The Utopia and Reality of the Women's March

Janet Mock interviews Bob Bland and Carmen Perez, two leaders of the Women's March on Washington.

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More than 200,000 people are expected to gather on January 21, the day after Donald Trump is sworn in as the 45th president of the United States, for the Women's March on Washington. The earliest incarnation of the demonstration began on Facebook as soon as the election results made it clear that Hillary Clinton would not be the victor.

Bob Bland, one of the first women to organize online, was appalled by Trump's rhetoric, which had previously inspired the fashion entrepreneur to launch "Nasty Woman" and "Bad Hombre" T-shirts that benefited Planned Parenthood. "We will use the Women's March as the touchstone of ongoing action," says Bland, who serves as a national cochair for the march. "We can break these barriers, these silos, and become more unified again as a people."

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Unity feels like a utopian, almost mythical goal in these United States of America. It is difficult, backbreaking work to build and organize among varying identities, experiences, and urgencies — even under the umbrella of womanhood. In less than a day, as the march went viral, it garnered criticism for its leadership (all white women) and its initial name (the Million Woman March, which was the name of a 1997 demonstration for black women in Philadelphia, organized by Dr. Phile Chionesu). It brought black women, intersectional feminists, and women of color to a collective side-eye. The Women's March, like the wider feminist and women's movement itself, demonstrated that our collective issues are as deep as Trump's side part.

Within a day, the founders of the March recruited leadership from experienced organizers who reflected the varied lived experiences of American women. Carmen Perez, executive director of the criminal-justice-reform group Gathering for Justice, was one of three women of color (alongside Linda Sarsour, executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, and gun-control activist Tamika D. Mallory) brought in as national cochairs to steer the march toward a more intersectional and inclusive lens.

Perez, who will turn 40 the day of the march, admits that she's battled insomnia organizing this gathering. Still, she says, "We've been dreaming about this."

Below, Perez and Bland discuss their experiences planning what could be the largest mass mobilization on the first day of a new president's administration.

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Janet Mock: The idea of the Women's March came from women with little organizing experience who drew tens of thousands who expressed an interest in participating. Initially, there were no concrete plans or infrastructure to actually get people there. How did you both get involved?

Bob Bland: The march was organically founded by about four of us who had separately decided that our reaction to Trump's election was that we wanted to do a march on Washington to reiterate that women's rights were human rights, and to ensure that we could all come together around protecting each other over the next four years. We never had any idea that it was going to go viral.

When we realized that this was now something that could become an incredibly historical moment and transformational, we reached out to women of color who could lead. We were blessed to meet Carmen, Tamika, and Linda, who had extensive experience in organizing and putting on marches similar to this. They came on day two, and we've all been working together. Now we have dozens and dozens of volunteers as part of the national committee. It's really incredible.

Carmen Perez: I'm the executive director of Harry Belafonte's organization. He is one of the honorary cochairs, with Gloria Steinem. Harry was a part of the 1963 March on Washington and he has mentored me for the past twelve years in regards to the different tactics, ideology, and philosophy of Kingian nonviolence. It was important to bring in that perspective but also the continuation of legacy. The continuation of the people whose shoulders we stand on. It's been beautiful to not only bear witness to this organic type of organizing, but also to be a part of developing some of the messaging and reaching out to individuals and being really intentional about [who we bring] on board. It's a huge endeavor, but I'm really excited to be a part of it.

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JM: What can demonstrators expect in Washington on January 21?

CP: They'll be listening to a wide range of speakers from different issues and areas of expertise. They'll also be listening to performances. They will be inspired to act locally. I think a lot of the people that we've seen sign up are new activists. They were feeling like they needed to connect to something larger than themselves. The program will begin at 10 a.m., it will run until 1 p.m., and then we will march.

BB: We now have volunteer organizers representing all 50 states and many countries, all converging together with their groups, so it's tens of thousands of women and allies. We're actually having 150 sister marches in unity with the march in Washington. We're working to create a system of livecasts so we can share experiences and marches in various cities across the world.

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JM: Women, obviously, are not a monolith and are deeply divided along party lines, race, income, and education level. Exit polls indicate that 53 percent of white women voted for Trump. It shatters the idea that women are a cohesive voting block. Have you been able to engage conservative women who may have even voted for Trump? Will they show up to the Women's March?

BB: Anecdotally, I can tell you that we receive emails daily from women who are conservative-leaning who are coming to the march because they cannot stand the misogyny that they've seen expressed over the last eighteen months. This is why we have the hashtag #WhyIMarch, and why we're so vocal about telling the stories of all of these different people and why they're coming to Washington. It's important that this transcend politics and be about not allowing for the rollback of human rights that we've all worked tirelessly to build in this country for generations. We're working to preserve our democracy here.

CP: Before we got the permits, before we drafted a manifesto, before we began to think about inclusivities, so many women were already coming. We have a lot of inquiries. People want to make sure this isn't anti-this, this isn't anti-that. One of our principles in Kingian nonviolence is: attack the forces of evil, not people doing evil. That's why we've been saying this is not about Trump, this is about something larger. This is about systemic racism, this is about women's rights, this is about all these different issues. Mr. Belafonte teaches us that you've got to champion people to your cause. You just can't work in your own silo. We have to speak to people, we have to provide entry points for people, and I think this march has provided an entry point for the average human being to get involved. We may not share the same political view, but we all have something that is deep in our heart that we care about.

JM: Ongoing criticisms that plague the Women's March include it being an emblem of white feminism where women who are not white, straight, cisgender, and able-bodied are not centered. Three of the four national cochairs are women of color, which is a signal that women of color are now, in fact, central in leadership. Still, women were not the only targets during the 2016 presidential campaign — Muslims, immigrants, LGBTQ folk, black and brown people, Native communities, the disabled, and survivors of sexual assault were also attacked. How are you mobilizing a wider coalition of marginalized folk who are not and do not identify as women? Or is this not a primary concern when organizing a women-centered space?

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CP: I work in the police-brutality world, and black trans women specifically are the target of police brutality. We have to do better. Again, it's also about having those conversations. How are we going to include trans voices? How are we going to include the voices of people who are disabled who can't make it, who can't march? Those are the continuous conversations. Also, bringing them into the convener's table, into leadership positions, but certainly, it's an intention that we have. It makes us look beyond our own issues.

BB: I just want to say how much having the leadership of a very diverse range of women of color who have worked in so many different intersectionalities has been an incredible learning experience for myself and those of us who had not worked in that lens previously. I come from a local manufacturing and domestic manufacturing background and I worked in fashion, so I've worked a lot with undocumented immigrants and the Sunset Park community in New York. I think that by centering women of color, by ensuring that we have equity within our leadership that is proportional to what we actually see, what the true face of the nation is, it allows us all to, for those of us who started this, to take a step back, allow other voices to be heard, and then to learn from that. Being a part of this and having what Carmen calls "courageous conversations" that you never thought you would have and are sometimes uncomfortable. Sometimes they break down your worldview, sometimes you then have to go back and think and build it back up again into a new view. That experience will be replicated at the march for hundreds of thousands of people.

CP: To reflect that on the stage is going to be really important for us. We want people to be able to see that on the 21st. For us, [the work involves] making phone calls, having one-on-one connections, answering a lot of questions, and asking them: How do they feel they want to show up in this space? What do they need from us? What does support look like? That's the way we've approached it.

We want to make sure that women of color are at the center. It is about solidarity, but solidarity looks very different for people, so we also have to make sure that we are all on the same page. I'm not going to sugarcoat it, it has not been easy. We're listening, and we're responding to emails on a daily basis, just answering people's concerns. Also, where there are gaps, we're analyzing that, and we're making sure that those communities that we haven't seen represented get reached out to.

JM: Carmen, you work at Gathering for Justice while volunteering full-time with the Women's March. How are you taking care of yourself while doing this grassroots, underfunded work?

CP: I make it a point every morning to get up and exercise. That's what keeps me balanced. I have it blocked. Then I'll work until 11, or 1 in the morning. I've been praying a lot. I'm very spiritually grounded. I've also picked up a book I haven't read in over a decade, and it's called How to Live a Meaningful Life. Every day I walk into my home, I pick up the sage and I smudge the house, and I'm really relying on a higher power to help me through this.

There's moments when we forget to eat. It's why I have accountability partners, people who will call and say, "I'm here to check up on you. I'm not here to tell you what to do. I'm not here to listen to your work and what you're doing. I'm here to remind you that you have to drink some water." I run my organization and I run a group called Justice League NYC, and I am extremely ambitious, so I can get lost in work. One of the other things that I'm doing a lot better is delegating what I don't need to do. I'm developing teams of women to take on certain tasks that I would usually do. I'm looking forward to January 21st, but it hasn't been easy.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Janet Mock is the author of the New York Times bestseller Redefining Realness and the upcoming memoir, Surpassing Certainty: What My Twenties Taught Me, which will be released in June.

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