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Movers & Shakers: Strong Female Leads

Written by Jeanne Cooper | Illustrations by Olivia Wise

March may be Women’s History Month, but the accomplishments and ongoing efforts of these dynamic women are worth celebrating year-round. We look forward to hearing what’s next from them, too.

The Kitchen Sisters

Early in their four-decade ca reer as the radio (and later podcast) producers known as the Kitchen Sisters, former UC Santa Cruz classmates Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva would visit the Library of Congress and other sound repositories “to embellish our stories and breathe life into them,” Nelson recalls. So it gave the San Francisco–based team understandable pride to announce in January that the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress has acquired the entire Kitchen Sisters archives, including some 7,000 hours of recordings as well as notebooks and other materials.

“Archival audio pulls you into your radio as if you’re making a film — it’s so visual. It’s important to us that people now have access to ours,” says Nelson. Beside making their work available for public-domain use and research, she adds, “I’m hoping teachers can bring it into the curriculum of all kinds of immigrant groups and ethnic groups whose stories might not have been chronicled.”

Current Kitchen Sisters projects include creating a podcast of stories from House/Full of BlackWomen, a ritual performance series by Oakland’s Deep Waters Dance Theater, and working on a book about storytelling called Show the Girls the Snakes, Nelson says. “Your enemy is someone whose story you don’t know, and we’re always looking for ways to make the stories feel alive and compelling.”

Tamara Rojo

San Francisco Ballet plans to celebrate Helgi Tomasson, now in his 37th and final year as the company’s artistic director and principal choreographer, in “mighty fashion” at its 2022 Season Gala on March 24, according to communications manager Kate McKinney. But you could consider the ballet’s current production of Don Quixote an unintentional nod to the Icelandic visionary’s Spanish successor: award-winning dancer Rojo, who officially takes the helm as artistic director late in the year.

Beginning her career in Madrid, Rojo performed for years with the Scottish Ballet, Royal Ballet and English National Ballet, where she has served as artistic director since 2012. She’ll move here with husband Isaac Hernandez, who recently joined brother Esteban Hernandez as a principal dancer for San Francisco Ballet.

Rojo tells the Gazette via email that she looks forward to getting to know the rest of the company and its “perse and outlooking” home. “There are people in the technical departments, in the orchestra, who have been with the company for decades. These people are filled with love and knowledge and care for the institution and love of the art form, and I can’t wait to hear from them and learn from them,” she notes.

Julie Rulyak Steinberg

After 18 months of online classes, San Francisco’s Community Music Center has returned to in-person functions allegro con brio — quickly, with spirit. The nonprofit, which was founded in 1921, planned a festive groundbreaking ceremony last month on a “long-awaited” expansion of its campus in the Mission, according to Steinberg, the center’s executive director since 2017. On-site enrollment could eventually rise from 1,400 to 2,300 students, she says. Meanwhile, Frederica von Stade, Jake Heggie and Paula West are among the perse artists performing at the organization’s Centennial Gala on March 2 at the Julia Morgan Ballroom. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime moment for Community Music Center,” Steinberg says.

She’s equally happy to talk about “incredible artists doing unique commissions with our students,” such as Oakland musician and visual artist Cava Menzies and San Francisco bandleader Maestro Curtis. The latter developed the school’s new Black Music Studies program and will debut a related new commission at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival on April 23. There’s also new music at Steinberg’s home in Walnut Creek: “I was excited to take up the ukulele during the pandemic,” she says, “so having jam sessions with my husband is a new way to unwind in the evenings.”

Marcia Mondavi Borger and Tom Borger

Much like her role in Napa Valley winemaking, Mondavi Borger and her husband Tom’s involvement with the Parkinson’s Foundation has deep roots in family — and reflects a passion for progress. After his father and only sibling both died of Parkinson’s, “we began to be more interested in the research that was going on,” she says. In 2005, the same year she cofounded Continuum Estate with brother Tim Mondavi and father Robert Mondavi, she received her own diagnosis of Parkinson’s. “I’ve been very fortunate that it’s moved very, very slowly,” Mondavi Borger notes.

But she has moved quickly since joining the foundation’s board of directors in 2017, “helping us build our California chapter as well as our national presence,” says Alexis Rodriguez, the nonprofit’s West regional director. Splitting their time between Napa and New York, the Borgers also recently donated $500,000 to the foundation’s ongoing $30 million Reach Further campaign, funding research and “making lives better for those of us who have Parkinson’s today,” Mondavi Borger says. “It was a great legacy of Dad’s that he wasn’t afraid to spend money, as long as it was something solid he could get a return on. We’re hoping to continue to be able to give back.”

Amy Schneider

The next time the category of “Jeopardy! champions” appears on the game show, be prepared to shout “Who is Amy Schneider?” to this clue: “An Oakland resident, she holds the record for most games and earnings won by a woman.” Schneider’s streak ended January 27 after 40 victories — second only to champion and new host Ken Jennings’ 74 — with $1,382,800 in prize money. Oh, and she’s also the first openly transgender contestant to qualify for the show’s Tournament of Champions.

Famed for wearing pearls through most of her run — as well as a trans Pride flag pin during an episode that aired around Thanksgiving, to show support for trans people for whom the holidays can be an especially difficult time if cut off from family — Schneider told several media outlets she plans to use some of her winnings for designer clothes for herself and fiancée Genevieve Davis. Look for them at the GLAAD Media Awards on April 2, when Schneider will receive a Special Recognition honor.

Nick Adams, GLAAD’s director of transgender representation, shares a statement with the Gazette praising Schneider’s “visibility” on Twitter and in other media as a “bright spot” during a time of proposed anti-transgender legislation around the country. And after her historic run concluded, Schneider (@jeopardamy) tweeted, “I’m not going anywhere.”

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