Iona Lewis is a Case Manager with GLIDE’s Men in Progress program. Thanks to her father, Iona has been a part of the GLIDE community her entire life. Now she and her husband Raphael are both employees here and their son, Carlo, attends GLIDE’s Family, Youth and Childcare Center (FYCC) during the day. Iona and Raphael were part of the GLIDE contingent to the opening of the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, in April. In the following lightly edited excerpts from a recent conversation, Iona shares some memories of her father and growing up near GLIDE. With this offering from Iona, we wish everyone everywhere a loving Father’s Day weekend.
I grew up in the Western Addition. I was raised by a single father, and my school was across the street from our house. He would walk me and my neighborhood friends across the street to school. He knew all of my teachers, and he’d always take the time to have conversations. We were like family. So I’ve always had that respect for teachers and the power and influence that they have. It can either go up or down. I mean, right now I live a block away from my first-grade teacher. I ran into her at the grocery store, and she was like, “Iona Lewis?” and I was like, “Oh my god, that’s Ms. Fifer.” This is just a few months ago. And she said, “You’re still talkin’ a lot, aren’t ya?” And I see so many similarities between my upbringing and FYCC.
Hearing about GLIDE and Cecil in the park
I found out about GLIDE from my father. He talked about GLIDE—actually there was no GLIDE back then when my father was younger, there was just Cecil [Williams] speaking in Golden Gate Park. My dad came here in 1950-something. He met Cecil in Golden Gate Park and there would be bonfires and Cecil would be talking to the community. I know that if my father were alive today he would be so excited that I’m at GLIDE. He really would be. He always talked about Cecil and the message.
Two kids inspired to become ‘mini-GLIDE’
I went to Raphael Weill School, and we would have these leftover lunches. Lunch was like a quarter back then, but we wouldn’t have to pay our quarter if we worked in the kitchen! So a friend and I—he was probably the first gay friend that I ever had, back when I was 10—we would pack these Safeway carts with all the leftover meals trays and push them down here to the Tenderloin from the Western Addition. We got so excited and all the people on the street would shout, “Here they come!” and they’d be so happy to get the meals. People were so grateful, the look in their eyes. We just felt like the king and queen of the Tenderloin! Yes! Here we come with the food!
Because we knew GLIDE did it. We’d hear stories about the meals and so even as kids, we’d tell our families that we were just going down the street—they had no idea we were on Turk and Taylor. We’d come down pushing this big old cart of food and everybody would be so excited. I think that was probably my first social work job!
My dad was always open, always welcoming. When we were really young, my friend would get teased all the time, but I’ve always been a big girl and I’d watch out for him! We’d find these things to do where we didn’t have to be around the bullies, so this was our outlet, coming down here and giving away food. And we’d always look forward to the end of the day. It was pretty cool. We sort of were a mini-GLIDE. And yes, you could take carts out of the shopping mall back then!
Dad and Archie
In the Western Addition at that time, we had ONE homeless person. Everyone in the neighborhood knew him. His name was Archie, and he actually had epilepsy. My dad was a maintenance man, and people would come get my dad when Archie had a seizure. They knew if anything happened they could call our dad, and I just grew up with that and it became ingrained. I know that social work is what I’ll do for the rest of my life. I still wonder how Cecil and Jan still do it after all these years. Talk about a labor of love.
I guess I was kind of born into GLIDE if you think about it. I’ve been hearing those stories my whole life. Even my stepdad has GLIDE stories. I remember when he went to Valencia Gardens and stood with the Facts on Crack. I’ve lived in other places. At one point I left San Francisco for 10 years and lived in Anchorage, Alaska. I love Alaska! I was a social worker there. It was such a beautiful place and it was different than the city. I would fly to villages to do assessments for people. But then my dad got ill and I came back to California in 2006 and I’ve been here ever since.
Language of love
Food is a huge part of what GLIDE does. Food is a love language. It’s happiness; it’s health. I’ve never had a day when I didn’t have anything to eat, and my dad was always welcoming. He knew some of my friends maybe weren’t as fortunate as me, and he was always super welcoming to them.