Maker: AIDS Memorial Quilt — Sewing as a Catalyst for Change

“My greater hope,” Mike Smith says, “is that people will see what we’re doing and realize that they, too, can do something worthwhile — that it’s easy to be helpful if you want to be.”

August 03, 2020

| by Steve Goldbloom
Gert McMullin | Elena Zhukova

Gert McMullin | Elena Zhukova

All those years ago in San Francisco, in the early and mid-’80s, it was a really dark time. I had just finished Stanford GSB and taken care of a friend and classmate who died during school, and I moved up here heartbroken and a little bit lost. I stumbled into the middle of an epidemic.

Editor’s Note

As part of Stanford Business magazine, “Maker” is an ongoing series that uses one annotated photo to tell the story of a manufacturing business overseen by a Stanford GSB alumnus.

Mike Smith, MBA ’86, is cofounder of the AIDS Memorial Quilt.

The Castro District back then was horrible. You’d walk down the street and pass dozens of people with AIDS and you knew you might never see them again. And the country didn’t seem to be responding or caring. When some friends and I started the AIDS Memorial Quilt, it was a way to be heard at a time when we all thought we were going to die alone and forgotten.

The quilt started as a protest banner, but it has become a national treasure. More people have worked on the quilt than built the pyramids. It’s an American institution now. The last time we displayed them all together was in 1996, at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. It was a mile long and 200 yards wide and took 11,500 volunteers to assemble.

I never thought it would become my life’s work, but it has.

COVID-19 is the second pandemic of my life, and I don’t think I’m the only one around here with a little bit of post-traumatic stress these days. Suddenly here we are again with a virus you can’t see. Randomly affecting people. Putting everyone’s life on hold.

So now we’re making masks. We may make 2,000 or 3,000 masks, and that may save some lives. But my greater hope is that people will see what we’re doing and realize that they, too, can do something worthwhile — that it’s easy to be helpful if you want to be. And that’s what I’d like to be remembered for. For being a catalyst rather than for just doing some sewing.

— Told to Steve Goldbloom

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