SAN FRANCISCO — Janice Mirikitani, a renowned poet and a leader in social service programs at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco, passed away on July 29 at the age of 80.
Glide President and CEO Karen Hanrahan announced that Mirikitani, a former poet laureate of San Francisco, “passed away with family and friends by her side” early Thursday morning but did not give the cause of death.
“Our hearts are full with both grief and the tremendous love that she embodied,” Hanrahan said. “Janice brought fierce courage and spirit to everything she did. She spoke her truth and inspired others to accept and celebrate themselves, each other, and all our differences.
“Janice co-created so much of the early vision and the roots of Glide’s impact. Her work touched many areas, both in the church and on the street in the Tenderloin and in San Francisco. She took deep pride in serving the most marginalized communities, including support for women and children, education, recovery, primary and mental health care, job training, and housing.
“A memorial is being arranged. Updates regarding times and locations will be shared with you soon. Keeping with Janice’s wishes, a memorial fund has been established to support women and children’s programs at Glide.
“Please know that our co-founder Rev. Cecil Williams [Mirikitani’s husband] is being held with love and support in this sensitive and difficult time. He and their family remain in our hearts.
“While words cannot adequately express our sadness, we will honor Janice’s memory and her legacy by dedicating ourselves to continuing the work she loved so much. We will get through this together.”
Mirikitani, a Sansei, was born in 1941 in Stockton, where her parents were farmers. She was incarcerated with her family during World War II at the Rohwer camp in Arkansas. After release from camp, her family moved to Chicago. After her parents’ divorce, she was taken to Petaluma, where she lived on a chicken farm with her mother.
After graduating from UCLA, Mirikitani got a teaching degree and taught in the Contra Costa School District. She got married and divorced, worked as an administrative assistant at Glide Memorial Church — an institution in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district — and studied creative writing at San Francisco State College.
Mirikitani participated in the Asian American Political Alliance and joined Third World Communications, where she edited Aion (1970-71), one of the earliest Asian American literary publications, and two anthologies, “Third World Women” (1972) and “Time to Greez! Incantations from the Third World” (1975). She then became project director for “Ayumi: A Japanese American Anthology” (1980), which featured works by multiple generations.
She became program director at Glide and in 1982 married Rev. Williams and became president of the Glide Foundation, where she developed more than 80 programs for the poor and homeless to encourage them to make meaningful changes in their lives to break the cycle of poverty and dependence.
In addition to such issues as the horrors of war, institutional racism and the enslavement of women, Mirikitani addressed sexual abuse, revealing that she had been molested as a child by her stepfather for nearly a decade and had considered suicide.
She was the author of the poetry collections “Awake in the River” (1978), “Shedding Silence” (1987), “We, the Dangerous” (1995), “Love Works” (2002), and “Out of the Dust: New and Selected Poems” (2014). She also co-wrote “Beyond the Possible” (2013) with Williams.
In 2000, Mirikitani was named San Francisco’s second poet laureate. “For me, the role of poet is as a voice to connect with the community,” she told The San Francisco Chronicle at the time. “What’s great about San Francisco is its diversity. It’s the mecca for diversity, and that’s what turns me on about being the laureate.”
She was 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 Award, the prestigious American Book Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature, and the UC San Francisco Chancellor’s Medal of Honor. In 1988, she was named Woman of the Year in the 17th Assembly District.
The Tenderloin Museum said in a statement: “Rest in power, Dr. Janice Mirikitani. One of the Tenderloin’s most dedicated community activists, Mirikitani was an agent of radical empathy who had the power to transmute trauma and tragedy into love and hope. A tireless advocate for women and families in particular, she touched countless lives in the neighborhood and beyond, helping people actualize meaningful, transformative change.
“Mirikitani co-founded the Glide Foundation with her beloved husband Rev. Cecil Williams, and together they shaped the Tenderloin’s culture of acceptance and safe haven for the most poor and marginalized among us. Mirikitani was also a celebrated and prolific poet, unafraid to name and engage with the most challenging of subjects, and through her literary activities created platforms for writers of color, women writers, and young poets, amplifying their voices at times when few others were listening.
“It is impossible to overstate her impact on the Tenderloin, and though she will be missed deeply, she leaves behind a powerful legacy in the Glide community that keeps her work and spirit alive.”
Chinatown Community Development Center said in a statement: “Today, Chinatown CDC stands alongside our Tenderloin family to mourn the tragic loss of activist and legend Janice Mirikitani. We remember her as a courageous advocate for the unhoused, those combating addiction, and those fleeing violence. As co-founder of Glide, these actions live and breathe through the organization and its staff who work tirelessly to uplift our community and provide services to those in need.
“Glide’s programs have served hundreds of our residents who live in supportive housing, senior and family housing, and SROs. Most recently, their work has helped to combat food insecurity throughout the course of the pandemic – allowing many of our families to stop worrying about where they’ll get their next meal. This work wouldn’t be possible without Janice’s love and commitment to the Tenderloin community. She will be missed, but her memory will live on for generations to come.”
“Our community and our city lost a trailblazer, mentor to many and the voice who advocated for many through her work and poetry — Janice Mirikitani,” said Grace Horikiri, executive director of the Nihonmachi Street Fair.
“The Nihonmachi Street Fair is deeply saddened on the unexpected passing of our community sister, Janice Mirikitani. Not only did she and her husband, Rev. Cecil Williams, co-found Glide … but through her poetry and writing she showed us courage and spoke for those who could not.
“It was Janice’s advocacy that helped save the Nihonmachi Street Fair by getting funding through the Grants for the Arts. We are forever grateful. This year’s 47th annual Nihonmachi Street Fair will be dedicated to her memory. Rest in peace, Janice.”
Local elected officials reacted to Mirikitani’s passing.
State Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco): “I’m beyond heartbroken that our beloved Janice Mirikitani has passed. Jan was one of the most exceptional human beings I’ve ever met, combining strength and love like no one else. My condolences to the love of her life — Rev. Cecil Williams — to the entire Glide community, and to all of San Francisco. This is a huge loss for our community.”
Assemblymember David Chiu (D-San Francisco): “I think San Francisco’s reeling today … She was our poet. She was our muse. She taught us all what it means to leave unconditionally, but also to fight for social justice.”
San Francisco Supervisor Matt Haney: “We lost a legend today, the First Lady of the Tenderloin, a poet, someone who loved people, all people, and had endless compassion, grace, and vision. Rest in power, Dr. Janice Mirikitani. I grieve with the Glide community and the countless people whose lives she touched.”
San Francisco Mayor London Breed: “Jan Mirikitani was one of our city’s true lights. She was a visionary, a revolutionary artist, and the very embodiment of San Francisco’s compassionate spirit. As a poet, including as poet laureate of this city from 2000 to 2002, she used the power of her words to further the fight for equality and to call for a more just and peaceful world. Through her work at Glide Memorial Church, along with her husband the Rev. Cecil Williams, she served our most vulnerable residents for decades and provided a place of refuge and love for all. She was boundless in her energy and in her devotion to this city and to her fellow San Franciscans. My heart goes out to her friends and family, especially to Cecil. She was loved and will never be forgotten.”
San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin: “Heartbroken to learn of the passing of Janice Mirikitani, SF poet laureate, cofounder of Glide, and a visionary, impactful person. She read a poem at our recent summit on hate crimes and keeping the AAPI community safe, moving us all with the power of her words. Rest in power.”
Former San Francisco Supervisor Bevan Dufty: “I never imagined a San Francisco without Janice Mirikitani. Her passion, drive, vision, courage and deepest love for her soulmate Rev Cecil and the entire Glide community seemed beyond the hands of time. Her achievements and ethos will always inspire me.”
Biographical material from Densho