Community Called GLIDE” (2013). It describes GLIDE’s explosive growth, from a struggling local church within the GLIDE Foundation to a nationally recognized social justice institution.
In “Beyond the Possible,” Mirikitani writes, “Our ministry at Glide started by listening to people tell us about their needs, and by engaging those people in creating programs … True leadership, we learned through the years, was about providing opportunities for those who might not consider themselves capable or educated but nevertheless had the passion, street smarts, and commitment to change — to emerge and develop as leaders.”
Throughout her influential career, Mirikitani has been the recipient of more than 40 awards and honors, including the Governor and First Lady’s Conference on Women and Families’ “Minerva Award,” San Francisco State University’s “Distinguished Alumnae Award,” the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce’s “Lifetime Achievement Ebbie,” the American Book “Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature,” the University of California at San Francisco Chancellor’s “Medal of Honor,” and the “Foreign Ministry Commendation Award” from the Japanese Foreign Ministry.
Mirikitani’s legacy of unwavering advocacy for the most marginalized lives on through GLIDE’s bold strategic vision to reach more people in need with comprehensive services to help people off the streets, advance racial and social equity and build empathy to address large-scale issues across San Francisco. She will be remembered by many San Franciscans as a provocative, fierce-hearted, and enormously generous leader.
Mirikitani is survived by her husband, the Reverend Cecil Williams, her daughter, Tianne Tsukiko Feliciano and her husband Anthony, grandson Nicholas Feliciano, brother Layne Yonehiro MD, sister-in-law Susan Yonehiro, nephew Jason Yonehiro and niece Samantha Yonehiro, stepchildren Albert Williams Jr, Kimberly Williams, and step-grandchildren Kaya Grant, Albert Williams III and Zachary Williams.
A public memorial service is scheduled for August 15, 2021. Seating is extremely limited at the memorial due to COVID safety protocols and guidance. Those who wish to attend are encouraged to join the livestream at 12:30 p.m. on GLIDE’s Facebook page, facebook.com/glidesf. In lieu of flowers, a GLIDE Memorial Fund for Janice Mirikitani has been established to support programs benefitting Women and Children. Donations can be made in Mirikitani’s memory at glide.org/honorjanice or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.