Caring is his legacy
By R.F. Hosseini
Michael Bongiorni was volunteered into his place in history.
The current material donations manager for Goodwill of San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin, Bongiorni was one of approximately a hundred community activists, visual artists, musicians, designers, quilters and dancers to descend on the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., last week. The festival, which went from June 27-July 1 and July 4-8, commemorated the AIDS Memorial Quilt and the quarter-century it’s spent traveling the country raising awareness and compassion for those living with the disease.
Bongiorni was involved in the earliest days of the quilt campaign, organizing chapters in his hometown of Houston and cities as diverse as New Orleans, Fort Worth, Oklahoma City, Corpus Christi and Tulsa. He was also one of six organizers to attend the memorial quilt’s second national tour in 1989.
The Smithsonian Institute invited Bongiorni to take part in its outdoor festival at the Capitol Mall, where the massive, 1.3-million square-foot quilt was unfolded each day as the names of those who died from AIDS were read.
Today, the more than 54-ton quilt has amassed nearly 48,000 individual panels. But in 1987, the quilt contained just over 1,920 panels. One of them belonged to the man Bongiorni was involved with when AIDS and its precursor — human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV — first entered the public consciousness some 30 years ago. As his partner battled the syndrome’s debilitating effects, the partners began speaking candidly about how to memorialize a life whose abrupt end was becoming inevitable.
The quixotic journey that sprang from those discussions brought Bongiorni to the heart of a burgeoning movement and drew out a passion for community organizing that drives him today.
“I didn’t know I would be doing this,” Bongiorni admits. Today it’s his calling. “It’s something that’s ingrained in me.”
It took the unsolicited referral of a friend to make that clear. The year was 1988, some months after the memorial quilt was first displayed in Washington, D.C., where it drew more than half a million impassioned sojourners over a single weekend. Bongiorni had made his own pilgrimage to the Capitol Mall viewing to commemorate the life of his partner, who passed away in 1984.
Back in Houston, Bongiorni found himself walking past a bar when someone called him inside to the back patio, “and there were all these people making panels,” he recalls. Most were using bed sheets and fabrics that had belonged to their lost loved ones, Bongiorni says, “and they were just crying and talking about what these people meant to them.”
After a four-month national tour brought the memorial quilt to Houston in the spring of 1988, a small group of folks in the city decided they weren’t done with the cause.
“We identified a need in Houston,” Bongiorni says. “There was a big backlash in Texas at that point, a right-wing backlash, and the question was: ‘How do we counter this?’ And the quilt to me was the answer. It was soft — it was Americana.”
This modest group of like-minded individuals started a local chapter so that a piece of the memorial quilt could always be displayed in Houston. There were eight of them at the time, meeting in a church basement and raising small sums of money from local businesses. A man with a 10th grade education, Pete Martinez, became “the heart and soul of the organization” because of his no-bull approach to fundraising, Bongiorni says. Bongiorni himself was thrust into the position of lead coordinator. At first he was skeptical. But Bongiorni applied the organizational and logistical skills he developed as a sociology teacher and caterer.
“That was me starting on my road as a community organizer,” he notes.
The Houston chapter was so successful that Bongiorni was asked to help set up chapters in other cities, and was eventually tapped to join the memorial quilt’s second national tour in 1989. That experience was life-changing.
“The most memorable city for me was Birmingham, Ala. It was the first time they had done any community organizing around AIDS or associated with gays,” Bongiorni recalls. “They were deathly afraid of what the reaction would be.”
Organizers planned a candlelit march through the city. Those with the national tour group offered to stay behind to watch the quilt at planning headquarters so those living in the community could participate in the march.
As the nervous crowd descended the sloping street into town, every church bell along the cluttered avenue began tolling its bells, marking the procession, acknowledging the movement. “You could see the change in those people’s faces to: ‘People care about us,’” Bongiorni reflects.
The moment provided further proof to Bongiorni that — no matter how uncertain the cause or how marginalized the group — people will give a damn if given the chance.
“Living in Texas at that point (when AIDS first happened), I realized that they don’t care if we all die,” Bongiorni says of his early state of mind. “But I was wrong. People who were touched by what was happening do care.”
Bongiorni has spent the past 24-odd years proving that maxim, first as a community organizer and now as a Goodwill donations manager organizing donation drives and working with schools and local governments to divert waste from landfills.
But for a few precious days last week, Bongiorni was a speck in a sea of pilgrims wandering about the immense Capitol Mall, reconnecting with old friends and world-shakers, trading war stories and sipping wine, and reflecting on what went right in America when tragedy came calling.
“For me to see many of these people that I haven’t seen in 15 years is going to be very touching,” Bongiorni mused a couple days before departing for D.C. “You never know down the road where that will go, the change that will come, and hopefully that will be my legacy.”
It’s a legacy that’s woven into history — and one that continues to keep our nation warm.