On December 1, World AIDS Day, the sidewalks of the Castro neighborhood in San Francisco will be inscribed with the names of loved ones gone too soon. INSCRIBE, an annual community celebration, remembers and honors the men and women who lived in the neighborhood (and around the world) and died of AIDS-related causes. Using colorful chalk, students from Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy, a public elementary school in the Castro, will write collected and proffered-in-the-moment names (or participants can inscribe the names themselves) amid the sidewalk-embedded bronze plaques of The Rainbow Honor Walk, which pays tribute to civil rights leaders who made a positive impact for the LGBTQ community.
George Kelly, a San Fransisco resident and HIV long-term survivor, created the event. “Once I had the idea, I could not stop the passion. The sidewalks had just been widened. The Rainbow Honor Walk was created and had just laid their first twenty bronze plaques,” Kelly shares. “I have been a school volunteer at Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy for nearly two decades. I have been living with HIV for over thirty years. I love my neighborhood and my community. Tom Ryan, or Mr. Tom, a teacher at our school and my friend, died of AIDS in 2012. Our 4th and 5th graders knew and loved Mr. Tom. I wanted to honor Tom and my many other friends and neighbors who died of AIDS. I thought the neighborhood should celebrate our heroes and that we should invite the world. The perfect storm was created in my heart and poured out all over the sidewalks, that beautiful day in The Castro.”
Commenting on the significance of hosting INSCRIBE in a public space, Kelly says, “Many of the lives lost to AIDS lived and worked in the Castro and walked these sidewalks. It is a befitting place to honor these victims of the epidemic. Merchants and neighbors come out and share their stories. The students INSCRIBE the names of past employees in front of the businesses where some of them used to work. This brings tears to the merchants as they celebrate and remember their past employees and loved ones with the students. The merchants and neighbors love having the students out in our community. Their loved ones are not being forgotten!”
INSCRIBE is a collaborative effort—parents, teachers, neighbors, merchants, tourists, and community leaders join together with members of Shanti’s Honoring Our Experience, HIV-positive and negative survivors of the AIDS epidemic, and members of The Elizabeth Taylor 50-Plus Network, as well as students from Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy, who learn about HIV/AIDS and its impact on the neighborhood in the classroom thanks to visits from community members and their own at-home personal and community research, a process through which they collect names and stories of those who have died.
“Our school is in the heart of The Castro, ground zero for the AIDS epidemic. INSCRIBE is an excellent opportunity for our community to come together and teach our youngest members our history,” says Kelly about the importance of involving the younger generation in AIDS-related events. “Children are our future and they will be the tellers of our stories. We want them to have the correct information. The history of AIDS and the devastation it caused to our community is not in our or any school curriculum. This is a hands-on learning experience for our students from the people who lived through the worst of the crisis. The children of our community should know the history of our community. INSCRIBE is that learning/teaching opportunity.”
INSCRIBE becomes a learning opportunity for adults, too, as they see the epidemic from a younger perspective. Notes Kelly: “Children are teachers. Their curiosity and questions remind us of where we have been and how far we have come as a community in regards to the AIDS epidemic. Our answers stir emotions, theirs and ours, and put a face to AIDS. Children listen closely and with compassion to the stories. Quite often the students will have a story of their own about a loss in their own family to AIDS. Children want to know the facts about the epidemic and have an understanding of the causes, transmission, and prevention of HIV.”
Kelly and the other INSCRIBE participants have received a bounty of positive feedback, too numerous to recount here. Terry Asten Bennett, manager of Cliff’s Variety, wrote in to say: “George Kelly, you make a difference. What you gave us all was beautiful and tragic and respectful. So many names. I wanted to share with you a story. Yesterday afternoon…a man came into Cliff’s to buy some chalk. I happened to be stocking the chalk just then and he told me, ‘I was in class all day yesterday and couldn’t come, but I need to write my partner’s name. I need green because it was his favorite color and I need yellow because he was my sunshine….’”
“To George Kelly & the beautiful children of The Harvey Milk Academy who took the time to make this fantastical inscription for my dad (Larry W. Mahon 1944–1994), I can never express in words how grateful I am for your time and your love. He was a painter, a composer, and a photographer, and I can tell you he would have loved this inscription!! Thank you from the bottom of our hearts….YOU HAVE MADE A DIFFERENCE!” wrote Larry’s daughters, Gillian Mahon Bannon and Micheline Mahon Cacciatore.
Gregg Cassin, a counselor at Shanti and founder of Honoring Our Experience, shared this story with Kelly: “Profoundly moving—to witness 5th graders approach strangers walking up Castro St., ‘Excuse me, is there anyone you would like to remember who is living with HIV or has died?’ The men pause visibly moved look at the boy, ‘Yes…’ Then look to one another, searching one another. At this pause the boy says, ‘Would you come over here and help me spell their names?’
The event starts at 9 a.m. at the elementary school and inscriptions begin at 10 a.m. If you are unable to attend, you may still submit a name and short bio for the INSCRIBE event.
Reporting by Chael Needle
For more information, log on to: https://www.facebook.com/INSCRIBEHarveyMilkCivilRightsAcademy.