Julie Stevens was watching the news on election night and had fallen momentarily speechless at the results. Donald Trump winning the presidency seemed like a surreal outcome to the Oakland native – like something out of a dystopian novel.
“I feel like I was under a rock,” she said, echoing others who have come forward to share post-election emotions. “I think I cried – it was devastating and shocking. It thought, what world are we living in?"
Stevens is the proprietor of 17 Jewels Salon and Spa in Oakland, a hairdressing studio with a history of community involvement. Passersby need only glance at the signs posted inside the shop to get a feel for her political leanings. A chalkboard marquee displays the words of first lady Michelle Obama written in delicate scrawl: “When They Go Low, We Go High.” A Hillary Clinton quote about fighting for "what's right" is on the back wall. Over at the reception desk, a handmade poster is adorned with “Black Lives Matter” in glittery cursive letters.
The shop is where Stevens mourned on Nov. 9, along with a close-knit group of customers and friends. Since then, however, she’s turned her business into ground zero for #ShoutOut2017, an ambitious community quilt project she created to “give a voice to the voiceless.”
“I started thinking about this project in response to the election, and feeling like I’d lost a lot of hope,” she explained. “I was sitting around one night and I thought, How could I bring more than just me to the Women’s March in Washington?"
Like the Aids Memorial Quilt and the Quilts of Gee’s Bend, the project relies on collaboration and showcases minority voices that are often excluded from historical narratives. Stevens is focusing on the voices of minority youth, undocumented immigrants and women. The quilt will literally weave together their different experiences and concerns for the future, creating a patchwork of stories that often go untold.
When she brings it to Washington, she says it’ll be a salute to people who couldn’t be there, whether due to financial restrictions, age or immigration status.
“Part of doing this project is just to really show each other to build alliances,” she said. “(Trump’s) trying to tear us apart and get us to fight against each other…and we’re surprising him. It’s Muslims, it’s queer people, it’s disabled people, it’s brown people and white people, and we’re all aligning. I think that’s what the quilt really says: We’re all different squares, and we’re all right up next to each other.”
The project has traveled to several local high schools, fundraisers and community meetings. 17 Jewels hosted several quilting parties in the past few weeks, as well. At each, Stevens distributed patches of fabric and told kids to write something — anything — about how they felt living in America.
Some quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. Some scribbled their own thoughts and made elaborate illustrations. Many voiced fears about Trump’s campaign promises to build "a deportation force" and a enforce a blanket ban on Muslims entering the country.
“We have feelings. We are humans,” said Luis Francisco, a Mexican-American student at Oakland International High School, who made a patch. “We adopted this country, same as you. We love this country, same as you.”
With the creation of each patch, Stevens felt some of her hope return. Maybe, future generations will make the world a more tolerant and accepting place, she said. Maybe, she won’t always be scared to walk to her car at night – a worry she says has intensified since Trump’s election. (Trump has previously told any of his supporters engaging in discriminatory behavior to “stop it.”)
“Even in the Bay Area – going to my car at night, looking the way I do, I’m scared,” she said. Stevens identifies with the queer community and has arms covered in full sleeve tattoos. Her light brown hair is fashioned into a short crop.
Still, the daughter of activists — who grew up in a household with two mothers — is not letting anxieties stymy her plans for action. Her friends, who have helped with the quilt, expect the project to travel far beyond the Bay Area.
“It’ll go places…” said friend Victoria Behrman. “It’s really important to her, and I think it’s just a really important thing for our community.”
Stevens is already looking ahead, planning next steps for the quilt and bracing herself for the next four years.
“I can’t understand why there hasn’t already been a revolution,” she said with a small laugh. “But I feel feel like this project is just a start of what’s to come.”